5 Things to Teach Your Kids about Forgiveness

Forgiveness blogographic

Much as we would love for our kids to pass through life without ever being hurt or offended, that’s not possible. At one point or another, usually starting from a very young age, our kids are going to be in situations that require forgiveness.

This works in both ways. They need to learn how to forgive; they also need to learn how to accept forgiveness from others.

As parents, we need to have a thorough understanding ourselves of what forgiveness means in order to teach it effectively to our children.

The phrase “forgive and forget” is often used to sum up the act of forgiving, but doesn’t actually touch upon the nature of forgiving at all. Forgiveness is much more nuanced than simply letting go and moving on.

Forgive and forget is often presented as a Christian philosophy of forgiveness to the extent that many people believe it is something from the Bible. It’s not. It’s from Shakespeare (King Lear, Act 4). I don’t say that to devalue the phrase (Shakespeare happens to be one of my favorite authors), but to point out that it was never meant to be a philosophy of forgiveness. It was simply a phrase uttered by King Lear – at most, one possible interpretation of what forgiveness entails.

Forgive and forget is a convenient idea – a closed package that allows you to give your neighbor their due in forgiveness and move on. Case closed. Both sides happy.

But it usually doesn’t work this way. In cases when the offended party has been deeply hurt physically, spiritually or emotionally, “forgetting” is unlikely. If forgetting is a necessary part of the equation for forgiveness, the offended party then becomes burdened with another sort of guilt – the fear that they haven’t truly forgiven because they didn’t forget the offense. Is that fair to the offended party? Or is it possible that they forgave, even though the memory of the offense has become part of their identity (this is only natural; the past cannot be changed)?

But if we don’t have to forget, doesn’t that mean we’re still holding a grudge somewhere deep down?

These are very real, and often time complex questions related to the nature of forgiveness. Ultimately, forgiveness is a very personal reality that can’t fully be “taught”. It must be experienced.

That being said, I do think there are a few ideas we can teach our children regarding forgiveness that will help them learn how to forgive and sort through some of these questions regarding what forgiveness really means. Some of this is heavy stuff. It’s not something a three year old is going to learn when you first teach him to “forgive” the friend who broke his toy. But these are ideas to keep in mind and teach your children as they grow and start experiencing, or witnessing situations that require forgiveness.

1. Forgiveness is a process, not an isolated action. We often talk about forgiveness as one action. The “forgive and forget” mentality emphasizes this, treating forgiveness as something that occurs in a moment of time. In reality, however, forgiveness, especially for severe offenses, often takes time and occurs in phases.  If we are able to forgive someone quickly, it’s a blessing, but it it’s taking us longer to work it out, it doesn’t mean that we aren’t forgiving. We’re going through the process.

2. Forgiveness is a virtue, not a feeling. It is something we DECIDE to do. Our feelings might not follow immediately, but if we stick to our decision and continue reminding ourselves of it, our feelings of anger can diminish, whether in a given moment of time, or gradually over a longer period of time. Even once our anger has diminished, pain might well remain. That’s fine. There’s no contradiction in forgiving but continuing to feel pain. Jesus on the cross is the epitome of forgiveness – even in that moment, he had fully forgiven us of our sins, but is, at the same time, suffering because of our sins. Pain and forgiveness can coexist.

3. Forgiveness is not the same as “reconciliation”.  I have sometimes heard people saying, “I would love to forgive so-and-so, but I just can’t. I’m not ready for our relationship to continue.” Forgiving someone is not the same as reconciling with them. Forgiveness is someone we do to, whether or not the other person is involved, and whether or not we plan on continuing a friendship. It’s easiest to forgive when the offending party recognizes their mistake and asks for forgiveness, but even if they don’t, we can still forgive them. Forgiving them for an offense, however, does not compel us to go about “business as usual.” Forgiveness does not require us to turn a blind eye toward offenses, particularly if they are grave and/or repeated.

4. We often say that the Bible tells us to forgive. Very true. It even tells us to forgive repeatedly –seventy times seven times. But we can’t read that verse of Scripture in isolation. The Bible tells us many other things too, including the importance of being “wise as serpents but simple as doves”. These two verses do not contradict each other; we can be prudent and forgive at the same time. The Bible tells us to forgive, but it also tells us to be prudent. Forgiving doesn’t always mean forgetting. Sometimes, it would be irresponsible to forget what happened, especially if the offense is a form of violence or abuse. We still need to forgive the perpetrator, but don’t need to put ourselves in the position to be harmed again, especially if there is no reason to believe the person has repented or changed.

5. Forgiveness CAN involve forgetting. Although “forgive and forget” doesn’t always work, there are situations that can be truly forgiven and forgotten, such as when the offense is an accident, or very little harm is done. “Forgetting” usually means two things. Our memory is a reality, and it’s next to impossible to deliberately remove something from our memory entirely, but we can “forget” offenses we’ve forgiven in two ways: 1) treat the other person as though the offense never occurred and 2) refrain from bringing the offense up and rehashing it over and over again with the other person or in your mind.

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3 thoughts on “5 Things to Teach Your Kids about Forgiveness

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