I was walking through the supermarket with my toddler when we passed his favorite fruit. I’d told him we'd get some before realizing we already had some at home. As I pushed us toward checkout, he started screaming. "I'm sorry, I know I told you you could have that. Let's turn around." Freezing extra fruit seemed preferable to a tantrum. “Whoa,” a nearby woman said. "My parents would never have said that to me." She kept walking and I reflected for a moment. My parents never would’ve said that, either. Not wanting my child to grow up feeling unheard and angry, like I often did, is one of many reasons you should always admit to your kid when you're wrong.
Admitting when we're wrong is so hard. Sometimes, we may feel so guilty or ashamed that we just want to pretend it didn't happen. One of the hardest parts of any relationship is the moment when we have put our own intentions and self-image on the back burner and make ourselves available to the full force of the hurt we may have caused someone we care about. Other times, we may think what happened was no big deal, and that it's not worth it to spend time talking about it or "making a big deal of nothing." Very often, however, what seems small to us is huge for our kids.
If we actually want to be our best selves, we have to be willing to admit when we're wrong so we can actually take the steps necessary to fix it. People who don't take those steps or admit any wrongdoing often doom themselves to make the same, painful mistakes over and over again. Worse, habitually going out of our way to deny we did something wrong, or to pretend we weren't wrong when we were, is a form of gaslighting — a common tactic used by abusive people to keep their victims off-kilter by conditioning them to doubt their own perceptions. No one wants to abuse their kids, emotionally or otherwise, nor do we want to teach them that being treated poorly during conflicts is a "normal" part of close relationships. However, it's entirely possible for loving, well-intentioned people to do abusive things if they're not proactively taking steps to demonstrate respect and accountability in our relationships.
To state the glaringly obvious: not a single one of us is perfect. It's inevitable that we'll make mistakes, including with our kids, and it doesn't diminish us in the slightest to admit it. Indeed, it makes us better parents, because:
Kids Learn By Example
If we want our kids to learn to do something, the most effective way to teach them is by providing them with an example. All good parents want our kids to be able to admit when they're wrong, apologize, and make amends, because being accountable to others is an important part of maintaining trust in a relationship.
It's very hard for children to learn something they never see, so it's important that we model what we want and hope they learn. Otherwise, they're going to spend their whole lives screwing up this really fundamental part of being in a relationship, until they relearn what they should do instead. None of us wants our children to grow up to be unsuccessful in their relationships, or to make other people unhappy. So we have to teach them positive ways of handling their roles in any conflict.
A Parenting Relationship Is Still A Relationship
While the relationship between parents and children has some fundamental differences when compared to other relationships, it's still a relationship. Relationships depend on trust, and we can't trust people who refuse to be accountable for their actions. By admitting when you're wrong, you teach the other person in the relationship that while you're obviously not perfect, you're willing to own it and take positive steps to fix any mistakes you make. That's something our kids deserve just as much as anyone else we keep relationships with, if not more so.
Because Our Kids Are People
This should be an obvious one, but as adults, we often forget that kids are whole, autonomous people just like every other person we meet or have met. Admitting when we're wrong and taking responsibility for our role in a conflict is something that we all (hopefully) do in any interaction with other people. It really is — should be — a matter of basic respect. Just because our kids are smaller than we are, and just because we are in a position of some authority, doesn't mean they're not entitled to the same respect we'd give a fellow adult if we discovered we were wrong or had made a mistake.
Because It Bolsters Our Authority
There is no legitimate authority without credibility. Whether at work, at home, or anywhere else, we cannot expect the people in our charge to listen to us if they don't believe that what we say is truthful, and if they don't believe we have their best interests at heart.
When we're wrong, and our kids know we're wrong, we create a situation where we risk undermining our authority by undermining our credibility with them. But when we find the courage to say, "I'm sorry. I was wrong, and here's what I'll do differently next time," we show them that we're people whose authority they can trust. Acknowledging when we're wrong helps them see that we respect them enough to acknowledge their point of view, and that we're paying enough attention to make the best choices we can where they're concerned.
Because It Encourages Them To Trust Their Instincts
We are the people our kids trust most in the world. As a result, what we say they're more than likely to believe, as long as we make a habit of telling the truth. That means when we're wrong, and our kids see that we're wrong, pretending otherwise can teach them that they should mistrust their own instincts in their interactions with other people, which sets them up to be mistreated in other relationships.
No good parent wants to set their kids up for emotional or other kinds of abuse. But unfortunately, if we teach them their perspectives, feelings, and instincts are unreliable, or that their understandings of a situation matter less than those of other people in their relationships, we raise that risk for them.