We'd gotten home with a guest's heavy suitcase and no place to park. I lugged the suitcase out of the back and set it down, and my teenage foster son offered to carry it up. I've always been proud of my strength, sensitive about this particular male/female role issue, and I retorted without even thinking: "So, you want to show off your muscles?" He said no, he just knew I needed to park the car.

As I went off to do that and he carried the suitcase up the steps, I saw clearly that I'd done him a disservice. He's always respected my abilities--physical and mental--and never made assumptions about what I could or couldn't do on the basis of my sex. Maybe I had a right to be mad at a lot of other people, or at a whole system that trains us into narrow roles, but I didn't have a right to be mad at him. Clearly he deserved an apology.

But was he going to get one? That was an awkward question. And why was it even a question? What makes us so reluctant to apologize to our children?

I guess apologies are hard in general. No one likes to admit they've made a mistake, or that they've been "bad." But there's more with our children. Somehow we're more invested in being right. It feels like acknowledging a mistake may erode our authority, or diminish us somehow in their eyes. And, as adults, we can get away with not apologizing. We can avoid the discomfort of admitting that we've been at fault. Our children are not in a strong enough position to demand it.

The best of us do things to them that they don't deserve. We yell at them because we need to yell at somebody and they're handy. We say things without thinking because that's what was said to us as children. We blame them for things that weren't their fault.

In one way, it's no big deal. Our children, we feel, should know that we love them and are doing our best. They should realize that we can't always be perfect. I think they do. I think they forgive us readily for many of our lapses and mistakes, that their love is undiminished. But what is the result? They get to see us defending behavior that there's no good reason to defend. They learn the model of getting away thing things when we have the edge in the power dynamic. They learn fear of admitting mistakes. They see us not standing up for the little guy. And I think every time that happens we get a little cheapened, we lose a little bit of ourselves.

I thought of how wonderful it was listening to a grandmother friends of mine remembering how she'd dealt with this issue. She realized as a young mother that when she'd been unjust to her children, she could do a rerun. "Oops. That's not the way I meant to do it. Let me try again." I thought of all the times that would come in handy. "Oops, let me try that again. I didn't mean to yell. I meant to say that I'm really feeling rushed and wish you'd help out by closing the door." "Oops. I didn't realize that you were trying to help. That's great, and if you do it this way it will work even better." And now: "Oops. What I really meant was thanks for taking care of that suitcase so I can park."

I hadn't caught this one quite that soon. But when I got back from parking the car, I apologized to my son--and felt better as a result. It was as if glass that had gotten smudged was made sparkly clean again.