The hardest part is apologizing
Listening when you are the target of someone’s angst or negative energy takes grit. You have to hold on through the discomfort to try to hear the words. Then you have to drop your defenses and find a way to match the intensity of the hurt one, recognizing the risk taken to tell you a painful “truth” (their truth, not THE truth).
I remember when Jacob, in 11th grade, told me that he regretted ever being homeschooled. He was convinced that that path had impaired his development in math, he thought I had been inattentive due to my philosophy of unschooling (not planning work for him to “do”), and he worried that he would not be able to “catch up” to his peers (whatever that meant to him at the time). He told me his disappointments in me and home education over an expensive Italian dinner I was paying for. He told his feelings to me with some intensity, and anxiety that he would push too far.
I sucked on a noodle. I breathed. I wanted him to know I had heard him. He didn’t choose to be homeschooled. He happened to emerge from the womb into a family that had already decided to home educate. It was a done deal before the placenta had even detached!
As he aged, what choice did he really have about his education? I was busy reading books, writing passionate posts to message boards, and cultivating a philosophy of education while he played with swords and dress up clothes, learned his ABC’s, and happily filled in workbooks.
As my philosophy evolved, so did our homeschool. I announced my grand unschool experiment over a family brunch one mid-week morning. Jon and I enthused about the opportunity to learn “whatever you want” with parental support and companionship. The toddler didn’t know what we were talking about. Two of the kids threw parties on the spot. Two of them panicked. Jacob was one of the panickers. What would happen to his education? Would he still learn?
After a couple of years of this unschooling lifestyle, Jacob asked to go to high school fulltime. Our first kid to want to. We accommodated and within two years, I found myself staring across a candlelit table at an emotional junior in high school who was explaining to me my failings as a mother.
Yeah—it’s hard to take it. But I had to. I had to for him. He should get to evaluate his childhood. Heck, I’ve evaluated mine! That’s what we all do. When that moment arrives, what we all need is a parent bigger than the eruption, bigger than the judgment passed, to take it. We want a parent who hears how it actually felt to be the kid in that circumstance, under that parent’s care.
The moment had come. I owed Jacob an apology—not for making a mistake, not for failing him, not for being a poor home educator. I didn’t believe any of that to be true, so I couldn’t apologize for that.
But what I could and did say went something like this:
“I’m sorry you felt like I abandoned your education when we chose to unschool. I’m sorry I didn’t see how alone you felt, how much you preferred structure to what I saw as a grand educational vision. I’m sorry, too, that you didn’t have a say in your education until high school. Sadly, it’s that way for all kids. They typically do follow the educational choices of the parents—no matter what path they choose and offer. How frustrating that must be to you to see that we chose such a different path than the one you are on now.”
I went on. I wanted him to know that I didn’t need him to defend homeschooling or to prefer it to his current schooling. I didn’t need him to homeschool his own future kids. I didn’t even need him to appreciate what I saw as gifts to his education that he gained through homeschooling, even if he couldn’t see them or didn’t or wouldn’t ever.
All I wanted him to know was that I “got it.” He was disappointed in his past education at my hands, and worried about his future in education because of it.
“I’m sorry” only began to cover it.
I did add one thing once I felt he had heard my apology. I told Jacob: “Even if it isn’t now, I do hope that some day, even if you continue to judge homeschooling as inadequate for educating your young, you will be able to at least understand my process—why I took that risk, why I believed in homeschooling, why I made a deliberate conscientious choice to buck the system and keep you kids home.”
He accepted that comment.
It’s been five years since that dinner. Jacob’s academic career is a rocket jet. He’s not been held back in the least by home education. But even more—he came to a much more rapid awareness of how it created the person he is today than I expected. I’m grateful, and humbled.
We can discuss this painful passage now because I took it then (and because he had the courage to risk telling me the truth).
I share this story because I’m aware of how difficult it is to simply stand in the strength of your choices while being blown back by the strength of a child’s disapproval of your decisions. Is there anything harder to hear? Anything you want more to defend against?
The most difficult part is the apology. It feels like you are denying your most deeply held convictions. But you’re not. You’re honoring the most deeply felt experiences of your child—the ones presenting themselves today (not for all time).
If you can hang in through the recounting of pain, if you can validate the perceptions by simply accepting them, and if you can then offer a sincere “I’m sorry,” you may be able to create space for new experiences and insights to grow…for both of you!
I did learn, too. Some of my decisions were not as well-conceived as others and I have reports from my kids that help me know which ones were mistakes.
It’s okay to admit that. I don’t have to defend every homeschooling decision I’ve ever made as the best one. We take risks. Some work out better than others.
Life is just like that!
We do the best we can, at the time, and adjust when we know to adjust. That’s all any of us do.
Go forth and apologize without fear. It’s good for all concerned.
Cross-posted on facebook.