How to Cultivate Forgiveness in a Family or Class?


Science has shown that forgiveness — intentionally letting go of angry feelings toward someone who has harmed you — is good for the health and well-being of the forgiver. Beyond individual benefits, forgiveness also plays a crucial role in fostering harmony at home, especially among siblings. Research conducted by Dr. Robert Enright, a leading forgiveness researcher and educational psychologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, suggests that the sibling relationship in childhood predicts their closeness as adults. Therefore, teaching children how to forgive and heal conflicts between siblings is essential for nurturing a lifelong, trusting bond.

In this article, we will explore the importance of forgiveness in the family or classroom setting and provide practical advice from forgiveness researchers and experts on how to cultivate forgiveness among children.

The Benefits of Forgiveness in the Family

  1. Harmony at Home: Forgiveness promotes peaceful and harmonious relationships among family members. When siblings learn to forgive each other, it creates a more positive and supportive environment at home.

  2. Lifelong Bond: The sibling relationship established in childhood often carries over into adulthood. Siblings who trust and forgive each other during their early years are more likely to maintain a strong and close relationship throughout their lives.

  3. Preparation for Life: Teaching children how to forgive within the context of their sibling relationship prepares them for dealing with hurts they will inevitably encounter in life. By practicing forgiveness at home, children develop the necessary skills to navigate conflicts and heal relationships outside the family.

Practical Strategies for Cultivating Forgiveness

1. Don’t Force Forgiveness

Forgiveness cannot be forced or reduced to a formula. It is a personal decision that should be made by the one who has been offended when they are ready. Instead of insisting on immediate forgiveness, acknowledge the hurt that occurred and give the hurt party the space and time they need to process their emotions. If the problem resolves itself naturally without lingering anger, forgiveness may not be necessary. However, if the hurt persists and causes discomfort for the child, that is when forgiveness becomes crucial.

2. Start Small

Teaching forgiveness to children is best approached when they are not in the midst of intense anger or hurt. Begin by introducing forgiveness in smaller conflicts or situations where the stakes are not as high. By doing so, children can gradually build their “forgiveness muscle” and develop a better understanding of the concept. When faced with more significant conflicts, parents can remind their children of previous instances where forgiveness was successful, encouraging them to consider extending forgiveness in the current situation.

3. Teach Forgiveness in a Just Context

One misconception about forgiveness is that it excuses or negates wrongdoing. It is important to emphasize to children that forgiveness does not condone harmful behavior, nor does it replace the pursuit of justice. When a child has been hurt, address the offense in a just manner, ensuring that the child understands forgiveness does not imply that the wrong behavior is acceptable. Instead, forgiveness is a personal choice to let go of hurt and anger, acknowledging that the person who caused the harm is still accountable for their actions.

4. Make it Unconditional

Forgiveness does not require both parties to be on the same timeline or for the offending party to apologize. A child can offer forgiveness to their sibling even if the sibling remains angry and unapologetic. There is no need for specific words or gestures to demonstrate forgiveness. It can be expressed through a kind word, a smile, or an invitation to play. Encourage children to extend forgiveness even when it may not be reciprocated, emphasizing that forgiveness is a gift they can offer regardless of the other person’s response.

5. Be a Model Forgiver

Parents play a critical role in modeling forgiveness for their children. When parents hold onto bitterness and resentment from past hurts, they teach their children to do the same. It is essential for parents to demonstrate forgiveness toward each other, especially in front of their children. This is particularly important in the case of divorce, where children may witness a lack of forgiveness between their parents. Consistently expressing forgiveness through words and actions will help instill this value in children.

6. Practice Forgiveness in Your Relationship with Your Child

Similarly, parents should avoid modeling non-forgiveness when they are angry with their child. Continuously scolding children for past behavior demonstrates resentment and an inability to forgive. It is important for parents to apologize and ask for forgiveness when they make mistakes or say hurtful things to their child. By genuinely seeking forgiveness, parents not only provide a valuable lesson but also offer their child a gift of healing and understanding.

7. Call Out Examples of Forgiveness in Books and Media

Stories provide an excellent opportunity to teach children about forgiveness and different ways to respond to unfair treatment. Read books and watch shows or movies with your child that highlight forgiveness as a theme. Discuss the characters’ actions and emotions, asking questions such as, “How would they feel if they held onto anger? How would forgiveness change their interactions?” By exploring forgiveness in fictional scenarios, children can learn the positive impact forgiveness has on relationships and overall happiness.

8. Write a Note

In situations where angry feelings persist, encourage children to express their emotions through writing. Writing a letter to the person who hurt them can be a therapeutic way for children to process their feelings and gain clarity. Whether or not they choose to give the letter to the offender is optional. The important aspect is for children to articulate their hurt and describe how they felt at the time and how they currently feel. This exercise allows children to express their desires for a different outcome and, if they are ready, extend forgiveness and understanding.

In conclusion, cultivating forgiveness in a family or classroom setting is crucial for fostering harmonious relationships and nurturing lifelong bonds. By providing children with the tools and guidance to forgive, parents and educators empower them to navigate conflicts, heal relationships, and embrace forgiveness as a lifelong practice.