"But Mummy, he's wrong!"
Parent: Say you’re sorry.
Older child: (Long pause, glares at sibling, arms crossed) Ok, ok! I’m sorry.
Younger child: Ok, but don’t do that again!
When we’re in a rush and desperate to keep the peace, this superficial display of forgiveness may just have to be “good enough” for the moment. But at the same time, we recognize its weaknesses. Such hastily brokered treaties don’t teach our kids much about true forgiveness. Often, one child is left still hurting. His feelings haven’t been appropriately acknowledged or respected, and he may even remain bent on revenge. The other child learns nothing about humility, or how to repair relationships.
Over the long term, kids need far more intensive coaching if they’re to learn how to give and receive genuine, forgiveness – a forgiveness that restores relationships. Many kids – and adults too – are confused about forgiveness, and that confusion hampers their ability to give and receive grace. When you consider your children, could they be struggling with some of these misconceptions?
Misunderstanding: Forgiveness means my hurt doesn’t matter
Truth: Forgiveness should acknowledge the hurt
When someone says “I’m sorry,” the standard reply is, “That’s okay.” But this response can be a stumbling block for some kids. To them, “That’s okay” amounts to an admission that what the other person did was acceptable. A better first response to teach kids might be, “Thank you for your apology... ” It’s fine for kids to also add, “I was really hurt by what you did.”
It may help kids get past their hurt to understand that, when they hold on to unforgiveness, they heap even more misery on themselves, adding it atop the original wound. Forgiveness doesn’t make the other person right, it makes you free.
Help your child identify “before and after feelings,” so they recognize how forgiveness frees them from the misery of dwelling on angry thoughts, vengeful thoughts, unhappy memories of past hurts and bitter thought, which research has shown can make one physically ill when dwelling on these.
Misunderstanding: Forgiveness makes you a pushover
Truth: Forgiveness isn’t foolhardy
Forgiveness means “I give up my right to take revenge.” It does not mean “I give up my right to expect change.” When there’s no evidence of repentance by the one causing the hurt, we don’t have to leave ourselves vulnerable to repeated hurt. Kids should know that there may come a time when they have to say, “I’m still being hurt by your behavior. So for now, I’m putting limits in place to protect myself.”
On the flip side, we need to diligently call our kids to account whenever their apology seems insincere. Psychologist and author, Dr Juli Slattery, recalls challenging her teen son with, “Are you really sorry? Do you know what that felt like for [your brother] when you embarrassed him in front of his friends? Tell me what that felt like.”
Although forgiveness ought to be given freely, with no strings attached, you might want to encourage your kids to make a voluntary act of restitution whenever they are forgiven – some small act of kindness that shows their sincerity and appreciation of their forgiveness.
Misunderstanding: Forgiveness is supposed to be immediate
Truth: Forgiveness can take time
Some children are able to forgive readily. Others take longer to overcome their wounds. Kids in this second group may feel uncomfortably hypocritical if we expect them, “on the spot,” to offer a forgiveness that they don’t yet feel.
If it’s appropriate for your family, you may want to teach your kids that forgiveness may take time – and it’s okay to ask for it. In practice, you might coach a hurting child to say something like, “You are important to me, and I choose to forgive you. But I need some time alone so my feelings can catch up with my choice.”
In this option, however, the child should also commit to provide clear closure within a reasonable time frame, and decisively let the other person know that everything is okay (as the parent, you should check to make sure this condition is met).
Misunderstanding: Forgiveness means saying “I’m sorry”
Truth: A proper apology is a little more complicated – and a lot more effective
It’s important for kids to realize that someone hurt by their actions needs to hear much more than just “I’m sorry.” Among other things, they need to “show that they know” how deeply the other person was hurt. In their book, The Five Languages of Apology, Gary Chapman and Jennifer Thomas describe five elements of a good apology. Here’s a very brief description of those elements. (Young children might do best to start with just parts 1, 3 and 5):
- Expressing regret – “I’m sorry for... ” (Be specific about what you alone did and acknowledge the hurt you caused)
- Accepting responsibility – “I was wrong.”
- Making restitution – “What can I do to make it right?”
- Genuinely repenting – “I’ll try not to do that again.”
- Requesting forgiveness – “Will you please forgive me?”
Most of all, the best way to teach your child is by modeling – asking for forgiveness and showing forgiveness within the family. Contrary to what many people think – that forgiveness is a “loss of face” or a show of weakness, modeling forgiveness to your child is a display of strength that brings freedom.
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