Saying “I’m sorry” to your toddler can be hard. On one hand, you feel like you want to apologize for everything bad they have to go through. On the other hand, you want to remain an authority figure and someone she sees as a perfect role model, incapable of wrongdoing. Knowing when to apologize, and how to do it, can actually strengthen your relationship with Baby, and models positive behaviors she will use for her whole life.
When to apologize
You’re the grown-up, and you know that sometimes you’ve got to say you’re sorry. Sometimes you don’t, though, and apologizing for things that aren’t your fault is a common verbal tic. It’s important to save apologies for those moments when they’re necessary, and hold your ground when they aren’t. When you’re disciplining or comforting Baby, don’t feel like you have to apologize for her discomfort. In both of these instances what’s happened is outside your control. Either her own behavior has lead to consequences, or she&;s feeling scared or hurt by something you can’t stop. In either case, taking responsibility for the situation by apologizing won’t help.
Instead, make use of apologies when they’ll matter most. That’s usually when you’ve made some kind of mistake that Baby will benefit from you apology for.
- When you parent in a way that you don’t like: Everyone occasionally says or does things they don’t mean to. Being a parent is stressful, and stress makes you prone to outbursts and overreactions that you don’t intend to have. In the moments that you aren’t being the parent you’d like to be, the best thing you can do is regroup, get calm, and then apologize. This will teach Baby that the way you acted in these moments isn’t the way you should act, and that you’re aware of that. By teaching her that, you’re giving her a model for how she should treat other people, and how she should let herself be treated.
- When you do or say something by accident: Whether it’s letting a swear word slip, or play that results in accidental injury, plenty of parents find themselves needing to apologize. Just because you know that something wasn’t intentional doesn’t mean that Baby will immediately understand that. By letting her know, you’re giving her a better idea of what the rules of her world are.
What makes an apology
For starters, you say “I’m sorry.” Then, once the easy part is over, it’s time to honestly admit the mistake you’re apologizing for.
By describing the mistake you made, and helping Baby understand it, you’ll be modeling great behavior. You can teach her that everyone makes mistakes, and that it’s okay to make mistakes, but important to recognize them, and to apologize afterwards, instead of trying to hide or ignore them.
Try to avoid saying “I’m sorry, but…” which most people agree isn’t a real apology at all. Own up to your mistake instead of trying to explain it away. Instead, try leading with “I’m sorry because…”
Be the role model
By apologizing for real, you’re setting a strong, positive example. When Baby needs to apologize for something she will know how to do it for real, and not just say the words. The better you apologize when you need to now, the better she will be able to apologize to you later, when she messes up.
Another great followup to an apology is to ask what you or she could have done differently. This helps everyone in the family feel accountable for one another’s actions, and can help prevent future incidents that would result in an apology.