Helping Children Understand Forgiveness

You know what’s fun to talk about? Forgiving people who have wronged you.


Forgiveness is one of the hardest things for people to do. When we’ve been wronged, giving up the negative emotions we feel toward those who have done us wrong is the last thing we want to do. But, as adults, we know it’s important for our own well-being, even if it is hard.

But how do you teach such an important but difficult to embrace topic to preschoolers? The answer is slowly. Read on for the steps parents can take in teaching this important skill to their preschoolers and kindergarteners. 

What Is Forgiveness?

Forgiveness is the “conscious, deliberate decision to release feelings of resentment or vengeance toward a person or group who has harmed you, regardless of whether they actually deserve your forgiveness.”


Again, we know! It’s hard! But resentment and anger are toxic emotions to live in. Learning how to lay them down — regardless of how justified a person would be to hold on to them — is essential for anyone’s mental health.

Despite the simple definition, many people have major misconceptions about what true forgiveness is. Here are things to keep in mind when you’re explaining forgiveness to your children.

  • Forgiveness IS
    • Showing kindness to those who are not kind. 
    • Showing respect to those who are disrespectful. 
    • Showing generosity to those who have not been generous. 
    • Showing love to those who have not been loving.
  • Forgiveness is NOT:
    • Glossing over the seriousness of the hurt.
    • Forgetting the hurt or excusing the person who did the hurting. 
    • Reconciling with the person who did the hurting; the relationship can end if the offense is serious enough.

Understanding Forgiveness Before & After 5

Given all of that, it’s easy to see why there’s little chance your child will understand forgiveness before the age of 4. Thankfully, there’s also very little chance they will hold a grudge, so diving into the concept of forgiveness isn’t necessary. 


Once they hit 4 years old, start introducing them to the concept of love. Understanding the importance of caring for others and showing compassion to those around them lays the foundation for the concept of forgiveness. If they can’t understand the need to forgive — because everyone is worthy and deserving of love — the idea will never stick.

Starting at about age 6, kids enter the concrete operational reasoning stage of life. That means they can finally understand the causes and effects of people’s actions. And understanding that is crucial to understanding forgiveness. 

Teaching Forgiveness Slowly & Gradually

One of the most important things a parent can do is to not force forgiveness. Forgiveness is a process, and making a child forgive someone is actually forcing the exact opposite — no one (including adults) can forgive another person until they are ready to.


Granted, we all have to start forgiving people before we feel like it. If we waited until we were done being angry to forgive someone, it would probably never happen. Make sure your child understands that the forgiveness process makes anger go away faster. 

Here are some small steps you can take with your preschooler that can help lead them down the path of forgiveness. 

  • Identify Feelings & Emotions – When it comes to teaching forgiveness, the best thing you can do to help your child is to help them identify their own feelings. What was it about the situation that made them angry or upset? Learning to label their emotions and then communicate how a person hurt them is an incredible skill to start building with your child. 
  • Don’t Forget the Wrongdoing – Let’s say it again: Forgiving is not forgetting. Allowing another person to repeatedly do harm is not something to expect from anyone, let alone a defenseless child. 
  • Use Stories – Stories are always a great teaching tool, but they can be particularly helpful when trying to teach forgiveness. The desire to hold on to resentment is strong, and a child will probably feel challenged or called out if they are used as an example of how forgiveness should be given. Share examples of how someone else chose to forgive so your child can see how it’s done and choose forgiveness for themselves.  
  • Teach Perspective – Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes is a skill that takes time and maturity, but perspective can make forgiving someone else easier. If you can help your child understand why someone made a hurtful decision, it can make it easier to forgive.
  • Accidents Happen – Not every hurtful thing is done with malice. Help your child identify times throughout their day where someone may have unintentionally hurt someone else’s feelings. Repeated examples will help limit the knee-jerk reaction of “you did that on purpose!”

Make Forgiveness Meaningful

Kids can smell insincerity from a mile away. 


“Children are capable of discerning an insincere apology, and insincere apologies were not conducive to encouraging forgiveness,” said Dr. Kelly Lynn Mulvey, lead author of a key study on forgiveness in children. “The apology needs to make clear that someone understands why what they did was wrong. This, in turn, makes other kids more likely to give them a second chance.”

Why is this important? Trust that you can believe your child if they don’t think someone is being genuine in their apology. In addition, it’s the reason it’s key for your child to be emotionally ready to forgive. Their fake apology will fall flat to another kid.

Part of what makes forgiveness meaningful is that it is unconditional. Kids need to know that, once they are ready to forgive, it’s permanent. Granted, they’ll almost for sure fall bank into times of anger over what was done to them, and that’s okay. Forgiveness is a process, not a one-time decision. Let them know it’s okay to still feel angry for a little while after they forgive another person. That anger will wane with time.

As Always, Be the Model

Like so many other things when it comes to being a parent, one of the best ways to teach your child something is to live it out. When you have to forgive someone else, tell your kids about what it’s like for you. Show them how you’ve identified your emotions, where you are in the forgiveness process, and why you’re glad you’ve chosen to forgive. 

Use others as helpful examples, too. They can be real people you know or fictional characters you see in books, movies, and TV shows. Call out instances where forgiveness is done well and not so well. Anything that shows forgiveness in action is a much better teacher than simply being told about forgiveness over and over again.

Your child will spend their entire lives learning and relearning how to forgive. However, the earlier you can start teaching them about love, boundaries, and how to manage their emotions, the easier forgiveness will come to them as they get older. In the end, it’s never going to be easy. Having the foundation laid on how to do it, though, is a priceless investment into their lives.