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Can Our Very Young Children Truly Apologize To Us — & Should They?

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From the moment I became visibly pregnant with my second biological child, my then 2-and-a-half-year-old operationalized his vendetta. Luckily, this was primarily only directed at me, and emphatically me—I never had to get *that* call from his preK program, or from the parent of a friend. But what happened at home was unchecked anger, and all its attendant behaviors. He yelled in my face. He threw blocks at me. He hit and kicked and raged at the slightest reprimand, or whenever something didn’t go his way. My sister, a developmental therapist, called it an impressively hair-trigger sensitivity.

We made lists and hung them in visible places: things you can and can’t do with big feelings. Those lists anchored me. We made as much space as we could for his feelings, short of renting another apartment. We hoped it would pass as the baby became less helpless (if that’s even what babies are) and more fun for him. We hoped it would pass if he got more special time, more structure, more bedtimes. We hoped it would pass if we worked on ourselves. The hoping kept happening but the passing didn’t.

We went off our parenting grid and deferred to experts (my husband doesn’t believe in sibling displacement; I didn’t believe what was happening). Eventually, walking the baby in circles, I mourned, I grieved my first child and the closeness gone haywire, and I grieved his fury.

As the baby grew older, I watched her eyes take notes.

I’ve never been an especially observant Jew, but I understood then why people would try to propitiate a wrathful god. Why you would explain unrelenting hardship by deciding God was trying to teach you something you were a little too dense, or not quite evolved enough, to get.

My son was also perceptive, sensitive, funny, attuned, literary, witty, in love with life, adamantly his own person. It didn’t make sense. Shouldn’t he realize that he was hurting me? But every time we thought we were out of the woods, the woods came for us, my heart chained to my ankles. I’ve never been an especially observant Jew, but I understood then why people would try to propitiate a wrathful god. Why you would explain unrelenting hardship by deciding God was trying to teach you something you were a little too dense, or not quite evolved enough, to get. Who needed to forgive whom? Who should be sorry?

It was a terrible feeling to be afraid of my child’s mercurial moods, waiting it out behind a closed door, trying to conjure his pure heart in my shaken, infuriated one. I initially kept this private within my family. I didn’t want to face judgment, of myself or him, from other people or from something more ultimate.

Now, fully 5, my son has developed the ability to take his fits to another space and work them out, to allow us to step in. We have found more language of reconciliation, and I know what to say and not to say when he is upset, and how to comfort myself while he spins out. He is doing better and we are doing better. But I know what it is to be ankle-hearted.

The author's son and his little sister. Courtesy of the author.

Recently, for my 41st birthday, in a sour patch of the pandemic, I didn’t expect much. I was happy not to be sick or dead, to walk with a friend in the Brooklyn sunshine, enjoy physical closeness with my family. But I got something much bigger.

My son was eager to give me his birthday card. He handed me a crumpled piece of green construction paper. “Rainbows?” I asked, then remembered how to approach a child’s artwork. “Can you tell me what’s happening in this picture?”

“You should read it,” he said, climbing into my lap and looking at me expectantly.

He has pretty clear handwriting for a 5-year-old. “Happy Birthday Mommy,” he read with me. “I am sorry… for all the mean things… I have done.”

Then he clarified, “You know, like having fits and kicking and hitting and not being nice and kind and yelling ‘stop’ at you.”

I stared at him, his bashful smile.

“Is this what you thought about when you thought about me?” I asked.

“Well, I just know you don’t like it when I have fits and say mean things.”

I wasn’t sure if my heart was soaring or submerging.

“I reeeallly thought a lot about it,” he said. “What you would want me to say. And I am sorry.”

Can kids even apologize? Should I take this seriously? Should I receive it?

My tears answered for me.

“Wow,” I said. “That means a lot. I hope that is not the only thing you think about when you think of me on my birthday, those times you did ‘mean’ things. You were having such big feelings, and you didn’t mean to be mean. After all I love you so—”

“—Much it is not an amount,” he finished. “I know. You love me more than all the rooms in the universe.” It’s true, we said that a lot, even when I had to keep a closed door and a whole room between us.

Since then, I’ve consulted therapists, wanting to know for sure: Can a child his age truly experience empathy? Did he know how I felt? Can he authentically apologize? This felt especially poignant to me as we approach Yom Kippur, the holiday of forgiveness. What does atonement mean when you are talking about a small child?

'Apologies are about connection or repairs of connection. Children do that all the time without uttering a word, and they mean it and feel it.'

I don’t believe in forced apologies. What does that teach kids? Instead, my husband and I practice sincerity, reconciliation and repair, modeling responses like, “Wow, I wasn’t thinking when I did/said that thing to you. Are you okay? Can I do anything to make it better?” We take our cues from experts like Rob Vichnis, LCSW-R, MFA, parenting coach and child and family therapy specialist, who explains in an email, “In my mind, apologies are about connection or repairs of connection. Children do that all the time without uttering a word, and they mean it and feel it!" In response to my doubts, he wrote, "Wasn’t that your son’s warmth in your lap? It’s us adults who have more of a struggle showing and maintaining this connection.”

Rachel Malinowitzer, a Brooklyn psychotherapist specializing in couples and parenting, concurs with an emphatic yes that children absolutely can apologize. But, she says, ironically, we might receive fewer apologies from a kid who is secure in their attachment to us. “If love is clear and ever present,” she explains, they can feel safe taking risks with their behaviors and emotions. “Even without their apology, they know the love is there.” My son was not apologizing just to be sure he was safe and loved; he already knew he was. And he was ready to offer something I needed that was no longer in conflict with his needs.

So my son had taken a protracted risk, and had, as Vibha Arora, a transformation and parent coach in Los Angeles explained to me, matured in his ability to manage and express emotions, thanks to having the time, space, and secure attachments needed. Arora believes he knew to show his apologetic feelings because he has “absorbed the compassion — empathy in action— in [my] family.”

“A true apology is not forced,” Arora added, confirming that she believed my son’s apology to be real and appropriate. “It is not scripted. It comes from the heart. When genuine, it is an olive branch. It's how amends are made, do-overs happen, and space for mistake and recovery is created.”

I have looked at my bright green birthday card with its kindergartener handwriting 14,000 times since he wrote it, feeling his nature to never perform. I trust that when we have tools to do better, we also have the tools to forgive.

This month, on Yom Kippur, one of the highest holidays and a day on which observant Jews atone for our wrongs and ask for forgiveness, I’ll know that my 5-year-old didn’t heal us because a holiday demanded it, but because he was ready.