Apologizing to Our Children

When a Christian becomes an earthly parent, he or she rightly looks to our divine Parent for a paradigm. Our perfect Father in heaven is our true and sufficient example upon which to fix our sights regarding our own parenting. Because we are not God, however, and therefore so very not perfect, our paradigm can fail us when we, over and over, fail the paradigm. Failure is not possible with God. Failure is a given with human beings.

Because of this given, consider the times when we parents could admit our sinful ways to our children. We show them with our very words and actions what they may freely do and then receive from their amazing Savior. Psalm 86:5 says: For you, O Lord, are good and forgiving, abounding in steadfast love to all who call upon You. As parents we strive to be good and forgiving, but what about those times when we need to be forgiven by our children?

I am not suggesting that we placate our children with hollow apologies whenever life doesn’t behave the way our children would wish. Our perfect Father does not apologize for our difficult circumstances, for our failures, for our hurts and experiences of betrayal and injustice, so it seems less than loving to teach our children that we parents are responsible for every experience they encounter, and therefore at personal fault when life is hard. Instead, we hope to live with them under the light of the Gospel and give steady witness that our perfect Father is the only one in charge.

To my point, as their parent I do not owe my children an apology when the pancakes arrive soggy, the teacher is unfair, or my 15 year old’s rude outburst has confined her to the home on a Friday night. What I can do is bring perspective to the pancakes, express genuine empathy and concern about the unfair teacher, and acknowledge that, yes, staying home on a Friday night really is a miserable punishment.

Conversely, I am convicted by several (at least) times with each of our children when I have missed, or come very close to missing, a God-given opportunity to apologize and seek forgiveness for something I had done or not done.

One such occasion falls into that murky category of, “But I didn’t mean to.” While driving my son and four of his friends home from a game, I decided I wanted to be a part of their conversation. I knew, thanks to my son, that one of them had a crush on a certain girl. I’m cool, right? In the cringe-worthy cluelessness of a desperate parent, I asked my son’s friend if he had seen certain girl that night at the game. The silence was immediate and deafening.

Once our passengers were dropped off I was told in no uncertain terms by my upset son that my question had been way uncool, and I had embarrassed him beyond measure. My shameful reaction was first to defend: “Hey, I didn’t mean to embarrass you, I was just making conversation;“ followed by the not-apology apology, “I’m sorry my attempt at conversation was not to your liking;” and finally to attack, “Aren’t you being a little sensitive about all this? And watch your tone of voice.” How much better and cleansing this time in the car might have gone if I had acknowledged my lack of sensitivity and respect for my son’s friend and asked for his forgiveness.

The second event falls within the category of “But you made me so mad.” In a heated argument with my teenage son who came with a petty (to his mother’s mind) grievance, I was caught and lost in the anger. I told this heated son to shut up and take his intolerable self downstairs to his room. I was overcome with confusion and hurt. When had my sweet baby boy become such an attack dog? What got into him? I had wounds to nurse and a husband coming home to receive my righteous indignation. This was all about me, and I had no charity in that moment for my own child.

The conclusion of that experience was painful and holy. After cooling off, my son came to me with his own apology, and asked if I might do likewise, seeing as I had told him to shut up and called him intolerable, which hurt his feelings. I first resisted such a request. In my sinful heart I was afraid. My son HAD BEEN intolerable. Apology means weakness, and I am not a weak parent. Weak parents are not in control. And He WAS being intolerable.

But praise be to God, His Holy Spirit intervened, and I gave up my need to be THE PARENT. I was instead the daughter forgiven by God and the mother forgiven by my son because what I had said was hurtful and authored in anger. As wonderfully freeing as it is to receive God’s complete forgiveness through Jesus Christ, it was likewise wonderful to receive my son’s forgiveness. This passage from Ephesians speaks to all of us earthly parents setting our sights on the perfect paradigm:

“Put away all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.” Ephesians 4: 31 – 32

Carolyn Lankford lives in Birmingham, Alabama and has three grown children with her late husband, Frank. Formerly a co-director of Christian Education at the Church of the Advent, Carolyn served as the Advancement Officer at Beeson Divinity School at Samford University before transitioning back to the Advent to work as Interim Director of Women's Ministry from 2021-2022.

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