“For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” Matthew 6:14-15
When we think about getting to heaven, many of us remember the importance of repentance. We know we need to say “I’m sorry,” and we try to teach children to do the same. Sometimes, though, in the focus on repentance, we might forget to emphasize the flip side of that coin—forgiveness.
As the Gospel verse above reminds us, we must not only be sorry for our own sins; we must also forgive others if we want God to forgive us. And because we love our children and want heaven for them, we want to help them learn, not only to feel contrition in their own hearts, but also to be forgiving towards others.
How do we help children learn to forgive? Teaching them to tie shoes, button shirts, or brush teeth—these practical lessons have clear steps. Once children learn the process, we don’t have to keep teaching them over and over. But learning forgiveness? The process never ends. Even we, as adults, need to learn it again and again. The lessons go on for a lifetime.
Still, there are some concrete things we can do to help children learn to forgive. The sacrament of confession tops the list; nothing imparts an understanding of mercy better than the actual effect of grace in our lives.
In addition to obtaining sacramental grace, here are a few other ideas:
1. Teach children to say “I forgive you” when someone says “I’m sorry.”
Words matter. Jesus is the Word of God, and we have the opportunity to reflect Him in the words we speak.
I’ve noticed that our culture tends to highlight certain terms of politeness, such as please and thank you, but not always the response. When we say “Thank you,” for example, we might receive responses such as, “No problem,” “You bet,” “Yep,” or “Mm-hmm.” These replies have replaced “You’re welcome” in common speech, yet they don’t express the same sentiment or hold the same value.
The same thing seems to have happened with apologies. When someone says, “I’m sorry,” the response is often, “That’s okay,” or even just a nod of the head. In many cases, we lose the response that means the most: “I forgive you.” No other response comes close to the depth of meaning that these three words convey.
It’s a simple, but powerful, lesson to teach children to say, “I forgive you,” when someone says, “I’m sorry.”
We can’t force them to say something they don’t mean, (or we’d be asking them to lie), so ultimately whether they say these things is up to them, but we can encourage them and explain how important it is to repent and also to forgive. We can share Jesus’ words about forgiveness with them, and we can pray for our children to be forgiving. We can tell them that the words won’t always come easily, but that we win a battle against the enemy of souls when we overcome the temptation to hold back forgiveness, and we manage to say the words that are so hard to say.
We can also model these words ourselves, using them with our children and our spouses every time the opportunity arises.
2. Give them second chances (and third, and fourth, and seventy-times-seventh chances).
A few months ago, my children and I sat in Mass behind a mom and her children. She was clearly tired and exasperated with the behavior of her youngest son. At one point, she scolded him harshly for climbing beneath the pew and told him he would not have a donut after Mass.
“Please, Mom?” the child begged in a desperate whisper. “Please? I’ll do better! I’ll be good! Please?”
He was clearly contrite, but his mother remained stone-faced. She told him angrily that there was no chance he would get that donut back; he had behaved too badly.
I was not trying to eavesdrop—I would much prefer to pay attention to what is happening on the altar—but this scene was taking place directly in front of me, and it was impossible not to see it. I also don’t intend to judge another mom when I know what it’s like to be tired and exasperated. Parenting is hard, and there could have been more behind the scenes than met the eye.
Yet, from a bystander’s point of view, the child was not behaving terribly, just childishly, and I couldn’t help but think how much happier they both would have been if she would only have forgiven him and offered him a second chance. I kept rooting for her in my mind: “Give him another chance!” Not just for the child’s sake, but for the mom’s sake as well. She could have found more peace by offering mercy than by scolding in anger.
God gives us chance after chance after chance to do better after we offend Him. He also gives us the ability to extend that same mercy towards our children—especially in Mass, where it is so important to nurture positive feelings.
In our family, when I give someone a second chance, I often will say something like, “Well, since it’s Sunday, which is a day of mercy, I’ll have mercy on you and give you a second chance.” Or, “God is always merciful with us, so I will show that same mercy towards you.”
One of my younger children, after figuring out this pattern, began to say, “Will you give me another chance since today is a mercy day?” It made both of us smile. When forgiveness and mercy flow freely, everything feels lighter. (And children rise to the challenge of behaving better, too.)
3. Let them see you forgiving others.
It is humbling to know that children learn not only from what we say, but also (and even more) from what we do. We might not have many chances to show children how we forgive big offenses, but life does tend to hand us daily opportunities to show them how we forgive others in small things.
A few months ago, I was driving my children somewhere in our minivan when another driver made a reckless move that could have caused an accident. I was able to recover the car in time, but I quickly made a comment about the other driver “driving like an idiot.” In the midst of my anger at the other driver for risking our lives, the Holy Spirit reminded me that I had an opportunity to show the children a better response.
I took a deep breath and said something like, “I’m really angry with that driver for putting us in danger and driving recklessly, but I shouldn’t have called him a name. What I should have done is pray for him. So I’ll do that now. Lord, please help that person to be a better driver. I forgive him, and I ask you to keep him and everyone on the road safe.”
I don’t always remember to take advantage of opportunities like this, but when I do, I can tell that the children are paying close attention. When a cashier is rude, when a stranger cuts in line, or when a friend says something hurtful: All of these difficult moments can become memories that our children carry with them—memories that, if we respond well, can help them to be forgiving when they encounter similar situations in their own lives.
If children learn, from our example, to say “I forgive you,” to give second chances, and to forgive and to pray for a person who has offended them, then they can spread that light to others. Every effort it takes for us to model forgiveness for them can bear fruit, not only in the present, but for times and generations to come—all of us, making an effort to forgive others their trespasses, and praying that God will forgive us ours.
“Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” Ephesians 4:32