Teaching Children about Guilt and Forgiveness

If there is one thing Ellen and I practiced in our years of parenting that we did not relinquish or modify as our parenting developed, it was how we taught the children about forgiveness. Leaning on materials donated to us by my sister* we learned that there is a difference between saying “I’m sorry” and asking for forgiveness. This lesson is something we share with every engaged couple whom we mentor for marriage and every parent we meet in preparation for the baptism of a child.

Although “I’m sorry” and “I accept your apology” are the mainstream way to smooth over a wound, the words don’t accurately communicate what the soul really needs. We usher two children involved in an altercation into this ritual then tell them to shake hands or hug to seal the half-hearted acquiescence to our demands for harmony. The exchange always seems to lack something because it bears no reference to what the parties ought to exchange. When I say “I’m sorry” I am expressing regret, not really asking for anything, though a request may be implied – amounting, on the surface, to a request that you acknowledge my sorrow. When I say “I accept your apology” I am not really getting anything or giving anything, I’m assenting to the fact that you regret what you did, which is only the beginning.

When I knew one of my children had offended Ellen, I would discuss the offense with them. Ideally, I would determine if the act was a mere accident or an act of the will. I would also discuss the moral nature of the act. If the act was immoral, then I would encourage my child to ask Ellen for forgiveness with these words: “Mom, will you forgive me for . . .” and in place of those three dots my child would state the offense. I especially emphasize this part of the request. Giving verbal expression of our actions is beneficial for us and the healing process. We are owning what we have done as we hear it sound in our own ears and we are showing the victim we actually know we did something wrong and it invites them to respond.

At this point, Ellen could give one of three responses:

  1. I love you, but that’s not what you did to offend me. Can we talk about what you did that hurt me?
  2. I love you and I’m rather angry/hurt/emotional right now. I need some time before we discuss this.
  3. I love you and I forgive you. Here’s why I was offended . . . .

Once the forgiveness is granted, we celebrated the mending with a hug and a kiss. (Note: I do not entertain here the possibility of not granting forgiveness, except to say Christ provides no room in the Christian heart for this option.)

Those who see guilt as a fabrication or manipulation might criticize the probing of offenses with our children, but distinctions matter if we are going to properly form our children’s understanding of sin and guilt as well as self-examination. We do not want our children thinking they have to ask forgiveness for amoral or accidental acts. I hazard to guess that too many people from a young age have been excoriated for things that were in these categories. Abuses of this nature can have a considerable effect on psyches and consciences, leading so many to suppress or ignore guilt and to criticize the faith and religion in general.

Regret or sorrow after giving offense is healthy. Our world, however, appears to have no idea what to do with guilt. When people quip about “Catholic guilt” I like to say the only reason anyone utters the tattered cliche: Guilt is real and experienced by everyone, but they don’t know what to do with it. Catholics do (or ought to). We acknowledge guilt and act on it. We seek forgiveness with those whom we offend and the Lord, who is the only one who can completely heal our troubled consciences.

When something is torn, we can try to repair it, but evidence of repair may remain for a while even if it can be well covered up in some cases. When we rend our relationships with one another, we need to mend the relationship with more than an expression of regret. For the Christian, the mending involves three parties. God, as the Divine Physician can bring a complete healing to any wound, leaving no trace of repair.


* From “Growing Kids God’s Way” by Gary and Anne Marie Ezzo (video here)

Have you struggled with a proper sense of guilt or asking forgiveness? Do you have a perspective that I have not considered here? There’s a lot more here we could discuss, so please share your comments below. If you like our content, click “like” and share with your family and friends.

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