Forgiveness can be a tricky topic for everyone, regardless of age. But it looks different depending on how old your kids are. Here are some tips to teach your kids forgiveness at every age, based on decades of research from Dr. Robert Enright and a team of researchers from The Forgiveness Institute.
Teaching Forgiveness to Littles (ages 0-7)
Before about age 6, kids generally don’t understand cause and effect, so they are not ready to fully grapple with a complex task like forgiveness . Start with explicitly teaching and demonstrating agape — or love in action — as this is the foundation of forgiveness.
Say, “All beings, including you, are important and worthy of love. No matter what.“
Read stories together, such as The Runaway Bunny to explore the idea of unconditional love and caring.
Avoid using phrases like “say sorry!” in a harsh or coercive way.
Teaching Forgiveness to Kids (ages 8-12)
An important developmental task during childhood is learning about fairness and following group norms.
Teach kids that forgiveness is not at odds with fairness. It doesn’t mean we don’t seek justice or pretend we aren’t hurt.
Forgiveness can happen with or without reconciliation. Say, “Sometimes it’s better to stay away from someone who treats us poorly, but we can let go of anger and hurt to help us feel less sad and more hopeful.”
Never force children to forgive. Forgiveness is a gift that we offer freely from the heart.
Say, “You can choose to forgive when and if you are ready.” Or, “Do you feel ready to ask for forgiveness?”
Ask, “Do you think you deserve kindness, respect, and generosity — even when you behave unfairly?” and “What about others? Do they deserve kindness, respect, and generosity–even when they behave unfairly?”
It’s often easier for kids to explore the idea of forgiveness, than to actually put it into action. No problem! Be patient and continue to tell stories, have conversations, and model forgiveness.
Teaching Forgiveness to Teens (ages 13-19)
During adolescence, teens are individuating and working on the task of creating a unique self. Talk about forgiveness as part of their emerging identity.
Discuss protective anger vs destructive anger. Protective anger can tell us that something is hurtful, unfair, or unjust. Destructive anger stays inside of us and creates feelings of spite and a desire to harm others.
Remind your teen that forgiveness is a practice. No one can do it perfectly! Paradoxically, when we are patient and compassionate with ourselves, forgiveness flows more freely. Even after an act of forgiveness, hurt feelings might linger. Be patient and welcome all feelings.
Interested in teaching kids forgiveness? Become a member and do our lesson on forgiveness, which includes curated videos, three different embodied activities, wisdom quotes, stories, and more. In 20 minutes your family will have a shared sense of the virtue.