The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is an attribute of the strong.
– Mahatma Gandhi
“Sammy took my Star Wars Lego out of my hand today at indoor recess. But I forgave him. He loves them too.” relayed my six year old son last week. “How do you know about forgiveness?” I asked surprised. “Because you talked about it,” he said with an implied “of course, you know” tone. I marvel at what sticks sometimes and what does not. I was fortunate that the word and the meaning behind it “stuck” this time. It was a reminder to me to continue to use the language of forgiveness because as he grows older the issues will only grow more complex and the need for forgiveness will only increase.
Forgiveness is defined as a voluntary process that involves an individual’s change in emotion or attitude regarding someone who has offended them.1 The person who has been offended has to make a decision to hold the person harmless and not desire retaliation of any kind. Though often addressed in religious circles, there seems less discussion about forgiveness as a social construct. Yet as children grow and develop, conflict will be a regular part of their relationships. Being able to forgive and move on is a critical skill to practice in friendships and in family life. If all is forgiven, then past hurts or poor behavioral choices are not brought up in the heat of an argument. If the past is forgiven, children and parents always start anew and have the chance to make the best choices for all involved.
One of the finest examples of forgiveness in my opinion is the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa. An entire nation decided that forgiveness was the central vehicle for dealing with the aftermath of apartheid in order to repair the significant damage done. The Commission states “The conflict during this period resulted in violence and human rights abuses from all sides. No section of society escaped these abuses.”2 People who committed the abuses had to openly discuss their acts of violence and seek forgiveness from those whom they offended. And in the face of their abusers, many were able to forgive. The strength and courage of those people is immeasurable.
Raising confident, socially aware and competent children means that we give them the tools to make responsible decisions considering the consequences to themselves and others. But when they make mistakes or others make mistakes that hurt them, they also have the support, practice and strength to forgive and move on. Here are some simple ways to begin encouraging forgiveness in your family’s daily routine.
Incorporate the language of forgiveness. After a disagreement with your partner that your children have witnessed, let them know that you have forgiven one another and have moved on. This modeling will be one of the most powerful lessons you can provide for them. Also offer forgiveness to your child after they have caused harm. And most importantly, move on. The mistakes in the past stay in the past not to be brought up as an accusation at a later date. Children who feel they have a “record” of past wrongs can get into a negative choice cycle assuming that those poor decisions are a part of their identity. Parents who are able to move on offer children a clean slate and the opportunity to make the best choices moving forward.
Model empathy. As you discuss family member’s or friend’s problems, make sure you include empathetic comments. “It is so difficult on the family that Grandpa decided to stop communicating with your Uncle Fred. But we love Grandpa and we love Uncle Fred. We know they are going through a hard time right now. We will offer support to both of them.”
Facilitate dialogue on problem solving between siblings and with friends. If children are guided through a problem solving process – defining the problem, articulating their feelings, understanding the other person’s feelings, generating solutions and trying one out – they can more easily forgive and move on. For more on facilitating problem solving with children, check out the previous post “Working It Out.”
Give your children opportunities to repair harm done. Children may feel bad about themselves after they have made a poor choice and harmed another. Perhaps they struggled with controlling their impulses. Sometimes in that moment children can feel overwhelmed as if all of the important people in their lives are mad at them and like nothing they can do or say can make things better. Help them practice making good choices after they have caused harm. You might say, “Let’s think of ways we can make this better.” Then offer support as they fix a broken toy, repair a ripped book or offer a popsicle to a child they knocked down. I often find myself saying to E when a friend gets hurt, “Go check on him. Ask if he’s okay or if he needs a bandaid.” The more practice children get thinking about and putting caring energy into repairing damage, the better equipped they will be for situations in which serious damage has occurred and they need to be strong and make better choices. And in turn, when they have been hurt, they will be more ready to give a second chance to their offender. In addition, discuss the consequences of not forgiving. “If you do not forgive Sammy for taking your Lego piece, what will happen to your friendship?”
There will be plenty of opportunities for forgiveness if children receive guidance from an adult. Those experiences will assist them in becoming more empathetic people and perhaps, stronger and gentler with themselves and others.
For another article on forgiveness, check out:
From Maurice Elias, Lessons in SEL; Forgiveness and Gratitude
1 American Psychological Association (2006). Forgiveness: A Sampling of Research Results. Washington, D.C.: Office of Internal Affairs. Reprinted 2008.
2 The Official Truth and Reconciliation Website. Retrieved on March 12, 2014.