Five Essential Words for every Parent, Leader, Lover and Friend.

What words are good good leaders, lovers and parents quick to say?

What words should good leaders, lovers and parents be quick to say?

While doing research for my book “How To Live with Your Kids when You’ve Already Lost Your Mind,” I surveyed 600 teenagers and asked the question, “What are the words you most want to hear from your parents?  Of course their first choice of words were “I love you.”

It was their second choice that made the most impact on me and made me a better dad, husband and leader.  Take a guess at what the second choice of words were and then read on.

The second most important words teenagers wanted to hear from their parents were, “I’m sorry, I was wrong.”  I almost wished I hadn’t looked at the survey.  Those are some of the hardest words for a human being to utter. But if you want to be trusted and respected, they are some of the most important words you can learn to say.  Here is why:

People who admit their imperfections are much quicker to make the corrections necessary to be a good leader.  That’s why it is healthy—and necessary—to maintain a sense of humor about ourselves.  Parenthood and leadership are booby-trapped with emotional and intellectual mine fields that are best negotiated by people who can admit and laugh about their imperfections rather than stomping around in defensive ignorance. Imperfection can only be corrected when it is identified.

Pretending you’re perfect, when everybody knows your not, stifles communication and inflicts casualties of conflict and guilt in those around you.  I tell parents the same thing I tell leaders.  ” Not only is it okay for your children to see that you make mistakes, it is essential to their well-being that they hear you admit it.

An angry man approached me after one of my seminars. “I would never apologize to my children or admit that I’d been wrong,” he blustered. “It would erode my authority.”  What?  This was insecurity of the highest order on parade.  This man was not teaching respect.  He was teaching his children a paralyzing fear of trying because they might fail.  He was encouraging deception.

Practicing the perception of perfectionism encourages what I call  the Puppy Syndrome.

A man  was having a hard time housebreaking his puppy. The man demanded perfection. Each time he came home to find a mess on the floor, he would rub the dog’s nose in the mistake and throw him down the front steps. A few weeks into the training, the man realized that his approach wasn’t having the desired effect; the bewildered puppy continued to wet the floor, and every time the owner came home, the dog would rub his own nose on the floor, run outside, and roll down the front steps.

Our dog, Heidi, chose a more deceitful route to hide her disgusting misdeeds. She would romp and play as though nothing were wrong but would not even
look in the direction of the room where her evil “duty” lay. If we entered the scene of the crime, she would wait timidly down the hall, peeking around the corner.

It’s  the “puppy syndrome”— a refusal to admit a mistake and  desperate attempts to cover it up at all costs.

Children who don’t see confession modeled, will learn to lie or create their own elaborate schemes to cover up.  They become tiny fake perfectionists.  I have seen tiny fake perfectionists in the workplace.  I occasionally see one in the mirror.

Here’s  the bottom line.  Our children and co-workers know we aren’t perfect. Pretending we are makes us look foolish and weak,  not invincible and strong.

Every day, our children see evidence of parental brain damage and other inconsistencies in our lives. Our refusal to say “I’m sorry” teaches our children that it is not acceptable to confess sins or admit mistakes. The more dangerous and subtle message is: Unless I am perfect, I will not be loved.

Life cannot be lived without making some mistakes.
A life of faith cannot be lived without confessing them and seeking forgiveness.

Your model of vulnerability frees your children and those you lead.

  • It frees them to take the kinds of risks necessary for success.
  • It demonstrates self confidence.
  • I demonstrates your belief in forgiveness
  • It frees those around you to be honest and open.
  • It helps those you lead to live with confidence.
  • I helps your children move toward independence and adulthood.
  • It demonstrates God’s Unconditional Love

A famous line from the old movie Love Story goes, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” It made a great promotional gimmick for a movie, but it is a lousy representation of truth.

Have you seen relationships healed with the words, “I’m sorry?”
Have you ever had to deal with people who practiced the deception of perfection?
If you are a recovering perfectionist like me, how do you find the courage to admit you are wrong?


  1. Well said, Ken. True relationship can only grow in the face of vulnerability. A vulnerability required by God to be reconciled to Him and required by our children if we are to be their strong, loving parent not their dictator.

    I’m not sure I said those exact five words with my children, but I’ve used the word “sorry” and conveyed their meaning in many ways through the years. Today, I am blessed with a wonderful relationship with all four of my children, to God be all the glory!

  2. So true Ken. Over 22 years raising our four beautiful children there have been many times I wished I could have that time over and do things differently. On many occessions I have sat on the bed with whowever I have lost my cool with, and quietly said “I am so sorry. What I did and said was very wrong”. Often they would respond by saying “It’s ok Dad” to which I would assure them that what I did was categorically NOT ok. My hope and prayer is that they will not ‘carry’ whatever the unfounded criticism was and realise it was me with the problem, not them.

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