Should Parents Ever Apologize?

One of my struggles when sharing research-based recommendations for healthy parenting involves appreciating the feelings of regret and remorse parents often experience as they realize the impact of some of their parenting practices.

Recognizing and reconciling feelings as a parent when changing parenting practices

When the research shows certain common parenting practices such as spanking, that can have serious, powerful negative effects on children’s lives, parents who are brave enough to acknowledge that they subscribed to these practices then have to somehow reconcile their own feelings of sadness and guilt.

Then the question comes as to what, if anything, to say to children.

One day this week a friend shared her thoughts with me that after reading my last blog about spanking.

She decided to call her adult son and apologize to him for the many times she spanked him when he was a child.  She processed a bit with me about the motivation for and pressures behind her becoming a spanker. She talked about how her own parents had encouraged and even demanded that she spank her little son when he broke a rule or seemed defiant. We talked about how often parents joke about the practice of spanking and act as if it is an absolute necessity that all children be spanked whenever they seem to be getting out of hand.

The legacies of parenting

Parents often are passing down from one generation to the next the legacies of beliefs around the importance of and even necessity for spanking.

My friend talked about feeling reluctant to spank her child and yet believed that her parents knew more about parenting than she did. Her experience was an even more powerful peer pressure because it came from the authority figures in her childhood: her own parents. And of course she, like many of us, held clear memories of being spanked as a child while assuming her parents must have been right in doing. Clearly she assumed she must have been bad enough to deserve this kind of punishment, and therefore, so did her child.

Influence by research and other ways of thinking

As a young parent trying to figure out my parenting responsibilities, I am thankful I was influenced by a number of “radical” friends who challenged some of the traditional beliefs about parenting and focused more on the importance of promoting emotional health in children.

I was also influenced by many authors who were promoting parenting practices focused on more nurturing than punitive parenting: authors like Muriel James (Born to Love and Breaking Free), Dorothy Corkille Briggs (Your Child’s Self-Esteem) and one of my favorites, Claude Steiner (Scripts People Live).

I feel like I was more fortunate than many of my peers because I was able to challenge some of those parenting practices being touted as the right way by so many influential people in my life. And I ache for those who did not have the same opportunities. I think this is why promoting healthy parenting is such a passion for me.

At the very end of Scripts People Live, Steiner provides 10 Rules for Raising Children for Autonomy. In his 6th rule he states the following: “Do remember that the wisdom of your child’s body about itself is surpassed by yours in almost every case. Don’t take the advice of ‘experts’ (educators, physicians) too seriously either. They have been wrong before and will be again.

Never physically assault, attack or trespass the sanctity of your child’s body. If you do, apologize, fully, immediately; but do not compound the error by proceeding to rescue out of guilt. Take responsibility for your actions and do not repeat those that you disapprove of.”

I could not picture my own mother ever apologizing to me for all the spankings I received; and yet, I think such an apology would have been powerful. And it struck me as critically important to know it was not only my right but also my responsibility to apologize to my own children if and when I broke this rule about honoring the sanctity of my children’s bodies.

Coming next

In my next post I’ll share with you some of the interesting responses by adult children when parents apologized and some thoughts about the underlying reasons for these responses.

Meanwhile please appreciate that we as parents operate on a number of levels: we can think about and recall how we were parented and so can focus on ourselves as children as well as our parents as the authorities in our lives and we can focus in on ourselves we became authorities in the lives of our own children. Each of these is interrelated, and each influences the other. These processes and their underlying forces of influence are part of what makes parenting at times confusing and frequently challenging.

Invitation to Reflect

  1. If you were spanked as a child, think about how you might have felt or would feel today if the parent who spanked you apologized to you.
  2. If you have spanked your own children, consider what it might be like if you apologized to them for spanking (this of course assumes that you have given up this particular parenting practice!)
  3. Consider how it might make a child feel to have a parent apologize for spanking him or her. What you think the differences might be if that child is young, or is an adolescent or is an adult when receiving the apology?

Diane Wagenhals, Director of Institute for Professional Education and Development, Lakeside Educational Network