Teaching Children about Forgiveness: A Guide for Parents


Many adults fail to understand the need to extend forgiveness to others. It’s no wonder then that children often have difficulty understanding the concept.

Unless we extend forgiveness to others, our lives may be poisoned by anger and hard feelings. Past hurts can magnify as they accumulate, and once-loving relationships can become damaged beyond repair.

In some families, grown brothers and sisters haven’t spoken to each other in years because of some unimportant offense or injury that remains unforgiven.

An unforgiving husband or wife can build and harbor such bitterness toward his or her spouse that the family is eventually broken up by divorce. This is a tragedy too often seen today, and the real blame can often be traced to an inability to forgive.

The principle of forgiveness should be taught to children early in life. The lessons children learn best are taught by both example and precept. Don’t simply tell children to forgive others who do them wrong; show them how forgiveness works to keep harmony and love in the family.

You Can’t Go Back in Time

One of the best ways to teach forgiveness is to practice the principle yourself. Agree with your partner to honestly try to forgive—and forget—past wrongs. Look to the future, not to the past. Once an event is over, you can’t go back in time and change your actions, no matter how badly you might want to. Reviving old hurts can only damage a relationship; it is never a positive step.

Before attempting to teach a child the principle of forgiveness, a parent might first honestly answer the following questions:

Do you talk openly with your children?

Do they express their deep concerns to you?

Do they come to you with their problems?

Do they talk to you about their social activities, friends, feelings, and desires?

Have you been honestly forgiving with them? Or do you constantly remind them about past or present misdeeds?

The last question is the key. If a parent hasn’t succeeded in forgiving—and forgetting—his or her children’s mistakes, that parent has a problem with the principle of forgiveness. Until the problem is resolved, parent-child communication will be poor, and the parent won’t be fully prepared to teach forgiveness to anyone in the family.

A Child’s Insecurities and Concerns

A forgiving parent is the one most likely to learn of a child’s insecurities and concerns. Harsh condemnation discourages the frank sharing of problems and does little to develop a loving, learning relationship.

While example is important, the principle of forgiveness must also be explained. Every time a child has a disagreement with friends or brothers and sisters, parents have a valuable opportunity to show how friendships can be damaged if trespasses aren’t forgiven.

Whenever a child sulks over some wrong, real or imagined, take the child aside and ask him how he feels. Point out that feelings of anger or bitterness hurt the offended person more than they hurt the offender. By feeling angry or upset, the child is actually punishing himself. Beyond that, quarreling damages a friendship, and only forgiveness, extended unconditionally to one another, can heal the broken relationship.

After a child is no longer angry and has made up with whomever he was mad at, ask him again how he feels. Help him to understand that forgiveness brings good feelings to both parties involved.

In a revelation given through the Prophet Joseph Smith, the Lord issued this warning: “Wherefore, I say unto you, that ye ought to forgive one another; for he that forgiveth not his brother his trespasses standeth condemned before the Lord; for there remaineth in him the greater sin.” (D&C 64:9.)

Teach by Modern Parables

While the Bible, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Book of Mormon provide many examples of the importance of forgiveness, the principle can also be effectively taught by modern parables.

For example, reading “Pockets Full of Rocks,” which appeared in the June 1985 Tambuli is an entertaining way to get the message across to children.

The story tells of a man named Malcolm Tent who began putting a rock in his pocket every time someone did something to anger or annoy him. The rock served to remind him of the incident and make sure he didn’t forget to stay angry at the person responsible.

Malcolm’s collection of reminder rocks soon spilled out of his pockets and throughout his house. The rocks, symbols of his negative feelings toward others whom he couldn’t bring himself to forgive, came to dominate his entire life.

President Spencer W. Kimball has said, “If we have been wronged or injured, forgiveness means to blot it completely from our minds. To forgive and forget is an ageless counsel.” (General Conference, October 1977.)

Important to Forgive Ourselves

It’s also important to forgive ourselves for errors we’ve made, and to learn to honestly accept forgiveness from others. Dwelling on mistakes made in the past can affect our behavior to the point we become both physically and mentally ill.

In extreme cases, self-reproach can become such an unbearable burden that suicide is attempted. If we fail to learn to forgive ourselves for things we’ve done wrong, once repentance has taken place, only then do we truly fail.

Self-forgiveness is important to a happy, healthy life. For many children and teenagers, it is critical. Youths often have difficulty placing past actions in perspective. They may feel that the steps they’ve taken can never be changed and that their prospects for a happy life have been forever blighted. If parents can keep the lines of communication open and remain accessible to their children—and sympathetic to their problems—they can do much to help dispel these fears. Love and understanding are the tools that work best.

Teach the Process of Repentance

How can you teach children to forgive themselves for past wrongs or failures? The first step is to teach them the process of repentance—confession to the Lord and, when appropriate, to priesthood authority; restitution, when possible, to those they’ve harmed; a rejection of habits or influences that led to the sin in the first place. Teach them that once they feel in their heart they have repented, they can take solace in the Lord’s promise: “Yea, and as often as my people repent will I forgive them their trespasses against me.” (Mosiah 26:30.)

In chapter 58, verse 42 of the Doctrine and Covenants [D&C 58:42], we are told:

“Behold, he who has repented of his sins, the same is forgiven, and I, the Lord, remember them no more.”

That’s the example Latter-day Saints are expected to follow, and it’s the message both children and adults must learn if they are to live happy, healthy, productive lives.

[photo] Photography by Welden Andersen