As infants, then children, and then adolescents, we have different abilities to cope with situations needing forgiveness. Our capabilities and the instruction from our parents lead to our ability to forgive others for mistakes and to ask forgiveness when we make mistakes. Sometimes people do not progress through the developmental stages and cannot learn to deal with mistakes or problems. They hold grudges, bully people, or seek violent means to resolve conflicts. If people don’t learn how to exercise forgiveness or are not shown the right examples by adults, they don’t progress and are stuck with immature ways to deal with problems. It is imperative that we view forgiveness as a learned skill that always needs improvement.
If we are going to learn forgiveness, whom can we look to as teachers? Our parents clearly are our primary teachers. Then our church family and our school family should help us learn forgiveness and set the right examples. All of these “instructors” help us learn how to handle different situations – emotional situations, difficult situations, unfortunate situations, and situations that will test our abilities to exercise love for others. And when things don’t go right, we’ll have to ask for forgiveness and extend forgiveness based on our lessons learned.
But I think the best teachers for forgiveness are not mentioned above. I think the best teachers of forgiveness are our children. As a parent and as a pediatrician, I am constantly amazed and humbled by the comments and actions of children. If we really look and listen to our children, their comments and actions serve as a mirror for us. Their reactions to our words and behaviors show us how we are acting.
For example, children will more often than not forgive parents when the parents make mistakes. They will do this, usually with unspoken hugs, even when they may have been significantly hurt. This hurt might be physical or psychological. Parents might have yelled at them, told them to shut up or even hit them. While these acts are inexcusable, children seem to so “easily” forgive their parents. Why? Because they are vulnerable, and they need support even if that support is less than optimal at times.
Consciously or unconsciously, children know that they need their parents, admittedly imperfect parents, to continue to be a source of support and hopefully comfort. The inherent vulnerability of children leads them to embrace their parents with a smile and an unspoken forgiveness even when adult logic would wonder why. I suspect that parents do not apologize often enough to their children when they make mistakes, but at least children extend forgiveness and want to move on. If children do not seek such comfort in an embrace, we need to ask some serious questions about our recent actions. The tenderness of an embrace provides that warmth of human interaction that words alone do not provide and confirms our commitment to our children.
Maybe one of the reasons that adults do not accept vulnerability very well is that such a state reminds them of their childhood. They do not want to acknowledge that lack of control. Yet it is precisely the acknowledgement of vulnerability that is necessary for the whole process of forgiveness to move forward.1
When one is vulnerable, they accept that they are not intrinsically better than someone else. They accept that others are not inferior to them. They accept that their failings are similar, if not identical at times, to those of their fellow citizens. They accept that they can be wrong or at least not as right as they were initially convinced that they were.
When we accept that we can be wrong or “less positive” that we think we are (after appropriate reflection), we realize that we have to be vulnerable and be willing to admit mistakes in ourselves and accept similar mistakes in others.
When we must discipline our children and extend forgiveness, we must do it in a loving way that emphasizes their importance. Conversely, if we are honest with ourselves, we often need to ask our children to forgive us for our words or actions. At the end of the day, we must analyze the comments and actions of our children to see if we are really doing things right – that we see our reflections in our children and feel good about it. If not, we should use these reflections to change our behavior in a positive way. Let the children be our teachers.