Why “I’m Sorry” Isn’t Enough: Teaching Our Kids the Language of Forgiveness
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.
i know we want to teach our kids to forgive, but I really don’t like when a kid hits another and immediately asks if the one whose ears are still ringing forgives him. He likely does not forgive him just yet and and ends up being the bad guy if he doesn’t lie..
Agreed, Peggy. I’m so glad you pointed this out because ultimately we want to create an environment where our kids extend and receive authentic forgiveness — not something fake or forced. If a child is not in an emotional place where s/he is ready and willing to forgive, taking time to think about it is appropriate. Eventually — after both children are calm — an adult may need to help both the offended child and the offender work through the altercation so that true reconciliation may take place.
Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts!
How can I make my wrong doing to you?
Teaches the child to fix their mistake (if possible) and teaches person who forgives to be justified and learn mercy.
Even when Jesus confronted sinners he left them with their penance, “Go and sin no more” showing reparation for wrongdoings.
When Jesus commanded demons to come out of people, the demons came out. When Jesus commanded the mute to be opened, they spoke. Since this is the same Jesus who was in the beginning with God and was and is God, who made all things by speaking them into existence, I can’t help but wonder if, when he told the women caught in adultery to go and sin no more, that, rather than expecting her to do that on her own, he may have actually spoke her resistance to adultery into existence for her in the same act of grace with which he forgave her. Whether or not that is so, only God has that kind of power and us willing to use it for us through the Holy Spirit. Though I approve of teaching responsibility, I would hesitate to do it in such a way that might teach a child to earn forgiveness by making restitution. The Holy Spirit convicts us of our sin. True grace-oriented forgiveness inspires us to make restitution that is necessary. The one who forgives gives up the right of restitution and condemnation so that the forgiven offender is empowered and freed to return to the relationship like the prodigal children we all are. Forgiveness is the new covenant in Christ. Restitution is the old covenant of the law, which leads to and demands death as restitution. We now get to be both forgiven and empowered to be reconciled to God and each other, which inspires us to make restitution the way only God knows how and when to do so. We don’t learn mercy by being merciful. We learn mercy by being forgiven, which removes what kept us from being merciful in the first place, if and only if that forgiveness comes from and through the blood of Jesus Christ and our baptism into his death and resurrection, which leaves us with the promised Holy Spirit whose primary fruit is Love. It’s a free gift, and is dishonored and diminished in its grace by any price placed upon it.
We have taught the apology with stating the wrong, as you explained. And have taught our kids to say “I forgive you”, but we run into that same issue as Peggy mentioned…when they are not ready to forgive yet. So for that, they say that they’re not quite ready to forgive yet, Which usually results in the apologizer feeling a bit upset. Our struggle is remembering to remind the offended to go back to the offender later and let them know that they are forgiven. And as kids, they get over it and forget to do that step on their own! Even with that part not being perfect, I still much prefer the lesson they are receiving in how to apologize and how to forgive. I also like that the one apologizing has to acknowledge what they did to upset the other.
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