"No obstacles are insurmountable when God commands and we obey"
- - Heber J. Grant
April 9, 2014
It's So Hard to Say "I Forgive You"
by Emily S. Jorgensen

I once had the unfortunate experience of taking my child over to a Primary leader’s home to apologize for my child striking her during Primary that day.

At five years old, this particular child did not like adults she didn’t really know touching her and the Primary worker had been trying to use gentle physical force rather than words to get my child to sit down. So, my child lashed out and scratched her. The leader was pretty offended, as from her perspective she was just trying to help my child.

Well, we teach our children it is never okay to hit anyone (unless a stranger is trying to kidnap you or something equally nefarious. And yes, we have to reiterate this exception to the rule every time because they ask about it every time.

Apparently being accosted by a stranger is a deep-seated fear for my children.) However, it is safe to assume there will never be a good reason to strike anyone while at church.

So, feeling a mix of exasperation and shame for my child’s inappropriate (yet from her perspective, kind-of-understandable) behavior, we walked over to this woman’s house. When the door was answered, I explained my daughter had come to apologize. We were led to sit down, and with a little bit of coaching my daughter apologized, as did I, taking all the responsibility between us.

The experience was unfortunate, because instead of telling my daughter she was forgiven, this woman decided to give her a little lecture instead. My five-year-old daughter didn’t have the attention span for this lecture, nor did she really care; she already knew from our conversation at home that what she did was wrong. She came here to set it right, she had done that, The End, let’s go home.

So I sat through the lecture, smiled and nodded, then left when it was appropriate, feeling frustrated that this Primary leader had missed an opportunity to help me teach my child about the repentance process, and instead had just taught her about righteous indignation.

In this past week’s Sunday morning session of conference, President Monson said, “Blame keeps wounds open. Only forgiveness heals.”

And yet, it seems to me that when we parents or teachers are refereeing an altercation between children we are sometimes too concerned about where to place the blame and not concerned enough whether the entire repentance process has been practiced.

I often hear adults admonish children to say, “I’m sorry.” I hope this is usually done as a loving reminder rather than a totalitarian demand. But, I rarely hear anyone turn to the other child and ask them, “Do you forgive him? Then you need to tell him you forgive him.”

When the conversation is only one-sided, both children miss out on important lessons. The child who has apologized doesn’t get the closure and good feelings from knowing he is forgiven. The child who either withholds forgiveness or just doesn’t know he is supposed to forgive misses out on the opportunity to practice selflessness and to learn that forgiveness is equally important as the “sorry.”

Perhaps adults think that children’s disagreements are so trivial and they forgive so easily that such conventions are unnecessary. And some children do easily forget hurts and run off to play with nary a backwards glance.

However, I have seen some children nurse a hurt for hours or days, just as some adults do. If we do not seize the opportunity to teach forgiveness when the offences are small, it may be much harder to do when the offences are bigger later in life.

Besides coaching children through a disagreement with a peer, there are two other ways we adults can help children learn to forgive.

The first is through our own example with other adults.

I know this may go against some common wisdom, but my husband and I have low-key arguments in front of our children. If we are really arguing — at the yelling-and-plate-breaking level (okay, I’ve never actually broken a plate that way, although I may have thrown a Kleenex box or two) — that is a different story, and it is blessedly rare.

But, if we are disagreeing or working out hurt feelings or an issue that is emotionally charged, we do it in front of our children if they happen to be there. I know many psychologists say we should do this behind closed doors and always present to our children a united front; but if we do that, I wonder how will our children ever learn how to work out their disagreements with their spouse?

If we have argued in front of our children, then we always make up in front of them too. When (as is typical) my husband apologizes for the X he forgot or the Y he said or the Z he did, I tell him I forgive him, and I stop antagonizing him about it. This does not mean I necessarily stop feeling hurt about it in that moment, or that we won’t discuss it any further later when we are calmer.

And, sometimes I forgive him even when I don’t feel ready to, because I know it is the right thing, and I want my children to see that it is. To withhold forgiveness is generally as bad a thing to do as whatever it is he first did to need the forgiveness.

I don’t want them to learn that it is okay to give people the silent treatment or slam doors in their faces or roll your eyes at them or any other number of emotional manipulations that people often do when they are hurt.

Sometimes I will tell him in front of our children, “I cannot talk about this now. I am too upset.” I think that is an okay thing to model, because when someone hurts you, although God requires us to forgive them, He doesn’t say it had to be right away. I will do it as soon as I can. And I want my children to see that. I am not a doormat, but nor do I treat their father like he is a loser.

The second way other way we can teach our children about forgiveness is by asking it of them for ourselves. I believe adults should immediately fess up when they have made a mistake with a child. It models taking responsibility for yourself and reinforces the idea that you respect the child as a fellow person. It gets an adult off the pedestal, which is a good thing because pedestals have a tendency to fall eventually.

If we apologize to our children when we have made mistakes with them when they are young, it will hopefully preclude the bigger resentments built on childhood hurts that can grow to catastrophic levels in adulthood.

It can take great humility to admit to a child you made a mistake. Adults are supposed to know more, do better, and be the leader. But it is important that children see we all need the atonement in our lives; there will never be a day they will outgrow it, never a time they don’t have to ask for forgiveness anymore.

Asking a child for their forgiveness, when an apology is merited, seems a childlike thing to do. The type of childlike behavior the prophet Mormon spoke about when he wrote, “teach parents that they must repent, and be baptized, and humble themselves as their little children, and they shall all be saved with their little children” (Moroni 8:10).

Learning to say “I’m sorry” is important. But learning to say “I forgive you” completes the lesson.

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About Emily S. Jorgensen

Emily Jorgensen received her bachelor's degree in piano performance from Brigham Young University. She earned her master's degree in elementary music education, also at BYU. She holds a Kodaly certificate in choral education, as well as permanent certification in piano from Music Teacher’s National Association.

She has taught piano, solfege, and children’s music classes for 17 years in her own studio. She has also taught group piano classes at BYU.

She is an active adjudicator throughout the Wasatch Front and has served in local, regional, and state positions Utah Music Teachers' Association, as well as the Inspirations arts contest chair at Freedom Academy.

She gets a lot of her inspiration for her column by parenting her own rambunctious four children, aged from “in diapers” to “into Harry Potter.” She is still married to her high school sweetheart and serves in her ward’s Primary.

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