Ask Dr. Forgiveness

When I was a child my parents would often ask my brother and me to shake hands and “just forgive” each other when we had an argument. It was as if the “I forgive you” was the finishing touch of moving ahead to something else. As a result, I have come to think of forgiveness as a somewhat superficial way to solve problems. What do you suggest I now do as a father so that my children do not grow up with a superficial understanding of what it means to forgive?

Your sense is correct: How we teach our children about forgiveness may have some lasting impressions which remain with them into adulthood. I do not necessarily mean that no further understanding will develop. Instead I mean that the impressions created in childhood (forgiveness is important; forgiveness is unimportant; forgiveness is about loving others; forgiveness is like a quick handshake) remain long after childhood.

A key is this: Do not water-down what forgiveness is. Yes, simplify, but do not distort. For example, our first grade (in the USA) teacher/parent guide for forgiveness education (for 6-year-olds) teaches children that forgiveness:

1. occurs in the context of unfairness;

2. involves seeing the inherent worth of all, including those who hurt them;

3. involves the moral qualities of kindness, respect, generosity, and love;

4. does not necessarily include reconciling if the other is dangerous;

5. does not mean that we throw justice out the window.

This may seem like a lot to ask of 6-year-olds and it is. The teacher or parent teaches through stories such as Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who. The children are able to grasp all five concepts above and then to put them into action in the classroom and playground when peer conflicts arise. The instructional guides provide questions and answers for the children as the instructor reads each book.

The first-grade curriculum guide is available, along with guides from pre-kindergarten (age 4) through grade 11 (again, using the USA grade system) for age 16-17, in our Store.

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I am very upset by the regular occurrences of mass shootings in the United States. This one that occurred yesterday in Connecticut is just too much to even imagine. I know this is a large problem with many ways to solve it. Please share your views about how to put a stop to this.

We share your view that what happened in Connecticut is unspeakable evil. We have been committed for the past decade to anger reduction in children and youth. Without a systematic way to address this growing problem, we will continue to be stunned by the aggression pouring forth from young men in the United States in particular. Anger is gripping too many youth and we must stop it. I am not exaggerating the extent of emotional struggle in our youth. A major study published about two years ago stated that almost 50% of adolescents in America have a psychiatric disorder. Excessive anger is a significant aspect of this, shall we call it an, epidemic.

Our approach, which has scientific backing, is to have developmentally appropriate forgiveness education curriculum guides for teachers. We have these from pre-kindergarten through grade 11. Teachers spend about one hour a week for about 12-15 weeks and anger can be reduced from clinical or near-clinical levels to normal levels of anger in students. Perhaps it is time for school districts to take seriously this approach to improving the emotional health of students at all levels of development.

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I have heard some people say that forgiveness runs counter to justice movements because it cuts into the anger that can energize people to stand up for what is right. What is your reaction to this criticism of forgiveness?

I think the criticism is based on a confusion of what forgiveness is. The criticism also fails to distinguish kinds of anger. Forgiveness is not practiced in isolation from the other moral virtues, particularly justice. As a person forgives, he or she can and should stand up for what is right. Forgiveness and justice can stand side-by-side.

There is healthy anger and unhealthy anger. Resentment, an abiding, deep sense ill-will toward another, is an unhealthy kind of anger. In contrast, righteous anger, the kind that says, “You cannot treat me this way and I ask for a change,” can energize a person and help create justice. Forgiveness targets the unhealthy kind of anger, the kind that can destroy self and other.

When we make these distinctions (forgiveness in isolation vs forgiveness working with justice; healthy vs unhealthy anger), I hope you can see that forgiveness does not thwart justice. In fact, asking for justice without fuming anger might lead to a better justice.

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There are so many talk and reality shows on television that feed the anger monster. I guess it is supposedly entertaining to see people being deeply upset with each other. To what extent does our seeing this kind of “entertainment” affect how we view our own anger and how we express that anger to others?

You raise an important point for us all. We might be witnessing a shift in our American culture, and anywhere else where such “entertainment” is exported, in this way: heated expressions of anger might be seen now as more acceptable than in decades past. If that is the case, then perhaps our norms are shifting so that expressing and harboring intense anger is seen as more acceptable. Research shows that deep and abiding anger is not healthy for the one who has this nor for those who receive it. We need to realize that toxic/unhealthy/intense and abiding anger is not healthy and not acceptable. Forgiveness is one way of reducing and even eliminating this kind of anger.

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I have a couple of friends who are so caught up in their “rights” that they forgive too much. It annoys me. A waiter is too slow with the food, they think their “rights” are being usurped and they forgive. Their husbands are tired and not so attentive one evening. They think their “rights” are being usurped and they forgive. I think all of this “rights” business and forgiveness is phony. In this case, forgiveness is not helping them at all. Instead it is serving to keep them stuck on themselves. What do you think? Might forgiveness under this circumstance be harmful?

You raise a number of issues worthy of consideration. I will make three points that might be helpful.

1. Genuine forgiveness, even when practiced frequently and for small issues, is legitimate because forgiveness is centered on the good. To forgive is the practice of goodness and everyone should be free to decide when and if they will forgive. So, this really is the choice of your friends.

2. You seem to be concerned with what we call false forgiveness. In this case, false forgiveness takes the form of dominance or power over others. If a person wants such power, he or she can feign hurt, openly forgive the other person, and continually remind him or her of the need to be forgiven. This is not helpful to anyone because it is not a true form of forgiveness and, depending on the situation, might incorporate control over others.

3. Practicing genuine forgiveness for the little things of life can increase practice of this difficult-to-master virtue. Thus, forgiving for the little things can be growth producing. Please see our Adult Forum discussion of these “little things” and forgiveness in our Forum section.

Now, it seems to me that your frustration regards point 2 above, the false form of forgiveness. A psychiatrist, Dr. Hunter, in an early article on the psychology of forgiveness published in 1978, made the point that most of us can identify the false form of forgiveness because there is a “smug” quality to the “forgiver.” I am suspecting that you see that in your friends. If so, you can help them by pointing out the three issues above and gently discussing the fine points of each, without accusation or judgment. Include yourself in the discussion so that this is not a blaming session, but instead an educational opportunity.

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