I had been summoned by my child. The pitch of her voice and query-tinged timbre with which my pseudonym had been uttered meant that the next words out of her mouth were going to cost me something. What was it this time? Money? A ride to the mall AND money? Only one way to find out.
“I need some advice,” she sighed.
So NOT money. Great!
“If you feel like you’re owed an apology – if you’re expecting one – how do you let the other person know?”
This was easy. Fortunately, I’d spent 4 weeks in couple’s therapy, so I knew the answer to this one. It was part of our tool kit.
“That’s easy enough,” I beamed benevolently. “You just say to the person ‘When you said X, it made me feel Y…and I would feel much better if you could apologize for it.”
“Okay. But what if that person uses their position in your life to say why they don’t owe you in apology?”
A familiar look crossed her face; one that age and time had not changed. Of broken promises and pledges, of careless remarks about her looks and/or abilities… Only one person could inspire such uncertainty and insecurity in my child.
“Ah. I see.”
I put the stack of papers I had previously been rifling through down and gave her my full attention in order to share the realities of the painful truth of our shared experience.
“There are some people in your life that you will never get a sincere apology from. That person is one of them. It’s his character flaw, not yours. What you have to decide is, ‘Can I carry on a relationship with this person without an apology, or will I resent them until I get one?’ You’re the only one who knows what’s true.”
“Yes, but I just feel like they should know when they’ve been offensive and try to make it right.”
Yeah…but that would require a degree of self-awareness and empathy that this douche bag will always lack.
I didn’t say that, of course. Instead, I said: “Sometimes parents think that they don’t owe their kids an apology because they’re kids…and that’s wrong.”
I didn’t grow up in a home that was big on apologies. I rarely witnessed expressions of regret or requests for forgiveness from my parents towards each other and certainly not to us as kids. The words “I’m sorry” were reserved for situations when there was physical injury or clumsiness involved (you stubbed your toe or someone accidentally spooned too much rice on your plate), but never for the scars no one sees.
The public humiliation.
The demeaning of effort.
The casual and callous disregard and disrespect.
These are lessons I learned from my home environment well, so much so that when my parents expected an apology from me, I refused to give it, or would give it only under extreme duress. Sometimes I would be given a choice: Apologize (in writing) or get a whipping. Apologize or be grounded for 3 weeks.
Guess who was always either beaten or imprisoned? Yours truly! As I said earlier, it wasn’t until I went to marriage counseling that I learned about the formula necessary for requesting or giving an apology. The concept has been so abnormal to me that it has affected my broader relationships. I have lost or let fizzle several dear friendships simply because I did not reach out to inquire if there was any offense on my part, and if I could make it right.
I certainly don’t want my kids to get into their 40s to realize and have to reconcile these kinds of mistakes. How is this done? By demonstrating a different example and ‘reparenting’ myself.
It doesn’t take Freud to decipher that the single greatest barrier to getting an apology – and reconciliation – is pride. The refusal to admit one’s wrongs is interpreted as a sign of strength, especially in Black and African households, but I have come to discover that it puts you in the ultimate position of weakness. Pride is an alienating agent. Few people want to be around a person who feels too aloof to admit their wrongs, or when they have wronged someone else. The natural consequence of being prideful is to eschew accountability: a toxic and corrosive element in any relationship. This behavior is repeated by kids and leads to a vicious cycle that does not get broken often enough.
Pride and parenting cannot mix; not if the long-term goal is to have a healthy, honest and loving relationship with your kids. All over the continent and across our communities, we have adults who respect their parents. They fear their parents. They will take responsibility for their parents’ physical needs out of obligation. But they do not love their parents. Having a loving relationship with one’s parents entails honesty. You crave their presence and input. You welcome their involvement in the most important aspects of your life – not because social pressure or appearance demand it, but because you recognize the people who gave you life as your greatest champions. Hopefully, you can be theirs too.
In order to be in a loving relationship with your children, you have to understand who they are and accept it. (All things being equal and despotic, murderous tendencies aside.) You cannot truly confess to loving someone if you do not know who they are at heart. Are your children their authentic selves around you, or do you just appreciate who they pretend to be when they are in your presence? How many times have we heard parents say, “I never knew Kojo was so funny/talented/good at x”? Perhaps Kojo was too afraid to show his talent because he lived under constant scrutiny and the expectation of disapproval.
Paying attention to your children – and their response to your presence/input – is a loving act. It is normal and natural to butt heads with one’s children at some point. That’s how you know that you’re raising who will hopefully become a thinking adult, not a zombie. But even in those instances, you have to “fight” fair and refuse to cross certain boundaries. However if you do, and if your pride in your position as a parent prevents you from recognizing and accepting that your influence/words are harmful and you do nothing to adjust your behavior and at least try to reconcile…well, you have only yourself to blame for the fruits you reap. You’re the adult.
Have you had to reparent yourself? Have you had to unlearn unhelpful aspects of your upbringing? Of all my accomplishments, teaching my dad to say “I love you” is the one I take most pleasure in. If you are a prideful parent, how are you going to begin to make changes today?