The Greatest Gift a Parent Can Give a Child of Any Age

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Here is what I know from being a parent of a child:

Sometimes kids can infuriate the SPAM out of a parent. I mean, like, inducing a rage so fastidious that super human — nay — god-like — strength and patience are required to continue to even look at said child — much less feed them and hug them and look over their homework.

For some of us, it’s the daily grind that sets us off: the colicky baby who cries around the clock, the six year old who takes 53.8 minutes to get his shoes on to go to the playdate he’s been excited about all day. For others, it’s ‘tween lies and teen sneakiness. Or snarkiness, as the case may be. And still others have buttons that can be pushed well into a child’s adulthood — a lack of direction, perhaps? Telling mom she can’t buy her grandkids anything not on the approved list? A demand that Thanksgiving dinner be entirely vegan/Paleo/beet-centered? Bringing up old, unresolved wounds?

This is family. We tick each other off. It’s unavoidable. I’d go so far to say that if there is a family where the kids and parents never ever feel annoyed/angry/stupid with each other, they might be a family to avoid (or maybe watch with popcorn at the handy). Someday soon, someone’s gonna’ blow.

Here is what I know from being a child of a parent:

We will always be the child of our parents. Always. This means that, even if we are caring for our own aged parents, even if we have no relationship or have lost our parents, we will still have needs that only our parents can fulfill. These needs begin from the day we meet and do not end even after our parents have passed on (when our needs are either denied or fulfilled through memories).

  1. We need them to tell/show us we’re okay.
  2. We need them to tell/show us they love us.
  3. We need to know that they are there for us.

Even more important than the aforementioned three, though, is this one wallop of a thing, perhaps the most simple and the most challenging for parents, that thing that makes all the other needs fall into line: We need to hear our parents apologize.

The greatest gift a parent can give a child is an apology. When a parents apologizes, they meet all of needs 1, 2, and 3 in one fell swoop.

Now, as a parent, there are times, usually involving either my reaction to large amounts of urine on my bathroom walls or to those mean, obscene tantrummy things that don’t necessarily dissipate by the teen years, when I am ready to fight to be right. I’m ready to take a child down to be right. I’ve got a rousing Al Pacino courtroom speech with a convicting Norma Rae meets MLK demeanor at the ready.

If my reaction was over the top, I STILL need to apologize. If my reaction wasn’t necessarily over the top, but it made my child sad or angry or defeated, I STILL need to apologize.

Here is what I know from being a parent of a child and a child of a parent:

When a parent’s reaction is over the top or feels over the top to their child, needs 1,2, and 3 become painfully elusive. Now I am fairly opposed to coddling a child who is past the developmental stage requiring coddling (so, say, past infancy for most).

But apologizing for inciting big, ugly feelings in ones child isn’t coddling. It is reassuring.

  1. Apologizing says, “You’re always okay.”
  2. Apologizing says, “I always love you.”
  3. Apologizing says, “I am always here for you.”

Here are 3 examples I have culled from being a parent of a child and a child of a parent:

Child pees on wall (more for fun than for any sincere lack of aim).

Parent (that’s me in this scenario) screams, “What were you thinking?! You are old enough to get the pee straight into the toilet. Aaaaargh! Phlerp! Flimmin’ flammin’ flapper-flassen!” Sometimes I spew odd sounds instead of swearing.

Child develops boo-boo face — the real one; not the one he uses when he wants a cookie.

At this point, I can either stand on my pee-free walls principle and win the argument! Or I can recognize that something about my reaction inspired more than appropriate remorse from my child.

“Son,” I can say, “I have clearly upset you. I’m sorry. Can you tell me what about my reaction upset you so that I know better for next time?

Note firstly, that I did not excuse my son for peeing on the wall. The focus of my apology was my reaction. No matter how the Picasso of Pee responds (in this case, he hugged me and ran off to attempt to clean the pee with his sister’s bath towel, which mostly amounted to spreading it all over and cementing some of it to the wall for life), he knew he was okay, he knew I loved him, and he knew I was there for him.

That’s a scenario I got right. In the following scenario, I blew it. I blew it so badly, I can still feel the wind in my gut.  Let’s dissect my bad.

‘Tween throws serious shade at little brother, who thinks ‘tween is the sun around whom his world revolves. Little brother is devastated.

Parent (me again) looks at ‘tween as though she has just cut off her brother’s toes one by one with dental floss. “Is that really the kind of person you want to be?” asks parent with thrice the shade originally thrown by ‘tween at little brother.

‘Tween cries the kind of cry parent once smugly judged someone else’s ‘tween for crying — and runs to room, slamming door behind her.

In the real-life version of this scenario, parent — me —  went to little brother, comforted him, and then resoundingly ignored ‘tween for the rest of the day, likely due to memories of parent’s own heroic big brother slapping maxi pads on her ‘tween bedroom door to warn everyone else to stay away from her that day.

Here is what parent — me — should have said to ‘tween after comforting little brother:

“Daughter, I have clearly upset you. I’m sorry. Can you tell me what about my reaction upset you so that I know better for next time?

(She probably would have said to me what she told her little brother later after she apologized without my prompting or support — how she was embarrassed and confused that she had treated him that way and didn’t need me reminding her of her mistake).

An apology from me about the way I reacted (not that I responded to her behavior, but the WAY I responded) would have conveyed to her that, despite her own ‘tween confusion, she was okay, I loved her, and I was there for her.

Here’s one final example for the parents of adults on the blog, compiled from a variety of experiences we adult children discuss with each other (that’s right, parents of adult children — we talk):

Adult child has a possibly erroneous or irrational, most-definitely-linked-to-past-hurt, reaction to something parent said or did.

Parent can focus on how right he is and how wrong he thinks the adult child’s reaction is, defending himself like a dog guards a bone and picking away at adult child’s adult self.

Or parent can say something like, “Adult Child, I have clearly upset you. I’m sorry. Can you tell me what about my reaction upset you so that I know better for next time?”

The former response reinforces the negative tapes the adult child already keeps on reserve in the back of his brain, the ones brought out when adult child chastises himself over big and little mistakes.

The latter reminds the adult child, that even in adulthood, his parent wants him to know that he is okay, his parent loves him, and his parent is still there for him.


I understand all too well that there are times when the very thought of apologizing for our hurtful reactions to the behaviors of our child/ren feels closer to cleaning out a Florida swamp during a category 5 hurricane than parenting.

We need to do it anyway. It is the greatest gift that we can give our children, more precious than any other aspect of their relationship and connection with us.

Quick Recap before I go parent my children some more: 

  1. Apologizing says, “You’re always okay.”
  2. Apologizing says, “I always love you.”
  3. Apologizing says, “I am always here for you.”

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