As parents, we know it's second rate – a rote performance that lacks real heart. It’s a three-part act that goes something like this:

Older child glares at their sibling, brow furrowed, arms crossed.

Say you're sorry, we urge.

Long seconds pass, then finally the apology comes – but it’s more like a reluctant surrender: Alright, alright. I'm sorry.

Younger child’s response is equally graceless: Okay, but don't ever 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, Christlike forgiveness – a forgiveness that restores relationships. Parents recognize this, but still wonder, Where do I take this from here?

One helpful approach is to explore what your kids already know about forgiveness, and check for misunderstandings. 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 #1: Forgiveness is not fair

Truth: Forgiveness is better than fair

Around the age of five or six, children start developing a strong sense of justice. Without guidance, this can lead to a tit-for-tat mindset that sees nothing wrong with the notion, If you hurt me, I have a right to hurt you back. Kids thinking along these lines will struggle with the idea of forgoing vengeance and showing forgiveness instead.

Fortunately, that strong sense of justice also works in our favour. When the gospel is explained carefully, elementary age children can quickly grasp that God does not treat them as they deserve. Stacked up against all their sins, His forgiveness is not fair – it's immeasurably better than fair!

To help your kids, provide regular reminders of just how "unfair" God’s treatment of us is – that is, just how much we’ve been forgiven – to steer them toward a humble perspective and a readiness to forgive. You may find the following object lesson useful, as shared by psychologist Dr. Juli Slattery on a Focus on the Family broadcast discussing forgiveness in children:

"One of our kids did something wrong and they had a consequence. . . . My husband had told them, ‘You need to do 15 push-ups.’ Then my husband gets on the floor and he says, ‘But you know what, I’m going to do all your push-ups for you . . . because I want to show you mercy. I took your punishment for you, and that’s what Jesus has done for us.’ "

Misunderstanding #2: Forgiveness is kinda optional

Truth: God says we must forgive

We hope our kids will forgive because they are motivated, first and foremost, by love and gratitude: by their love for God, and in gratitude for the forgiveness they enjoy through Christ’s sacrifice. At the same time however, we need to impress on our kids that it’s also an issue of obedience.

Kids need a clear understanding of key passages like Matthew 5:23-24, Matthew 6:9-15, Matthew 18:21-35 and Mark 11:25. Stated bluntly, these passages teach that a lack of forgiveness is sin – both forgiveness withheld and forgiveness not sought – and it makes God angry.

Misunderstanding #3: 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 themself, adding it atop the original wound. In her book, Wounded By God’s People, Anne Graham Lotz admits to finding new freedom to forgive when she realized "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 (that make it harder to recognize promptings from the Holy Spirit)
  • evil, vengeful thoughts (that Satan loves to use to make matters even worse)
  • unhappy memories of past hurts
  • bitter thoughts (that can make them physically ill).

Misunderstanding #4: 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. Jesus asks us to forgive as often as necessary, even up to 77 times (as in Matthew 18:22). But when there’s no evidence of repentance, 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 behaviour. 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. Dr. 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 #5: 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, 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.

This option, however, should come with a couple of conditions attached. The child should also commit to:

  • pray that the Holy Spirit will provide those feelings of forgiveness in their heart
  • provide clear closure within a reasonable time frame, decisively letting the other person know that "everything is okay between us." (As the parent, you should check to make sure both conditions are met.)

Misunderstanding #6: 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):

  1. Expressing regret  – "I'm sorry for . . ." (Be specific about what you alone did and acknowledge the hurt you caused.)
  2. Accepting responsibility  – "I was wrong."
  3. Making restitution  – "What can I do to make it right?"
  4. Genuinely repenting  – "I'll try not to do that again."
  5. Requesting forgiveness  – "Will you please forgive me?"

And when kids have been apologized to and have promised their forgiveness, what are their obligations? Ken Sande (author of Peacemaking for Families) and his wife, Corlette, have some very practical pointers called The Four Promises of Forgiveness that are well worth reviewing.

Catherine Wilson is an associate editor at Focus on the Family Canada.

© 2014 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.

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