We are all wrong. At least, we are all wrong some of the time. Still, we're all right. That's because we're all right a lot of the time as well. No one is all wrong all of the time, nor is anyone always right.

Confused? I'll say it more simply: every single one of us makes mistakes sometimes. Every single one of us is imperfect. Every single one of us needs to improve in some way.

You'd think this was obvious, but it is not. There are many parents who present themselves to their kids as if perfect. Such parents never apologize for anything because, in their opinion, they are never wrong. At the same time, they may be very hard on their children – quick to identify mistakes and deficiencies and intent on hearing apologies for wrongdoings. When children are young, they have no choice but to absorb the criticism and complaints. But when they become adolescents, they may take to talking back and challenging the parent.

"You're always screaming at me!" a teen might complain. "That's because you never listen!" retorts the parent. The parent actually teaches the child, through his or her model, that defensive remarks are appropriate ways to respond to criticism. Unfortunately, such a lesson will handicap the child later on in his or her adult relationships. Defensiveness doesn't work! It pushes people apart instead of bringing them closer together. Moreover, it indicates a haughty attitude, the kind of attitude that is loathed by G‑d. The Talmud is replete with condemnations of haughtiness and similarly replete with praise for those who are humble. This Talmudic statement sums it up powerfully: "Someone haughty in spirit, it is as though he were an idolater" (Sotah 4b). He worships himself! Humility allows people to apologize. Arrogance holds them back. What works is acknowledgement. Hearing, accepting and validating a complaint really works in marriage, parenting and professional situations. But children need to experience this process first hand. They need to learn it from their parents.

So what should a parent say when accused of screaming too much? The parent might respond: "You're right, I do scream a lot. I'm sorry. I shouldn't be doing that. I need to handle my frustration better." This attention, acknowledgement and validation amounts to a very nice apology. It will help the child learn to formulate similar responses to attacks. In addition, it will help the child acknowledge his or her own role in the current dispute. An older child is much more likely to say something like, "I know you're frustrated – I didn't do what I said I would. It's not your fault. I'm really sorry. I'll get to it today." A younger one might say, "That's okay, Mommy. I'm sorry, too." When the parent leads the way by apologizing, children find it easier and more natural to follow suit.

A good apology is much more than "I'm sorry." Unless the person states what he or she is sorry about, the words can feel empty and cold. This is where the acknowledgment part comes in: acknowledgment is a summary of the wrongdoing as it affects the other person. When arriving late, for example, a person would say something like, "I'm sorry I'm late. I've kept you waiting." This short, simple-but-complete message names the mistake and its ramifications. Here are a few more examples:

  • "I'm sorry I called you 'immature.' I know that hurt your feelings."
  • "I'm sorry I forgot to buy you the cookies I promised to pick up. I know you must be very disappointed."
  • "I'm sorry I bumped into you. Are you alright?"

Simple and sincere apologies are powerful. They heal relationship wounds. Showing kids how it is done gives them a skill that will truly enhance their lives.