How to model forgiveness with your own children – thoughts from an empty-nester

Alison Mitchell | 11 Sep 2018

Forgiveness is at the heart of the gospel. Through the death and resurrection of Christ, we can be fully, totally, completely forgiven. That’s a wonderful truth and joy we will want to share with our own children (who will probably need to be forgiven most days!). But what does that look like in a Christian home? To coincide with the release of our latest children’s book, The Friend Who Forgives, we have interviewed two parents about how they handle this in their own homes. Tomorrow, we will hear from a mother with young children. Today, it’s the turn of someone whose children are now grown up.

How did you handle the issue of forgiveness with your children?

It was always in the context of a conversation, often with both parents (especially if it was a big issue, as this showed how serious we were). We would discuss the offence and why it was wrong, always focusing on the heart: “It wasn’t good that you did this, but it’s worse that you lied about it.” Mistakes happen, but betraying trust is much worse because that’s a breach of relationship, not just of a rule.

Sometimes, one of us would feel angry about what our child had done. Usually, when one is enraged the other tends to be calm, so the angry one would leave the room for a bit while the other parent kept talking with the child. “We realise you’re worried that we’ll get angry. We apologise for when we lose our temper, but our anger isn’t going to last.”

Afterwards, we would say, “We don’t need to talk about this again. Your mum and I are not going to bring it up.” (If you have a sensitive child, they may want to talk about it again for their own sake. That’s fine. We’d say, “If this bothers you, come and talk to me about it—but we’re not going to bring it up again ourselves.”)

How did you balance offering a fresh start (as the gospel so wonderfully offers to us) with the need for their behaviour to actually change?

You set guidelines and expectations for the future. We would make it clear what we wanted them to do from now on, and we would discuss various strategies that would help our child(ren) if similar situations arose—things they could say, do or think when this happens. 

We also tried to help our children understand that their non-Christian friends don’t have God to turn to, so that’s why they sometimes behave badly. Then we’d remind them of the bigger picture: they are a loved child of God, with an eternal future and something to live for.

When did you find this particularly easy or difficult?

The most difficult was apologising for my own anger (because I felt very justified in my rage!). But we’re not God. He is our Parent as well as theirs. But however hard it is to ask for forgiveness, I’ve never regretted doing it.

How has your own upbringing made an impact on how you handle or talk about forgiveness with your children?

I don’t remember my parents ever talking about forgiveness at home. I wanted to treat my marriage and parenting differently. 

Years later, when I was an adult, my dad apologised for something he had done when I was a child. Even after all that time, it had a huge impact. 

Any other suggestions?

We had a rule that if one parent said something, the children were not allowed to ask the other parent. So when they did ask, the first thing we’d say was, “Have you asked your mum/dad?” If the answer was yes, we’d always back what our spouse had said (even if that might not have been the answer we’d have given). It saved a lot of battles. 

Children know all about failing, but they don’t always experience true forgiveness. The Friend Who Forgives points them to Jesus, the Friend who will forgive them again and again and again.

Alison Mitchell

Alison Mitchell is a senior editor at The Good Book Company, where she has worked on a range of products including Bible-reading notes for children and families, and the Christianity Explored range of resources. She is the best-selling author of The Christmas Promise and the award-winning Jesus and the Lions' Den.

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