Teaching Children about Forgiveness
January 1988

“Teaching Children about Forgiveness,” Ensign, Jan. 1988, 58

Handbook for Families

Teaching Children about Forgiveness

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 almost beyond repair.

In some families, grown brothers and sisters haven’t spoken to each other in years because of some slight or injury that remains unforgiven. In the southern part of the United States during the last century, the Hatfield-McCoy feud raged for decades between neighboring families and cost many lives. Neither family would forgive the other—even though few Hatfields or McCoys could recall the original cause of the feud by the time it finally wound down.

An unforgiving husband or wife can build and harbor such bitterness toward his or her spouse that the family is eventually sundered by divorce.

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.

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. Reviving old hurts can only damage a relationship.

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

  • Do you try to talk openly with your children?

  • Do they usually express their deep concerns to you?

  • Do they usually come to you with their problems?

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

  • Have you tried to be 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 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 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 foster a loving, learning relationship.

While example is important, the principle of forgiveness must also be explained. 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 breach.

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.)

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,” from the March 1985 New Era, 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, came to dominate his entire life.

President Spencer W. Kimball 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. ‘To be wronged or robbed,’ said the Chinese philosopher Confucius, ‘is nothing unless you continue to remember it.’” (Ensign, Nov. 1977, p. 48.)

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.

Everyone sins. While some sins are blacker than others, we all commit them. We may sin against God, against ourselves, or against others. The important thing is to repent of those sins and learn from them. Equally important is the need to accept the forgiveness offered after true repentance has occurred.

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. Teenage suicide is all too common today, and the inability to forgive oneself for sins or shortcomings is many times central to the suicide thought process.

Youths often have difficulty placing past actions in perspective. They may feel that the steps they’ve taken are irreversible 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.

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 and their trespasses against me.” (Mosiah 26:30.)

In teaching forgiveness to his son, Helaman, Alma told of his life as a young man when he tried to destroy the church of God. (See Alma 36:3–24.) As a result, he had led many away unto destruction.

Alma described the great fear he felt when he recognized his sins. This fear was accompanied by exceedingly bitter pain. He exclaimed that the very thought of coming into the presence of God racked his soul with horror.

For three days and nights Alma suffered before he recalled the teachings of his father about the coming of Jesus Christ, who would atone for the sins of the world.

Alma testified to Helaman that when “my mind caught hold upon this thought, I cried within my heart (being unable to speak): O Jesus, thou Son of God, have mercy on me, … now, behold, when I thought this, I could remember my pains no more; … And oh, what joy, … my soul, was filled with joy as exceeding as was my pain!” (Alma 36:18–20.)

Alma had a personal witness of the joy of being forgiven. He testified of this principle to his son, thus teaching Helaman as his father had taught him.

In Doctrine and Covenants 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.” [D&C 58:42]

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.

Photography by Eldon Linschoten