Actors: Mom; fifteen-year-old Mercy
Scene: Mercy’s bedroom; family room
Time: 8:20 PM; three weeks later
An apology doesn’t show parental weakness or inconsistency. It shows parental confidence and strength. A good apology is for disciplining badly. It is not for the discipline itself.
Mom (entering Mercy’s bedroom): You’ve been up here a while. Are you thinking of just going to bed?
Mercy: I don’t know. Maybe.
Mom: You look as if you’re still really upset.
Mercy: Wouldn’t you be?
Mom: Yes, I probably would. And that’s why I came up here. I wanted to tell you I’m sorry. I’m sorry that I lost my temper and said some things I didn’t mean at all. My emotions got the best of me. And for sure, I shouldn’t have cursed at you.
Mercy (Sitting on the edge of her bed; silently staring at the floor).
Mom: I mean it I’m really sorry for letting myself get so carried away. I was wrong.
Mercy: Yeah, OK.
Dr. Ray: In Mercy’s mind it’s neither “Yeah” nor “OK.” Her words are more of an unspoken “Whatever.” A risk of any apology – from parent to child, spouse to spouse, anyone to anyone – is rejection. It could be heard as insincere, incomplete, manipulative, too little too late, yeah-OK-whatever.
Nonetheless, an apology for a wrong is a right, no matter how it is received.
Mom: You don’t sound too accepting of this.
Mercy: Well I just lost my computer for one month because you don’t like what I put on my Facebook. Does “sorry” mean I get the computer back?
Mom: No. It means I’m sorry for how I acted. I’m not sorry for the discipline. Your Facebook page is totally a privilege. It’s to be used responsibly. If you misuse it, you will lose it, like any privilege. This time around it’s only gone for a month. If something like this happens again, it could be gone indefinitely.
Dr. Ray: Kids want to think “I’m sorry” means (1) “for how I acted” and (2) “for my discipline.” They are mistaken. An apology for harsh words and emotions is unrelated to the discipline itself. The apology is for wrong conduct. Good discipline – even when levied with an ugly style – is right conduct. It is not an apology-worthy offense.
Mercy: You’re “sorry” would mean more to me if you realized that taking away my computer time makes me madder than your yelling and calling me a name. Why don’t you say sorry about that?
Mom: Because I’m not sorry about taking away your computer. Good discipline is not a sin. If I get mean when I discipline, well then, I’m wrong. And that’s what I’m sorry for.
Mercy (Shaking her head slowly, as if to say, “Whatever makes you happy.”)
Dr. Ray: Never let a youngster’s possible reaction to an apology silence the apology. It’s her misunderstanding, or her rejection of the discipline, or her youth that is shaping her reaction.
Then too, some kids can’t pass up the chance to dispense a little punishment of their own – a payback is you will – for what in their eyes was not only undeserved treatment but, more so, undeserved discipline.
I’m sorry for repeating myself, but an apology is for good self-discipline, even when rebuffed. Even when it risks making the whole discipline episode temporarily more inflamed.
Three weeks later Mercy is alone in the family room watching television. It’s hard to calculate which steals more family time – the TV or the computer.
Mom: Mercy, turn the TV off, please. I want to tell you something. (Mercy obliges.)
You have been very pleasant the last three weeks. You took your computer punishment without arguing, and overall, you attitude has been beautiful. So I talked it over with Dad, and we both decided to suspend the rest of your punishment. You can have your Facebook back starting tomorrow, the condition being that you put nothing on there that is unacceptable. We’ll be keeping a closer eye on you than before, but we think you’re ready to try again.
Mercy: Is this because you still feel bad about the big fight we had, when you apologized?
Mom: That’s not it at all. It’s because you have been very good about all this. Not once did you have a “put-upon, victim” attitude. That made a big difference in our decision.
Mercy: Well, I still wasn’t happy about it.
Mom: I didn’t think you were, but you kept it to yourself, and you kept it under control.
Dr. Ray: And sometimes that’s the best a parent can hope for. The first step to a changed attitude is a changed conduct, even if it’s forced.
A parent’s apology and a child’s attitude are related. An apology – even when initially falling on hardened ears – can soften a child over time and yield an eventual softening of attitude. The apology reveals that the parent is not an autocrat – “My way or the highway, kid” – but one who is willing to separate parental misconduct from parental discipline. It emphasizes that discipline is meant to teach morals and character. It is not motivated by anger, nor is it a justification for “getting mean.”
A discipline misconception: If a parent later changes her discipline because of an overreaction (“I’m tired of picking up your wet towels. From now on you will dry off with toilet paper”), she risks being inconsistent or erratic. Not always so. True inconsistency is fueled by many factors: guilt, fatigue, forgetfulness, yielding to pressure from a child or others. These are “irrational” reasons that shape lax or meandering discipline.
Rationally rethinking one’s discipline (“OK, you can dry off with paper towels”) is a sign of parental confidence, a willingness to admit fault. And that is not inconsistency.
Further, every so often lessening a discipline consequence or its duration because a child has shown the maturity to accept it without resistance or sourness is also no sign of parental weakness. It is a sign of mercy. And mercy is not inconsistency.
Winning the Discipline Debates Pages 131-134
Copyright © 2013, Dr. Ray Guarendi