Parents, Be the First to Apologize

I speak fondly and gratefully about what Tom Brokaw called “The Greatest Generation.” These were the young people of the early forties who gave up their own youthful dreams and fought a world war. Their efforts are the basic reason German and Japanese aren’t the national languages. These were tough people who grew up believing in hard work and discipline.

Sadly, my baby boomer generation and those who’ve come after have never mastered some of the finer points of that elder generation’s culture. But I have noticed one not so great tendency common among people from that great generation. Many older adults don’t find it easy to apologize and admit fault — especially to someone who is younger.

I strive to be honest in my writing, so I want to honor that commitment as I share something that I have never written about before. One author, when asked if it was hard to write a book, said, “Not at all. All you have to do is open a vein.” Well, here is where I must pull out a razor and become painfully personal.

My mother was one of the godliest women I have ever known. Before I was born, she quit her job as a teacher to become a 24/7 mom. Some of my earliest memories are of sitting on Mother’s lap as she read us Bible stories. She always put my dad and us children first. She was always at home when I came in from school — with a plate of cookies and an RC Cola. She served everyone she knew.

When we were finally off to college, Mother made food for the lonely, visited the sick, and built a successful Christian pre-school. She was as close to perfect as a mother will ever be. With that said, she had a flaw. Mom could not make herself admit wrong and apologize. Sure, occasionally she would make a sweeping comment like, “Oh, I’m sure I’ve made mistakes.” But I don’t recall a single time when, of her own volition, Mother sat down beside me and simply said, “Steve, I mishandled that situation, and I’m sorry. Will you forgive me?”

I wish she had. It would have improved our relationship tremendously. It would have lessened my adolescent frustration, anger and rebellion. I knew she wasn’t perfect. My dad knew she wasn’t perfect. I imagine she knew she wasn’t perfect. But by not willingly admitting it, resentment grew. To the day of her death, Mother could never bring herself to deal with this problem.

I probably have not been as good a father as she was a mother. But one thing we determined to do early and as often as necessary was to apologize to our children. There have been scores of times over the years when Bon and I messed up with the kids. Often we didn’t realize it until one of them pointed the fact out. And, too frequently, I allowed my pride to dominate. There have been times when I denied my mistake — or got mad at the child who was impertinent enough to make such an observation.

But in most cases, it finally sunk in and I realized I had dropped the ball. I needed to stop everything, go to that child and say the simple words, “I’m sorry. I really blew it, and I hope you will forgive me.”

Did this make us perfect parents? Not at all. But it did make us a little less imperfect.

We noticed almost immediate benefits from this approach. A gentle word really did turn away wrath. It had a soothing, calming effect on the children. It’s hard to stay mad at a parent who is willing to apologize. A sincere “I’m sorry” is one of the most disarming phrases one can utter.

Maybe this is part of what the Lord meant when he told fathers, “. . . do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4, NIV).

Being willing to apologize also helped foster deep bonds and profound friendships with our now adult children. Over the years they have thanked us for being willing to admit our faults. But the greatest blessing has been to Bonnie and me. Today each of our four adult kids comes to Mom and me regularly to discuss their problems, dreams, and relationships. Sometimes their nakedly open honesty leaves us dismayed. They confess their sins to us and ask for prayer and guidance.

Apologizing quickly goes far beyond the parent/child relationship. As Christians, we need to be ready to admit guilt and apologize whenever the Spirit prompts us. We talk about mistakes we make in the Retooled and Refueled Seminar. When we make errors, it’s wise to step up and make things right — before someone demands it. “If you enter your place of worship and, about to make an offering, you suddenly remember a grudge a friend has against you, abandon your offering, leave immediately, go to this friend and make things right. Then and only then, come back and work things out with God” (Matthew 5:23b-24, The Message).

Nope, I can’t promise that this neat little formula will always make for a happy-clappy, problem-free, no-fuss-no-muss life. But if you model honesty, vulnerability, and a confessional heart, don’t be surprised if you see the same reflected back to you one day. Isn’t life too short not to give it a try?

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