It all started innocently enough. My 5-year-old said he wanted to make hearts for his grandparents for Grandparents Day, and wouldn’t it be cool if they could be all glittery???
Most days I’d be hesitant about that idea, but for some reason that day I immediately exclaimed, “Sure, let’s get out all the glitter!”
My first mistake, perhaps?
Making the art
So we cut out the hearts, retrieved some bottles of glue, and lined up eight different vials of glitter. My son got to work drawing various designs on the hearts with marker—shapes and spirals and even a bird for his Gigi’s heart—which we then accented with lines of glitter.
My son is to the point where he can pour the glitter carefully, without turning the whole kitchen into a sparkly princess castle, but I sat by and assisted him anyway just in case. I had a long list of to-dos and mopping fairy dust off my table wasn’t about to be one of them.
The project was going well for awhile. But then, the clock began to tick.
My perfectionist son wanted to mix various glitter colors to create a unique shade.
And draw a few more spirals over on the left.
And how about just one more glitter glob over here on the right?
Oh, and did you realize we’re only on heart #1 (and my son has 4 grandparents)?
I admired his attention to detail (not to mention his attention span), while at the same time felt annoyed that a supervised 20-minute project was turning into an entire supervised afternoon. Plus, his Nana was soon stopping by, and my son would be devastated if she saw his project and the surprised were ruined.
But I stayed. And we glittered some more. In the end, his favorite design was still that bird on his heart for Gigi, which now had shiny silver and green wings.
Finally he declared, “I’m all done!” I breathed a sigh of relief and snatched up the hearts. “I’ll sit them on my bedroom dresser to dry,” I called as I dashed up the stairs, deposited the hearts, ran back downstairs, and quickly cleaned up all the supplies.
Ruining the art
We carried on with the rest of our day. But that night, after putting the kids to bed and getting ready to retire myself, I saw what I had done.
In my haste, I had laid the glittery hearts on top of a small pile of clothing heaped on my bedroom dresser.
In other words, I did not lay the wet glitter hearts completely flat.
The glue and the glitter had dripped and run and smudged.
The one for Gigi was especially bad; the beloved glittery bird was now just a glittery blob, its eyes and smiling beak buried under a sparkly streak.
I gasped at the sight of it.
My perfectionist son was going to FREAK OUT when he saw this.
Lying about the art?
I’ll tell you the honest truth: For a split second I considered lying and saying the cat did it.
For another split second I considered never saying a word and praying he forgot about the hearts completely. Except that that wouldn’t happen in a million years.
But I dismissed those thoughts as soon as they came. Our kids make us better people, and with them in the picture, neither of those options were ever really options to me.
Instead, I prepared my apology.
Let me pause here and say that yes, I’m talking about the artwork of a five-year-old. A lay person probably couldn’t tell the difference between the hearts pre- and post-disaster.
And yes, “disaster” is probably a strong word.
But that isn’t the point.
The point is that he worked hard on something and in my race against the clock—a race many of us run every single day of our parenting lives—I did not treat his efforts with the care they deserved.
It would be like if someone erased every third line of this blog post I’m sitting here writing and then saw no need to say sorry, because “it will still make sense anyway.” Perhaps, but…
The idea of parents apologizing to their children is a relatively recent one, I think. Few adults of my generation remember their parents asking for their forgiveness. For a long time it was assumed that the parents were always right and the children always wrong, so apologies only ever had to go one way.
Now we know, however, that children are often our wisest teachers—and parents are as human and fallible as anyone else.
What’s more, I’m learning to see my inevitable parenting missteps as what they really are: opportunities to be open, honest, vulnerable, and REAL with my kids, knowing that it’s our moments of brokenness that draw us closer.
Telling my son that I ruined his glitter hearts was not going to be a Kodak moment. But could it be a transformational one?
Ultimately, I decided to see the situation as an opportunity for me to model for my child a sincere apology.
In other words, an apology that:
- Expresses genuine remorse.
- Explains how the mistake happened without making excuses for it.
- Acknowledges the hurt the mistake caused.
- Offers space for the other person to express that hurt.
- Suggests how to make amends (or attempt to).
- Describes how the mistake will be prevented in the future.
Modeling this kind of apology has a strong bearing on our children’s futures. Research shows that how forgiving our children grow up to be is based partly on the apologies and forgiveness they witness in their childhood homes.
Taking it a step further, I realized it wasn’t just about modeling an apology for my kid; it was also a chance for him to practice extending forgiveness to others.
Repairing the art (and the relationship)
So when he came barreling into my bedroom at 6:59 the next morning, I didn’t waste any time.
I knelt down on the floor so we could be at the same level, and I told him what happened (with totally genuine tears in my eyes, because I really felt that bad about the whole thing).
I am so sorry, buddy. Yesterday I messed up your glitter hearts for Grandparents Day. When I was rushing to put them away, I didn’t lay them flat and the glitter ran down. And now you can’t see the pretty bird you made.
He begins crying.
I’m guessing you feel pretty sad because those were very special hearts that you worked hard on. I should have been more careful with them.
May I hold you while you cry? Next time, I promise to slow down and take a deep breath, so I can treat your artwork with more care.
He cried for awhile, and that was uncomfortable for me but important and necessary for him.
Then, when he was through the tunnel of his sadness, I led him over to my desk, where I had already cut out some more hearts and laid out all the glue and glitter. “Would you like to make a new heart for Gigi?”
He pouted for a bit, declaring that the new heart had to be EXACTLY THE SAME as the old one.
But then a lightbulb turned on and he excitedly got to work, opting to “fix” the old hearts rather than make new ones.
The first thing he did? Add a green stem to a runny gold glitter blob to turn it into a flower.
“Look, Mommy, it’s a beautiful oops!” he squealed.
(A beautiful oops, based on the book by the same name, is how our family describes mistakes that get turned into amazing things.)
“It IS a beautiful oops, buddy! Great job!” I replied.
And then I smiled, knowing that the person who truly made a “beautiful oops” in this story was…me.