Two pairs of small shoulders slumped forward and fearfully cowered before me. I had just yelled at my kids. They barged into the baby’s room just moments after she had fallen asleep, and now she was wide awake! My schedule was thrown off by several hours and I wouldn’t be able to finish work. I was furious. After I berated them a little more, I marched off to cool down. Minutes later my son crept in and said, “I’m sorry, mommy.” Then my teary-eyed daughter tip-toed in and left an apology note with a drawing of a broken heart. My stomach dropped to the floor. I felt completely depraved. My kids were apologizing to me when I should be apologizing to them! I gathered them around mournfully and said, “I’m so sorry. Mommy should never have treated you like that. It was mean and sinful; it’s not okay. Please forgive me. This is one of the reasons why Mommy needs Jesus.”
Many of us have been raised in homes where apologizing to one another was an abstract notion. Conflict may have been resolved with a gesture and we had to accept it as an apology. Or perhaps we learned avoidance; we would wake up the following morning after a disagreement and pretending that nothing happened. For others, minor conflicts escalated into explosive arguments that were rarely settled through apologies, or even at all. We may even have unintentionally continued these unhealthy cycles into our own homes. We question the necessity of saying, “I’m sorry,” for fear it might weaken our authority or respectability. There are many reasons why a parent might not seek forgiveness, or own up to our shortcomings, but none are Biblically rooted.
The Weight of Unspoken Communication
“Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4, ESV). The NIV translates “provoke” as “exasperate.” Parorgizó, the Greek word for provoke, is defined as rousing someone to anger. We often believe words are the main vehicle of provocation, but consider what we don’t say may carry far more influence.
When our children are young, they believe mom and dad are infallible. As they mature, they realize their parents are actually deeply flawed and hypocritical. And when hypocritical parents never or hardly ever seek forgiveness for their impatience, cutting words, temper, poor attitude, neglect, apathy, and mistreatment, their children are provoked. This could potentially breed resentment, distrust, feeling emotionally or physically unsafe, loss of respect, strain, and sometimes an unfortunate severing of relationships.
I have watched many people, young or old, weep over wounds left by their parents. The common thread has always been mom or dad’s lack of ownership of and repentance for their sins. These wounded individuals cannot remember their parents ever admitting they were wrong and are sorry. I wonder how different the trajectory of their lives would have been if they had experienced their parents seeking forgiveness and sincerely repenting. Insecurity, grief, bitterness, anger, feeling undervalued and unloved, all too often remain beneath the surface.
The Transformative Power of “I’m Sorry”
Hearing “I’m sorry,” followed by a parent admitting wrongdoing, is an immeasurable and powerful gift for a child; it can liberate a child from the imprisonment of pain, anger, and bitterness. It is an expression that mends and rebuilds broken relationships. But, as with all good things that take effort, seeking forgiveness can be costly. It requires humility, vulnerability, and casting aside pride. It says, I wronged you and I take full responsibility for it. It says, I am counting you as more important than myself at this moment.
Seeking forgiveness has tremendous influence over our children who often feel powerless when they are unjustly treated. They are our most vulnerable neighbors. As believers we must accept the risk of the other withholding forgiveness, and receiving retribution instead. But, no matter the cost, if seeking forgiveness is necessary and integral to the life of a Christian, why would we not model it for our children?
Christ Sets Our Parenting Apart
A Christian’s salvation is founded upon the mercy, grace, and forgiveness of a just God. Without Christ’s substitutionary death and resurrection on the cross, we remain mired in our sin, destined to eternal damnation. Without his forgiveness, there is no gospel. There is no reconciliation. As sinners saved from an incalculable debt, we must always remember our spiritual impoverishment apart from Christ. So, when we sin against our children, it is imperative that we say we are sorry.
Raising our children in the discipline and instruction of the Lord is not confined to church or around our dinner table. We teach them through the way we talk, sit in our house, walk, lie down, and rise (Deuteronomy 6:7). Teaching our children is a lifestyle. It encompasses everything we say and don’t say. We teach them through how we conduct ourselves when people are watching and when we think nobody is watching. We teach them through how we treat others, lovingly or poorly. We are the first ones to teach them what abiding in Christ looks like, no matter how wonderful or flawed that may appear.
Omitting the Power of the Gospel
When we omit the words “I’m sorry,” we omit the power of the gospel in our homes. We miss an opportunity for our children to witness, firsthand, the process of repentance and seeking forgiveness. We rob them of the opportunity to be merciful and forgiving even when it is undeserved and painful to do so. We can offer them a window into what godly grief looks like as we repent, grieve over sin, and depend on our Savior’s grace. An intimate portrayal of reconciliation between sinners is displayed, ultimately pointing to their great need to be reconciled to a holy God.
When we fail to apologize to our children, we fail to treat them as image bearers of God. We are communicating that mom and dad are above reproach, and that we don’t always need to obey the Lord or treat people with dignity and love. We may think that our children don’t understand, but they see more than we realize. I believe the Lord has grown our children’s understanding of the Gospel, in part through my husband’s and my failings, repentance, apologies, and tearful confessions that we are wretched sinners apart from Christ.
Challenge and Encouragement to All Parents
When we raise our voices and have yelled out of anger, we need to apologize. When we’ve lost our temper, and reflect on it after our kids have gone to bed, we need to find them in the morning and say, “I’m sorry for what I did yesterday. Please forgive me.” When our kids seem to be tip-toeing on eggshells around us, we need to take them aside and ask them if we did something to provoke that. When our children, young or grown, confess a hurt that we inflicted, we need to humbly consider what they are saying, and seek reconciliation. May we resist the temptation to tell them to “get over it and let go of the past.”
How many conflicts could be avoided if we only humbled ourselves and sought forgiveness? How many relationships could begin the process of restoration if someone acknowledged their wrongdoing? How much potential pain, bitterness, anger, and pursuits of idols could be thwarted if parents heartfeltly said these two life-giving words of “I’m sorry”? Raising children is a blessed, but painfully sanctifying journey. My family would attest to the fact that I am a deeply flawed person. There are days when I feel ashamed and discouraged for provoking my children, and I think we all experience those moments as parents. But as I read God’s Word, he is good to remind me that while I continue to fail, he is the perfect father who will never fail or sin against his beloved children. He is gracious to save and gracious to help. He has sent his only beloved son to die for a people dead in their trespasses, so that we may rise in eternal life with him. I pray that our children revel in this marvelous truth, and that Christ would be deeply treasured within our homes when mom and dad humbly say, “I’m sorry.”