I Refused to Accept My Child’s Apology, and It Made Everyone Happier.
We’ve been cooped up for eight months as the virus slowly engulfs whatever dregs of normalcy we knew. For my three children, who are each under the age of ten, reinventing school and adapting to new ways to go about our lives had been fun and novel at first. They would wake with wide eyes in the morning and marvel at being able to do their math and reading in their pajamas. Bedtimes stretched later and later. And because we never knew what the grocery store would offer, dinner and snacks took on an almost adventurous feel.
But as time ground on and the novelty of life upended faded, my children’s behavior began to get worse.
At first, it was bickering. The kids snipped and snapped at each other over who got to eat out of the orange cereal bowl. No one could sit on the couch without a frustrating back-and-forth over whose spot belonged to whom. Even the toothbrush holder became contested territory.
To be fair, my husband and I went through a honeymoon phase with the pandemic as well. We each moved our jobs home, making life feel cramped and awkward but doable. We, too, experienced later mornings and later evenings, and at first, we relished the minor changes. But over time, we found that spending every waking moment of every day together was not exactly helping our intimacy. We got cranky.
Our family fell into a weirdly, uncomfortable new normal that included having to live with being constantly low-grade annoyed with each other. We got lazy with one another and words like ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ slipped further away from our daily speech. Getting through the day in one piece without someone having a meltdown became a goal. Without the release of taking breaks from one another, a luxury that school and work afforded each of us created a household of anxious, exhausted, grouchy people.
My kids would pinch each other or say nasty things to one another, and then I would step in, demand an apology, and then lecture my kids on decency and respect before I went back to cleaning or typing. We repeated this awful dance dozens of times a day to no effect. My kids were acting like tyrants, and I was acting like a mother who just needed them to shut up and sit down for five minutes.
We were not a happy bunch. So, one morning I quit.
My oldest kid had snatched a video game controller out of his brother’s hands and took over his game, leaving his little brother crying and babbling on about how much he hates being home. I walked into the living room to see what the commotion was about, and without looking up, my oldest son gave a monotonous, well-rehearsed, meaningless, “I’m sorry, I won’t do it again.” His eyes never left the screen.
“I do not accept your apology,” I said back. I stepped in between him and the screen, and I waited.
“Mom, I said I was sorry! God!” he whined.
I said nothing. I continued to wait.
“Mom, what do you want from me!?” he was confused, but he was finally looking me in the eyes and waiting for a response. He was listening.
“I do not accept your apology,” I repeated. “But I will accept changed behavior. Now, tell me what you plan to do about this.”
He looked baffled. His mouth hung open, and his eyes searched the room and my face looking for the right thing to say. What phrase could he spit out that would make this moment stop so he could keep going about his game?
“But Mom! You’re supposed to accept my apology because you’re the MOM, Mom!” His confusion that I stepped out of this dance said it all. I was part of the problem, and I was refusing to do my part.
But the thing is, there was nothing right to say at that moment. My kid needed to take steps toward accountability and not depend on me to permit him to skirt the growing problem. I genuinely was sick and tired of intervening in my children’s drama, and it was time for me to correct my lazy parenting and hold them answerable for their own crappy choices.
“I do not accept your apology, but I will accept changed behavior, now tell me what you plan to do.” These are the words that I find myself saying lately. The idle apologies that are more performative than teachable moments are no longer acceptable here, and my kids know it.
When my kids act out, I tell them that they need to change their behavior, not say the right words to appease the offended. But that isn’t enough; they have to sit with me and talk through how they will change their behavior. I listen. They have to talk about how their actions made another person feel. I listen. They have to tell me how they would feel if someone acted out similarly toward them. I listen.
It’s not a perfect system, and my kids still act like monsters, but I can see them thinking through their actions more closely now. Yesterday, my youngest was needling at her brother’s last nerve, and my oldest kiddo walked over to her and said, “Hey, how would you feel if he kept jumping on your legs and yelling your name really loud?” She was too young to rational this, but in a parenting win for me, I was proud to see that my oldest, my eye-rolling, knows-everything-about-everything-Mr-attitude tween, was trying to teach his little sister the lessons that I have been trying to teach him.
And that’s when I realized that as clunky as it might feel, we have a new dance in our family.