“Is it time for our special date?” begged Taylor early Saturday morning. Blinking hard, I tried to focus on who’d summoned me out of deep sleep. “What time is it?” I said in a groggy voice. “6:30am!” I cried out. But I was just as excited as Taylor. We had been planning this day for the past several weeks. Mommy was going shopping with a friend so Taylor and I would have the entire day together.
The first part of the day we spent playing around the house. Then we set out for our favorite eating spot…Chucky Cheese! We stuffed ourselves with pizza and played for hours. We were both feeling close to each other. I smiled proudly when she rushed over, threw her arms around me and yelled, “Daddy…I love you so much.”
The next part of our special date took us to the movie theater. Taylor had been talking non-stop about some “George of the Jungle” movie. She’d seen the commercial and felt her life depended upon seeing it. Taylor and I loaded up with popcorn, candy, soda and some kind of fruity-slushy drink. As my daughter carried her gallon bucket of popcorn and drink down the long hallway, once again she expressed, “Daddy…I love you.” I was in Heaven.
Unfortunately, I had no idea that I was walking into Purgatory!
The moment my precious girl sat down in the crowded movie theater, she came to the conclusion that she no longer wanted to see George of the Jungle. All she wanted was to be someplace else. Her only problem, however, was dad. I’d paid good money to see this movie and for some reason I chose this moment to teach my three year-old about financial responsibility. The lesson lasted for about .07 seconds, or about as long as it takes a three year-old to scream at such a high pitch that the hair on every neck in the room stood straight up. As people from the back climbed on their chairs to see what horrible thing was happening, I escorted Taylor out. And despite all my years of psychological training, I was unable to convince her to watch the movie. Therefore, I did something that I hadn’t learn in my doctoral program. I grabbed her bucket of popcorn, stuffed it into the trash, and told her she was in massive trouble. As we stormed down the same long hallway that had once been the site of such nostalgia, her only words now were: “I don’t like you!”
When we got home I marched Taylor into her room, told her to go to bed, and slammed the door. Sitting in my chair I tried to determine how our perfect day had become so awful. I soon realized that my frustration seemed more about my expectations than her actions. It was only a $6 movie and we’d had such a good day. Did I really need to react that way? I thought about all the times I’d preached to Taylor, “It’s okay to make a mistake, but you need to make it right.” I needed to make it right.
I sat on my daughter’s bed and held her tight. As her little body shook from all the tears, I told her that daddy had been wrong to yell and to throw her popcorn away. It was then that she looked up at me and said in the most precious voice, “Daddy, it’s okay to make mistakes–you just need to make it up!” Close…but at least I knew that she’d been listening.
A part of correcting a mistake and making it right is to seek forgiveness. The following three steps have often set the foundation necessary for my family to forgive me.
Use Tender Understanding
Proverbs 15:1 suggests, “A gentle answer turns away anger…” Therefore, the first step in seeking your child’s forgiveness is to become soft in your mind and spirit. This reflects honor and humility. Specifically, lower your voice and relax your facial expressions. Since the goal is to understand your child’s feelings, it can be helpful to get down on bended knee so you can see eye to eye with your child.
As you remain tender, it’s important to listen to the pain your child feels and how she has interpreted your offensive behavior. Ask for her interpretation of what occurred and then repeat back what you’ve heard. But resist defending yourself, lecturing, or questioning why she did or didn’t do something. As you repeat someone’s experience, it allows her to feel validated and heard. Most importantly, however, it can turn away anger.
Admit Your Mistake
After you have listened and repeated back what your child experienced as the result of your mistake, you are ready to take responsibility. Since a major childhood complaint is that parents don’t admit when they’re wrong, it is vital that you take ownership of your offensive behavior. However, now is not the time to have your son or daughter own their part. That important lesson can come after you’ve done your part. A child feels valuable when she hears you admit your mistake, and sees that you understand how she feels. This in turn makes it easier for a child to take responsibility for her own actions.
Now that you have validated your child’s feelings and experience, assumed responsibility for your hurtful actions, you are now ready to seek forgiveness. Therefore, the final step is to give your child the opportunity to respond to your confession. For example, you might say something like, “You must have felt very hurt when I threw away your popcorn. I was wrong to do that. Could you find it in your heart to forgive me?” You will know true reconciliation has occurred when forgiveness is granted and she allows you to touch her.
A word of caution. If you have followed these three steps and your child refuses to forgive you, there are several possible reasons. Perhaps the offense was deeper than you realized or she wants to see your behavior change first. Whatever the reason, the best thing is to be patient with your child. No matter how she responds, never drop the issue altogether simply because she isn’t ready to forgive you. Let the situation cool off for a while, then come back and repeat the three steps.
The most important aspect of seeking forgiveness is that you are modeling a tremendous life skill. To actively seek out ways to correct our mistakes is a wonderful ability. To this day, whenever some asks Taylor what I did to her at the movie, without skipping a beat, she says, “Daddy threw my popcorn away.” But then she explains, “But he made it right.” I want Taylor to not only remember my mistakes, but also have a vivid image of me admitting my hurtful behavior and seeking her forgiveness. My desire for my children is the same thing that the Apostle Paul wanted when he wrote, “The things you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, practice these things; and the God of peace shall be with you.” (Philippians 4:9).