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Forgiveness education for children, adolescents Print
Guest column
Thursday, Mar. 30, 2017 -- 12:00 AM
Robert Enright

Fifth in a series of seven articles on forgiveness.

All of a sudden, Martha, age 28, found herself unable to cope with life.

Until now, the challenges were few and manageable. She grew up in a stable two-parent household, was an excellent student, and graduated from a university. She married and was blessed with two young children.

Difficulty coping

Four weeks ago, her husband suddenly and unexpectedly asked for a divorce. This is something for which Martha was unprepared.

She is having trouble sleeping, sometimes is not patient with the children, and is constantly tired. She wishes to forgive, but she is unsure how to accomplish this. "I am confused, angry, and scared. I do not know how to even start forgiving him" is her honest response.

Suppose that Martha had been instructed in elementary, middle, and high school on what forgiveness is and how to go about forgiving. Would she be so confused now on how to forgive? Would she be able to start the forgiveness process more easily because in the past she learned it, practiced it, and embraced it as part of her life?

Forgiveness education

It is because of situations like Martha's that we began to create forgiveness education, as a way for children and adolescents, in the quiet of home or classroom, to begin learning at a young age what forgiveness is and how people go about forgiving.

Forgiveness education may prove to be a protection for people once they are adults, when injustices can be thunderous, as happened with Martha.

Forgiving others for deep injustices can reduce or even eliminate the resentment that can lead to a host of complications such as fatigue, hatred, anxiety, and even physical issues such as a compromised immune system.

We now have a series of forgiveness curricula from age four to age 18, including an anti-bullying guide. The gist of these guides is to help parents and teachers deliver sound instruction about forgiveness through typical stories for children and youth.

For example, the kindly elephant, Horton, in Horton Hears a Who, has to endure mockery by and cruelty from other jungle animals as he protects the tiny world of the Whos. His kindness toward those who are not kind to him is an act of forgiving.

His seeing the inherent (built-in) worth of the tiny Whos is a foundational development in forgiving others because, when we forgive, we see the worth in all others, including those who have been unfair to us.

Curriculum is effective

Our curriculum guides have been used by teachers in over 30 countries worldwide. Our research on the effectiveness of forgiveness education shows that feelings of anger can be reduced significantly in students as young as first grade.

We have found that academically-at-risk middle school students actually can increase their academic achievement as they learn to forgive and as the inner frustrations and angers lessen. All of this can occur in as little as an hour a week for 12 to 15 weeks.

If we help children learn to forgive at an early age, and help them to become mature forgivers over the years, the world would be a better place. We should be advancing the idea that forgiving others is, at the very least, a good life skill to learn and practice.

Practicing forgiveness

As Catholics, we should be advancing the belief that as we are forgiven by God, we are to go into the world and forgive. Perhaps forgiving is part of the abundant life of which Jesus speaks in John 10:10.

Children need to know the pathway of forgiveness so that they may freely choose to forgive when treated unfairly. They need to avoid misconceptions such as the mistaken notion that as one forgives, then one gives up the right to a fair solution.

They need to know that forgiveness should take place alongside the quest for justice. Therefore, upon forgiving it is important for the one offended, now with resentment reduced because of the forgiveness, to ask for fairness from the other.

This should prevent the offender from incorrectly assuming that he or she can take advantage of the one originally offended. Forgiveness breaks the power that injustice has over those treated unfairly because it breaks the power of resentment and even hatred that can last a lifetime within a person.

Perhaps it is time to educate children about forgiveness, not just in a lesson or two, but systematically and over a period of years, so that they can be ready to break such pervasive power that robs them of joy.

When they are adults and the storms of life come, as those storms came to Martha, then our children of today will be ready to actively confront the unfairness and the inner pain . . . and never be defeated by them. We need forgiveness education . . . now.

Robert Enright is a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor, author, and founder of the International Forgiveness Institute.