A few years ago I was having breakfast with a close friend. He is a pastor and father of two, like me. We were catching up about our children and fatherhood, and all we were learning about them and ourselves along the way. Mid way through the pancakes and coffee, there was this exchange…
Me: You know, Lance, what we really need, as parents, is a mission statement. Something that keeps us focused on what the goal or objective really is.
Lance: I already have one.
Me: Oh? What is it?
Lance: To become unnecessary.
To become unnecessary.
His answer caught me off guard a bit. But the more I thought about it, the more it seemed to ring with truth. Granted, that thought is worth it’s own blog entry, is it not? But consider it for a moment. Take a day to ponder it. As sobering as that thought may be, is it not our central responsibility as parents to equip and empower our children to do life and faith and love, and to do it all well…on their own?
Clearly, there are a few things they just have to learn. Skills they have to master.
How to change a tire. How to make a meal. How to balance the checkbook.
But what about how to repair a relationship? How to make peace with an enemy? How to find healing when someone has violated their trust, and left a deep wound that you (as a parent) couldn’t stop and cannot heal?
How do parents prepare kids to practice forgiveness?
While many of the lessons they have to learn about forgiveness can only come through their own experience, I suggest there are at least 3 things children can have and must have NOW, to prepare them for a lifetime of healthy, healing relationships later on in adulthood.
When it comes to forgiveness, there are 3 things kids must have…that parents must give.
There is almost no task more important in parenting than cultivating empathy within the character of our children.
Empathy is the capacity to feel what another feels. To step outside of one’s own perspective and position, long enough to consider the world as seen through another’s eyes. That is a powerful, powerful gift. And is tragically rare in our world.
Empathy is at the heart of the New Testament ethic. Jesus taught to “…do unto others as you would have done unto you.” (Luke 6:31) That requires empathy.
Paul echoed this same call in his letter to the Philippians, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” (Philippians 2:3-4)
When we teach our children to feel from another person’s perspective, it equips them to recognize when they, themselves, have crossed the line and have hurt another.
The next time your child is at fault, before doling out the punishment (not instead, mind you, but before), first ask them, “how would you feel if this thing were done to you?” But instead of accepting a simple answer, like “bad,” push further. “Is there another word you can use? Sad? Angry? Lonely? And why would you feel that way?” Do what you can to help them connect the dots.
If parents want to empower children to know how to make peace and restore relationships, they must practice empathy early and often.
We are not born knowing how to speak. We are born into a speaking world, with the capacity to learn its languages. In the same way, there is a language to forgiveness that must be taught. Both, the language of seeking and the language of granting forgiveness can and must be coached.
Eric, look at your sister. She is crying. Can you tell she is upset? (Yes.) Have you asked her about it? (No.) Turn and look at her, and say these words: “Erica, you seem sad. What’s wrong?” Good. Now, Erica, this time without yelling and calling your brother stupid, look at him and say “I feel angry when you take the legs and arms off of my Malibu Barbie and put them in your nose.”
Admittedly, this can be a long and arduous exercise. But it’s worth it. Children need a verbose vernacular when it comes to forgiveness language.
A simple place to start is in teaching children the value of I-statements and reflective listening. An I-statement allows the child to express his or her feelings/grievances/complaints without accusing the other and putting them prematurely on the defensive. Instead of lobbing hand-grenades like, “You’re always mean to me…” teach them, rather, to start with where they are: “I feel…”
And if your child is on the receiving end of the I-statement, teach reflective listening. Teach them words like, “Ok. This is what I hear you saying… and if that’s the case. I want you to know I am sorry. I was wrong. Will you forgive me?”
Nothing is more equipping than the power of example.
More than our words about forgiveness, children need our example. They need a model to follow. Without it, no lesson, no sermon, no instruction will do the trick.
That is why in our home, Laura and I have rarely, if ever, hidden the arguments we have from the kids. They see almost all of it. The good, the bad and the ugly.
And why? Because witnessing healthy ways to disagree lays a foundation for healthy ways to reconcile.
Put another way, kids need models to show them how to fight fairly in order to forgive fully.
Let them see you fight. Let them see you forgive. (Now, to be clear, I wouldn’t recommend airing all the laundry in front of the kids. Discretion is recommended.) But you would be surprised what good can come from letting them see you humble yourselves and reconcile. When I am in the wrong, I let the boys hear me say it out loud to their mother. “Babe, I’m sorry. I was a jerk. You deserved my full attention, and I was only giving you about half. If you’re still willing to tell me about your day, I’d like to give you my undivided attention.”
It doesn’t have to be dramatic or staged. Just, sincere.
They ARE watching. Show them how it’s done.
Johns Creek Baptist Church