Understanding the "Why:" Teaching Empathy and Compassion
Teaching our children about the “why” behind apologies and forgiveness is critical in helping them develop long-term empathy and compassion. Without meaning to, we as parents tend to model apologies that come from a place of fear and shame. In turn, those feelings of fear and shame are projected onto our kids, leading us to demand forced apologies, taking away from their understanding of what forgiveness really means on a deeper level.
The Parental Instinct: Why We Often Demand Forced Apologies
Often I see parents in a situation where an apology is forced upon their child. Imagine a mother and her toddler are at the playground. The toddler grabs another child’s toy from the sandbox. The mother, mortified, impulsively shouts out, “Henry! Say you are sorry!” in fear that Henry’s behavior will reflect poorly on her in front of the other parents. As adults, we sometimes mistakenly expect adult behavior from children. Boys grab toys from other boys. That’s how it is. Sometimes a harsh reaction like this can have an adverse impact making Henry too afraid and confused to say anything at all. This is a classic parenting moment. As parents, we must be curious about the impulse to ask our children to say sorry when they really have no idea why they should, and before even understanding what they’ve done or how it affected those around them.
The Half-Hearted "I'm Sorry": The Consequences of Incomplete Understanding
Similarly, older kids will often mutter a half-hearted “I’m sorry” without meaning it if they have been taught throughout childhood to automatically apologize without fully understanding why such an apology becomes essentially meaningless. Apologies become surrounded by feelings of guilt and shame, and the child has no idea how meaningful a genuine, loving apology can be. Instead, it’s just a quick tool to get out of trouble. Ultimately, they haven’t had the chance to experience the real beauty of forgiveness.
One remedy can be to help our children understand why an apology is necessary and teach them to understand that “why” for themselves. Otherwise, they end up feeling like they owe the world an apology for their very existence.
The Process of Understanding Forgiveness
The first step in developing an understanding of the “why” behind an apology is overcoming the impulse to force an apology from your child before they can comprehend what they’ve done wrong. It can be helpful to look at the reasoning behind your immediate demand for an apology. Are you demanding it because you’re embarrassed or because it will genuinely help the situation? Would you automatically say you were sorry in this situation?
The second step is recognizing that forgiveness is a process. It takes time for both parties to understand what has happened in the situation, see the other person’s point of view, and come to terms with it. The wounds don’t heal immediately. They need time.
My daughter sometimes tells me, “I’m not ready to forgive you yet.” I make it a point to respond respectfully and patiently by saying something like, “Okay. I love you.” I want to allow her the time she needs to process her emotions of anger, frustration, or hurt. I want to give her space to process, and I really want to make sure she doesn’t forgive me because she’s afraid I will be upset with her.
Explain Yourself and Be Honest
By the same token, it’s important to truly mean it when apologizing to your child and explain the “why” behind your apology. For example, “I’m saying sorry because I want you to know that I recognize that I was wrong, and I never intended to hurt your feelings.” Giving compassionate reasoning for your apology will steer them away from apologizing automatically. Even more importantly, learning to understand the “why” behind others’ apologies will teach them compassion and empathy for themselves and others. I always like to take a moment to put myself in the other person’s shoes and to consider why what transpired, transpired.
If you find yourself frequently owing apologies to your children, spouse, or loved ones, it may be beneficial to look inward at what may be causing you to lash out or behave in hurtful ways. If you find yourself yelling or acting from a place of resentment, anger, or sadness, can you pinpoint where that is coming from?
You may want to consider getting help in the form of talking it out with your loved ones, meditating or journaling to process your emotions, or seeking professional help.
Practice Forgiving and Never Hold Grudges
The third step is to practice forgiving, often and easily. The process of forgiveness must be honored, but at the same time, we must never hold grudges. I remember being on the receiving end of grudges in my childhood, and it was traumatizing. I lived in constant fear of not being forgiven, and to me, it felt as if I was being held hostage to another person’s feelings. I couldn’t feel normal again until I knew the other person had forgiven me.
It is important to me that my kids or anyone I love never has to feel that way. I want them to understand that we all make mistakes and that whatever happens, they are loved unconditionally always.
Learning from the people we love
A few months ago, my husband and I went on a bike ride with our 10-year-old daughter. She sped off ahead of us, and I couldn’t see her for the majority of the ride. Even though we had biked that same loop many times, my husband had had a stroke a few weeks earlier, and I was under a lot of stress. When we arrived home, my daughter was already there, and I lost my temper and yelled at her for biking ahead.
Later, she came to me and asked for forgiveness. Of course, I forgave her right away and asked her for forgiveness as well. I explained that I was exhausted from worrying about her father, and it had affected the way I reacted. Apologizing for my part in the situation allowed my daughter space to reflect on her part.
Recognize your own part in things
This is one of the greatest lessons AA has taught me, to look at both sides of the coin and apologize for my part. This process will neutralize interactions, and one can look beyond oneself and see a scenario from higher perspectives. This is why, even though your child is young, try your best to explain why you did what you did and apologize for it. This will teach them to develop empathy and compassion for both parties involved in the situation.
To put it simply, empathy and compassion are the keys to living in a state of forgiveness and regularly practicing sincere, heartfelt apologies.
Seeing yourself in another's shoes
My daughter once had a bully in her class. My daughter was often upset by her classmate’s behavior towards the others, and we often discussed why we thought she acted the way she did. I always reminded my daughter to consider what may be behind this behavior? What can cause her to be unkind to others?
We talked about the possibility that this girl may have had a negative home life or difficulty keeping up in school. The point being, trying to understand the underlying trigger that manifests as someone’s mean behavior. Hurt people tend to hurt people, and it rarely has anything personal to do with the person they are bullying.
Through empathy and compassion, we can see ourselves in another’s shoes. We would all certainly forgive our bullies if we knew their parents were mistreating or neglecting them at home or had a learning disability that was profoundly impacting their self-confidence. We would all forgive our children if we took a moment to understand that their actions are almost never guided by malicious intent. We would all forgive ourselves if we remembered that mistakes are part of being human, and they do not make us any less lovable.
Understanding forgiveness teaches us to recognize our shared humanity
To apologize sincerely is to recognize the shared humanity between yourself and the person you have hurt. It shows self-reflection and awareness. To allow the other party the time and space they need to process your apology and offer forgiveness is a display of compassion and humility. And to forgive easily when the tables have turned is to live in a state of empathy, non-attachment, and freedom./