Disclaimer: I’ve laid out below what my husband and I are seeking to teach our children about forgiveness with the gospel as our guide. However, life is messy, busy, and often stressful, and situations don’t always work out as we hope they will. So we are constantly seeking God’s help in the weakness we feel and display, and are prayerful that God would show our children the heights and depths of his own loving kindness to them, which—even on our best days—we can only poorly reflect. It’s also true to say that having children is, in itself, a lesson to us—as parents—about the unending patience, mercy, forgiveness, and grace of God!
How do you handle the issue of forgiveness with your children?
My husband and I are seeking to teach our girls that we are ALL sinful and that we have each been forgiven by a loving God who is merciful and kind when we confess our sins and seek forgiveness. In our home, this means that we seek to remind our girls to be quick to say sorry and to forgive one another when we do each other wrong (as we do frequently) because this is the way that God treats us. This is our end goal! On many occasions, I’ve tried to remind warring parties that our relationships and love for one another is more important than what is being squabbled over and that, because of this, we love each other well when we forgive—remembering that we have been forgiven much.
Instead of just saying “sorry”, I also try to prompt our children to ask the other for forgiveness so that they can see more clearly that when you’re forgiving someone, something is required of you. Forgiveness comes at a cost. We are asked to lay aside our indignation and pride for the sake of the other person—remembering that the cost to Jesus was much greater.
How do you balance offering a fresh start (as the gospel so wonderfully offers to us) with the need for their behavior to actually change?
This is a particularly challenging balance to strike when trying to model gospel forgiveness with children. One way we try to do this in our home is to offer forgiveness freely and without exception when sorrow is apparent. This is hard as a parent when you’ve been tried and tested over the same issue multiple times. However, this is what God does for us and so I try to hold this in my mind when dealing with a particularly rebellious child or a recurring offense. And so, when sorrow is apparent, we offer forgiveness and the chance of a new beginning.
But I don’t think it can stop there…
Mercifully, God accepts our repentance but doesn’t leave us as he finds us. I think we’ve found that taking a short break from the situation, maybe imposing a time out, and then returning to talk about what has happened works best—before we both come back together and talk about how we can move forward. This really helps to take the heat out of the situation and means that I have time to quickly ask the Lord for his help in dealing not only with the behavior of one of my children but with what lies at the heart of it.
When we come back together, I try to ask questions about the behavior rather than preaching a mini-sermon (!) and then we try to consider how the other person might be feeling and reflect on ways in which next time things could be done differently. If something practical can be done to remedy a situation, then I also pursue that. I’ve often asked one of my children to help fix the damage they may have caused or to help repair a toy they may have deliberately broken, for example. My hope is that in time they might see that “saying sorry” is the beginning of meaningful change and not merely a “get out of jail free card”.
When do you find this particularly easy or difficult?
It’s always easier to offer forgiveness when the child in front of you is sorry! Much less so when there’s resistance or a refusal to admit wrongdoing. On occasions where there isn’t much sorrow, I’ve tried to give my child the space to reflect on what’s happened and have then returned to talking about it later on. I don’t think repentance is something you can extract from someone under pressure!!
It’s also difficult to offer forgiveness when it’s a repeat offense, and change feels slow or even non-existent. In my more self-aware moments, I’m conscious of the fact that this slowness to make progress is merely a reflection of my own spiritual state. This gives me a much-needed sense of humility and empathy with my child in moments of frustration and anger.
On occasions where the child in front of me is genuinely sorry and repentant for what they have done, forgiveness is a beautiful gift. It restores brokenness. It covers wrong and it allows us to start again.
How has your own upbringing made an impact on how you handle or talk about forgiveness with your children?
When growing up, I wasn’t ever explicitly said sorry to, and forgiveness was often held back in favour of bitterness and anger. I think that’s left a deep impression on me. It has radically impacted the way in which I deal with my own children as I seek to always give them a route back to a restored relationship after making mistakes.
I’m very open with my own children about the fact that I make mistakes and that I too am a sinner in need of a savior. I won’t always be right, and there are times when I have needed to say sorry to my children for my impatience, wrongdoing or mishandling of a situation. My hope is that by being open about my own failings, my children will learn to recognize their own sinful behavior and seek forgiveness for it. This is not easy, but my hope and prayer is that in the long term this open humility will reap dividends for their spiritual growth and understanding of God’s goodness to them.