How to Teach Kids About Forgiveness and Gratitude

Why teaching these two ideals is key in your quest to raise happy, healthy kids.

The holidays naturally invite conversations around forgiveness and gratitude. Most families kick off the season gathered around a turkey taking turns sharing the things that evoke a feeling of thankfulness. Later, parents hope their kiddos are grateful to unwrap that much-buzzed-about bauble and forgiving when that out-of-town cousin runs off with it. 

Deeper still, for many households, the holidays are a religiously or spiritually significant time, and forgiveness and gratitude are tenets of most religions, certainly of the Big Three: Christianity, Islam and Judaism. Each denomination approaches the ideas somewhat differently, though common threads run between. 

In Christianity, for instance, God has the power to absolve all sins, though person-to-person forgiveness is encouraged if not required. While, according to the most common interpretations of Jewish teachings, only people have the power to forgive sins committed against other people, and so forgiveness can only be offered by the offended person. Similarly, in Islam, Allah’s forgiveness and forgiveness from humans are distinct but simultaneously necessary. And most religions stress the power of practicing gratitude. 

Even if your family isn’t particularly religious, scientists have some compelling ideas around what forgiveness and gratitude are, how to practice both so that they’re the most beneficial, and how to broach the topics with little ones. 

How Forgiveness Works

When they’re young, if they’re lucky, a swiped toy or a mean name uttered on the playground is about as bad as it gets, but as kids grow older, the things they’ll have to decide whether to forgive — and apologize for — will get heavier. 

And, so, forgiveness is an art best practiced early and often, because it can have real effects on their quality of life and health as they become adults. Studies have found that the act of forgiveness can lower the risk of heart attack, improve cholesterol levels, health and sleep, and lower blood pressure, anxiety and stress. 

Holding on to anger can trigger a fight-or-flight response in your body.

According to The American Institute of Stress, in response to acute stress, the body’s sympathetic nervous system is activated due to the sudden release of hormones, including adrenaline and noradrenaline.

This causes your pupils to dilate, your heart rate and breathing to quicken, your muscles to tense and your blood pressure to increase. Those physical feelings may subside quickly, but some experts agree that chronic anger and that elevated state can lead to long-term issues. 

The “say you’re sorry” and “now say you accept” approach is a good first step, but as kids grow, consider introducing more conscious and deliberate ways to let go of negative emotions. 

Robert Enright, Ph.D., author, professor of educational psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and co-founder of the International Forgiveness Institute, suggests a 20-step Forgiveness Process Model that can be tailored to kids’ ages and development levels. For the littlest ones, this might start with conversations around caring for themselves and caring for others, and easy acts of kindness around age 4. 

 How Gratitude Works

Whether it’s just a little or a lot, raising kids who are appreciative of what they do have is a priority for most parents — and with great reason. No one wants to be responsible for unleashing an entitled kid onto the world, but more than that, learning to hone in on the positives can be hugely beneficial to how kids (and adults) deal with tough situations. 

Simply, expressing gratitude is about taking a moment to acknowledge the goodness in your life and the people — and higher powers, if you’re a family of faith — who contribute to it. 

A landmark study from the early aughts led by psychologist Robert A. Emmons and subsequent studies found that gratitude can improve psychological well-being, emotional health and have lasting positive impacts on your kid’s relationships, affecting how they interact with friends and classmates and, later in life, co-workers and romantic partners. 

Not only saying the words, but expressing gratitude through tangible acts can change a little one’s perspective of the world and stir up good emotions like joy, love, hopefulness and enthusiasm. 

Beyond encouraging “please” and “thank you,” maybe ask your kiddo to donate her unwanted clothes and toys or help him to write letters to the people he values, or start a gratitude jar and add one thing every night before bed.

Have You Tried?…

Two local parents share how their families approach the ideas of gratitude and forgiveness.  

Evanston mom Carly Andrews

She, her husband and their daughter Beatrice have tried to operate from a place of generosity, compassion and self-awareness from which gratitude and forgiveness can sprout. 

The executive director of The Alliance for Early Childhood says there’s nothing like parenting to show you where your shortcomings are. Recently, Carly met Beatrice’s excitement about a college prospect with sobering talks about the cost of tuition and other could’ve-waited logistics. Then, she had to set the example by apologizing to her teenager for stomping on her big moment; Beatrice graciously accepted. Carly’s tips are:

  • Create rituals around gratitude throughout the day, whether that’s sharing what you’re thankful for around the dinner table or listing the people you love right before bed.
  •  Instead of demanding an immediate apology, soothe your child, acknowledge their emotions and give them time to process. 
  • Encourage them to practice sincere verbal apologies, even if it’s uncomfortable at first.

Oak Park mom Nicole Balch

With her three kids, she and her husband always return to what she calls “the golden rule”: Look for the good in people and treat others as kindly as you would want them to treat you. This, the designer who helps to remodel and decorate historic homes says, creates a foundation for empathy, which makes it easier to embrace forgiveness. In their household, it doesn’t always take a big lecture or formal conversation; small expressions of gratitude throughout the day can do the trick, like acknowledging how fortunate they are to be able to swim in a lake or for grandma’s homemade cookies. Nicole’s tips are:

  • Help them to not get bogged down by who’s right and who’s wrong, because forgiving can mean acknowledging the wrongdoing and deciding that you want to move on from it.
  • Receiving gratitude is as powerful as expressing it. A heartfelt “thank you” can make someone’s day.

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