How Do We Teach Our Kids About Forgiveness?

Originally Published: 

By now you probably already know that the best way to start an argument between your kids is to take a shower. You can turn on the TV, set them up with a time-consuming craft, or leave them playing quietly (okay, maybe not quietly but happily), and the minute you step into that little slice of steamy bliss, something goes awry. Best parenting advice ever: Never take showers.

I was almost finished. I stood under the hot water thinking about the day ahead as my hair soaked in the conditioner. Perhaps I was stalling for time a little bit. Just as I began to rinse my hair, I heard the crash of falling blocks followed by sobs. I heard my daughter running up the stairs, hysteria lining her voice, coming to tell me about her brother’s latest infraction. I can almost guarantee that it wasn’t intentional—that he simply didn’t look where he was going—but that doesn’t erase the hurt of hard work knocked over in an instant. She wanted me to see it first. And then, just behind her, her brother came barreling in, “Forgive me! Forgive me! You have to forgive me!” Tears streaming down his face, he glanced back and forth between the two of us before finally collapsing in a sobbing heap at my feet, “I didn’t mean to wreck it.”

Forgiveness, at its core, is a shift in thinking. That hurt that caused you so much emotional pain might always be a part of your life, but letting go of the feelings associated with it can bring you internal peace. What kids need to learn from an early age is that forgiveness is a conscious choice to reframe the thought process. No one can force you to forgive someone who wronged you (although they might coerce you to utter words of forgiveness), but in making that choice to be forgiving, you free yourself from negative emotions. When you choose to let go of feelings of ill will, you can move forward with a positive focus. You might or might not choose to include the offender in your life moving forward, but you no longer have to hold on to the feelings that dragged you down.

Here are some tips for teaching forgiveness:

Release Frustration

When we run in with a quick fix for the problem or try to dismiss it in order to keep the peace at a playdate, we don’t allow our children to express their emotions. When children are forced to bottle up their negative emotions, they experience stress. And there is nothing happy about living with stress.

Anger is a perfectly acceptable emotion, and there is no harm in expressing that anger in an appropriate way. Getting nose-to-nose with a friend and screaming for all to hear won’t help the situation, but pulling your child aside and encouraging her to clap her hands, stomp her feet or yell into a pillow gives her a moment to release those feelings of frustration.

Once that initial moment of anger or frustration passes, kids feel calm and are more open to working through the actual situation. When kids are allowed to experience, rather than stifle, their feelings in response to stress, they feel heard and understood and experience greater happiness as a result.

Acknowledge What Happened

When parents dismiss a problem as no big deal or say that their children are simply being dramatic, kids feel sad and frustrated as a result. What parents often describe as overreacting is a child’s way of letting them know that something isn’t right. They’ve been wronged, and they want their parents to know. Just like adults, kids crave validation when their feelings are hurt. They need to vent their emotions and receive understanding in return (sound familiar?) so that they can open their hearts to forgiveness.

Instead of downplaying minor infractions or relying on distraction to put an end to the upset feelings, show some support. Talk about what happened and label your child’s feelings. Provide some much-needed empathy by telling your child that you understand. Share a story about a time that you felt the same way.

Model Forgiveness

Children internalize a lot of what they see and hear in the safety of their own homes. When parents are short-tempered with one another in the face of frustration, for example, children are likely to repeat that behavior with siblings and/or friends. If parents exhibit good listening skills during times of frustration, however, children learn to listen first and respond later. While we can’t make the generalization that parental behavior in the home causes all negative behavior seen in children, we do know that children of all ages soak up our behaviors and take their cues from us.

Show forgiveness with your partner, your extended family and your friends. Talk about the times that you have felt hurt and what you did to let go of the negative emotions that resulted from that experience. A little bit of honesty with an age-appropriate spin can go a long way toward normalizing the process of forgiveness for your children. Forgiving your partner for a mistake made during the week shows your kids that, yes, people mess up sometimes, but that doesn’t mean that the relationship is negatively impacted for life. It simply means that you need to hit the reset button once in a while.

When something happens that can’t be repaired, it’s still important to show your children that you can find forgiveness in your heart.

Sometimes you have to forgive the ones you love for little things. Other times you are forced to forgive complete strangers for big things. Either way, making the choice to forgive and let go frees your soul to get back to the good stuff that awaits. And that’s a lesson worth teaching.

Image courtesy Katie Hurley

This piece is adapted from The Happy Kid Handbook by Katie Hurley with the permission of Tarcher Perigee, an imprint of Penguin Random House. Copyright © 2015 by Katie Hurley.

This article was originally published on