I could list numerous methods of parenting my mother displayed that were ineffective or regrettable – from nagging about how skinny I was (or, how fat, these days), to moaning about whether I’d been taking vitamins at the slight occurrence of a sniffle. Yet there’s one experience that my mum instigated which has had a profound effect on me as an adult. And it’s in the area of apologising.
I was generally quite a bright and able child at school. Termly reports that came home were mostly pleasing in regard to my effort and progress. My parents had nothing to worry about.
That is, until my year 9 report (the Upper Fourth, back then) – when my form teacher made a scathing comment about my (teenage) tendency to be rude. Yikes, I hadn’t realised that she’d noticed my disdain of her. She was, after all, an unpopular PE teacher – which in a Girls’ Grammar like mine meant that we considered her the lowest of the low, and quite undeserving of our respect. In addition to that, I just didn’t like her. She looked funny and was annoying. She wore unfashionable sporty gear. I certainly wasn’t going to go out of my way to be pleasant to her. In fact, I rather revelled in ignoring her at times and doling out sarky or sulky responses now and again.
My mum was not impressed. She demanded that I apologise first thing the next day. Apologise! To her! I was mortified. I really didn’t feel any remorse, so why should I apologise? Mum threatened some sort of sanction unless I did. (I can’t remember what it was, but it was probably something like being grounded until further notice.)
And so, next morning after registration, as everyone was heading out of class to their lessons, I approached Miss Maddison, feeling totally sheepish and silly. I looked at her briefly in the eye, before mumbling an apology for my rudeness, whilst staring down at my feet. I’m not easily embarrassed but I could feel my face turning red and my heart beating wildly. The teacher acknowledged my apology and I made a hasty exit. It was all over within a few seconds, and wasn’t nearly as bad an experience as I thought it might be.
I wasn’t rude to her again, and actually started to develop some empathy and see things from her perspective for a change. I realised how awful it must be to be in charge of such a snobby bunch of self-absorbed teenage girls.
Since then, this acquired life skill, in which I overcome embarrassment in order to apologise for my behaviour or words, has served me well. You see, I am not always measured in my responses or thoughtful in my reactions – particularly after a sleepless night or stress from children or other outside influences. There are times when I snap, am rude or am unable to contain my displeasure. Just minutes after such encounters, I start to find myself deeply regretting my reaction and wonder what on earth got into me. I know that the only way I’ll ever be able to maintain future contact or relationship with the other party concerned will be for me to apologise. It’s a terrifying prospect – yet wholly necessary, and ever so liberating.
Just a short moment of humility, and the apology is usually accepted, and the wronged person hopefully begins to see me as a flawed, yet decent individual, rather than an absolute, pig headed idiot. I’m loathe to admit that the opportunities that led to apologies in such manner have arisen in a variety of settings, concerning dealings with different types of people – from a stall holder at a market place, to a church leader after a critical comment about kidswork, to my son’s primary headteacher during a meeting regarding a negative incident. Each of these situations could have been avoided entirely, if I had only stopped to think before I opened my mouth; alas, I didn’t. But, each time, I knew that if I wanted to restore any remnant of positive interaction with those people in future, it would depend on me apologising.
And for that, dear mum, I’m thankful that you taught me the importance of an apology. You also demonstrated the importance of apologising for your flaws when you over-reacted at home or responded in anger. If I am also able to instil in my children the value of saying sorry when they really don’t feel like it, I will have succeeded in some small way as a parent.