You can’t really teach someone how to forgive others, but you can help kids learn forgiveness on their own. A recent study shared two ways to do just that. It offered great advice, but I think it also left a few things out. Let’s discuss.
How to Help Kids Learn to Forgive & Be More Compassionate
The other day, I was browsing through new studies and came across this one about how to help kids learn forgiveness. The topic was already on my mind, so it was really perfect timing. As I said above, I thought it offered some great advice… but at the same time, it missed some crucial aspects of forgiving others. Let’s start by looking at what the study said, then we’ll talk about where the tips both hit and missed the mark just a bit.
New Study Tells Parents How to Help Kids Learn Forgiveness
Kelly Lynn Mulvey, an associate professor at the North Carolina State University wanted to find out what makes some kids more likely to forgive than others. So, she did what any good researcher does. She went straight to the source: kids themselves.
Mulvey and her team rounded up 185 kids total, all between ages 5-14. After getting some baseline info, they gave kids different scenarios, including one where the kids were either in a specific group or out of it, and one where they were left out of a game (both within their own group and by the other group). The goal was to see which kids forgave the slight and why.
Overall, researchers found that kids were more likely to forgive someone after a genuine apology, especially if that child was part of their group. Based on this, they concluded that the best ways to help kids learn forgiveness were to teach them how to genuinely apologize, and how to be more accepting of different perspectives. Great advice, but I still think something is missing from each one. Let’s start with teaching kids to apologize.
Teach your kids to apologize AND to accept one in return
As Mulvey explains, kids are highly capable of recognizing a real apology, and they’re unlikely to forgive someone who offers them a watered-down version of one filled with “buts” and excuses. She said that a good and genuine one “…needs to make clear that someone understands why what they did was wrong. This, in turn, makes other kids more likely to give them a second chance.”
I think we parents are masters at teaching our kids the art of apologizing. I can’t count the number of times I’ve said over the years, “Say you’re sorry. Now say it like you mean it.” So, let’s jump ahead to what’s missing: the second – and harder- part of the equation: teaching kids to accept an apology.
Forgiveness isn’t really something that comes naturally to us. If you think about it, it kind of makes sense. One of our most basic human instincts is to protect ourselves from pain. When something hurts us, we quickly learn to avoid it (unless, like childbirth, we’re rewarded with something that makes the pain totally worthwhile).
Forgiving someone for hurting us goes completely against that instinct. To our subconscious, it’s like telling a searing-hot flame, “I know you burned me before, but I’m willing to accept that you’ve changed and I trust that you won’t burn me again.”
Consciously, of course, we know that people can change. They grow, they learn, and they become better versions of themselves. They’re not mindless objects like a flame that will always burn us. So, while they could hurt us again, they also might not.
That is the lesson we need to impart to our kids if we want to help them learn how to accept an apology. We need to teach them when to listen to that instinct that tells them to avoid pain and when to override it.
The best way to do that is, of course, to lead by example. The next time your child genuinely apologizes for something, accept it. Later, when emotions aren’t quite so high, explain to them why you accepted it, and what makes you trust that they won’t repeat the same mistake again. Help them make the connection and understand that people really do learn from the past, so it’s okay to take a chance on them again.
Help kids understand AND show compassion for other perspectives
According to Mulvey, the second thing we parents need to focus on is helping our kids understand different perspectives. Mulvey writes, “A good starting point is getting kids to explain the rationale behind their actions and how this might make other people feel. Helping young people develop these skills in childhood will aid them in navigating a diverse and complex world.”
I agree, that’s a good starting point. Again, though, I think we should go deeper. Understanding rationally that people think and do things differently isn’t enough. They also need to have compassion for other perspectives.
The next time your child tells you about something that someone else did wrong to them, ask them why they think that person did it. Don’t play “devil’s advocate” or anything, your kids don’t need to feel like you’re taking sides against them. Just have an open discussion about it.
Maybe Susie is mad because Sally yelled at her and said something unkind while they were playing. Sally genuinely apologized, but Susie isn’t sure she should accept. Ask Susie if she thinks Sally is truly sorry. Then, ask her why she thinks Sally shouted at her.
Perhaps Sally was having a really bad day, or something is going on in her life that made her short-tempered. Maybe she was just really tired or didn’t feel well. Instead of holding a grudge against someone who is truly sorry, wouldn’t it be better to show compassion? After all, sometimes Susie has a bad day, too, and lashes out without meaning it.
Most important of all, model forgiveness yourself
I’ve mentioned this already throughout, but it definitely deserves its own section. The absolute best way to help kids learn forgiveness is to model it yourself. When they mess up (and as kids, they definitely will mess up at some point), accept their genuine apologies. For example, imagine that your daughter yells “I hate you!” after you wouldn’t let her go to a friend’s house. She immediately (and truly) apologizes and says she didn’t mean it. She explains that she just let her anger get the best of her and vows to do better in the future.
First, let her know that she hurt your feelings. It’s important for kids to understand that words have consequences and that a real apology needs to acknowledge those consequences. Then, tell her that you believe she genuinely feels bad for causing you pain and that she learned from her mistake. Last, tell her that you appreciate her apology and that you accept it.
Let your kids see you forgive others, too. If they overhear you and your spouse arguing, let them “overhear” you apologizing to and forgiving each other. When someone cuts you off in traffic, instead of yelling, let your kids hear you say, “Oh, that makes me so mad! But maybe they’re in a rush because of an emergency, so I forgive them.” Hey, it’ll also help with your road rage issues, so two birds and all that!
Helping kids learn forgiveness isn’t the easiest job we parents have. As I said, it’s not really something that comes naturally to most of us. But if we want to truly raise amazing kids who will grow up and change the world, it’s definitely one lesson that we can’t skip.