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If you forgive, do you have to forget?

“Forgive and forget,” the saying goes. But is that realistic for any of us? When we as adults struggle to forgive — much less forget — should we expect such a huge emotional leap for our children? Would it be better to start talking early about how one can offer forgiveness, yet not forget? Or does true release from the emotions of a wrong (actual or perceived) mean forgetting is essential? And how do you talk to your kids about this?

Kids shaking hands

As important as it is to teach forgiveness and compassion to our children, there are subtleties of the lesson that may present a particular challenge. As wonderful as it is to release anger and hurt by forgiving and moving on, forgetting is not always appropriate. Just as important as forgiving, sometimes remembering and learning lessons from the incident is as important.

Developmental ages and stages

Children’s understanding of different emotional concepts varies by age and developmental stage — and individual personalities. Younger children, by virtue of their developmental stage, can “forget” more easily when they have conflicts with friends or family. But just because your child is good about “forgetting” at a young age doesn’t mean it will be as easy as your child gets older, and it doesn’t mean you don’t need to talk about the difference between forgiving and forgetting. You can’t assume that because your daughter was so good about “forgiving and forgetting” when she was three that she’ll be just as good at eight or 12. Talking about forgiveness and all that goes with it early sets the stage for deeper understanding of the issue later.

Learning lessons

Even young kids can learn lessons from difficult social interactions. For example, you may have helped your child manage a couple of conflicts with a friend over essentially the same issue, whether it’s a toy or spending time together or something else. Your child can learn about forgiveness from those interactions by recognizing that the friend did not intend to cause hurt feelings — and can learn from those interactions that trying to negotiate a specific toy or type of get together with this particular friend tends not to go well, so best not to put oneself in a situation where a further conflict might arise.

In that way, your child can start to learn about forgiving without forgetting. Your child can let go of the hurt from the conflict, but learn something about managing the relationship going forward.

Into adolescence

Drawing a distinction between forgiving and forgetting may be particularly important for adolescents. Teens and tweens are embarking on new social relationships and things among peer groups can get, well, messy. Hormones, school expectations and other factors play into a complex and sometimes volatile emotional field. Kids will hurt each other seemingly without thought and make decisions that aren’t necessarily the best.

Your child will be wronged at some point, as social groups fluctuate and change. Helping your child learn about forgiveness in this context is important — all the kids are going through huge physical and emotional changes! But forgetting would not be appropriate. By not forgetting, your child can start to engage in a little self protection. He or she can learn that some old friends just won’t be dependable in the same way going forward, and can hopefully avoid getting into another difficult and hurtful social situation.

Forgiving is a wonderful emotional release and so beneficial to our physical and emotional health, but “forgive and forget” isn’t always appropriate! Help your child to understand that distinction — and you may even come to a better understanding yourself.

Read more about forgiveness

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