Children do not naturally come wired with the ability to ask for or extend forgiveness. And yet, as parents, we expect (desperately hope?) that our kids will miraculously develop hearts that selflessly pardon both one another and their peers.
But that’s not how it works.
Just as we meticulously teach our children how to say “please,” “thank you,” and “excuse me,” we must also methodically instruct them how to exercise forgiveness.
When teaching a new concept, the first step is to learn the lingo. At first, the terminology means very little. Most toddlers uttering “puh-weez” to get a cookie, for example, hardly understand what they are saying. Instead, they mimic their parents in anticipation of enjoying a sweet treat.
After much repetition (dozens? hundreds? thousands of times??), children no longer need a parent’s prompting to say “please” — and eventually (praise God) they actually seem to comprehend not only the how, but the why in saying it.
In the same way, parents must demonstrate the language of forgiveness to their children.
One mistake parents make (myself included), is guiding children to say only “I’m sorry” when they have committed an offense. While this phrase is a start, leaving it there begs a response from the offended, and that response is typically, “That’s okay.”
But really, little Johnny’s decision to smack his brother in the head because his brother was playing with his truck ISN’T okay, and teaching the “I’m sorry — it’s okay” conversational pattern doesn’t get at the heart of the matter.
Instead, when (ahem… not if, but when) our children commit an offense, we need to instruct them to ask for forgiveness. Here’s what a lesson might look like:
Johnny’s dad: Johnny, it was not kind and loving of you to hit your brother. Please ask him to forgive you. Say to him, “I’m sorry for hitting you. Will you please forgive me?”
Johnny to his brother: I am sorry for hitting you. Will you please forgive me?
Johnny’s dad to Johnny: Great job, Johnny!
Johnny’s dad to the brother: Johnny is asking you to forgive him. God asks that we forgive others when they wrong us. Say, “I forgive you, Johnny.”
Johnny’s brother: I forgive you Johnny.
Johnny’s dad: Great job!
Note that the language of forgiveness requires three simple steps for the offender:
Expressing sorrow. Saying the phrase “I’m sorry” is appropriate as it communicates sadness, and expressing sorrow when we have hurt someone is good. But as mentioned before, we need to take care not to let the process stop there.
Naming the offense. Next, asking our children to articulate their offenses encourages them to become behaviorally self-reflective. At first, a parent may need to give a child words for each offense. For example, a mother may instruct her daughter by saying, “Please tell your sister what you did that needs her forgiveness. Please say, ‘I am sorry for taking your clothes without asking’ or ‘I am sorry for eating your candy even though you asked me not to.’”
Requesting forgiveness. If we want our children to grow accustomed to asking for forgiveness, we should require that they use the words, “Please forgive me.” At first, these words may sound awkward, but after time they will become familiar.
Finally, the language of forgiveness requires one simple step from the offended:
Extending forgiveness. When someone says, “Please forgive me,” the natural response is, “I forgive you.” Unlike the response, “That’s okay,” “I forgive you” is a phrase that offers undeserved pardon — just like Jesus did (and does) for us.
Ideally, we want our children to “bear with each other and forgive one another” and to “forgive as the Lord forgave” them (Colossians 3:13). This is why “I’m sorry” isn’t enough; this is why we must take the time to teach our children the language of forgiveness.
How about you? What insights do you have in regard to teaching children how to forgive one another? I’d love to hear your ideas in the comments below.