Teaching children forgiveness is all about seeing the other person’s perspective, study suggests

RALEIGH, N.C. — Want to teach a child how to truly forgive someone else? Help them understand the other person’s perspective, according to a new study. Scientists from North Carolina State University report helping a child mentally put themselves in another person’s shoes for a moment may help them better understand how to forgive other people. Additionally, teaching a child how to make a sincere apology may also help youngsters receive forgiveness from others more easily.

“Forgiveness is important in children and adults for restoring relationships and limiting future conflicts,” says lead study author Kelly Lynn Mulvey, associate professor of psychology at NC State, in a university release. “But we didn’t know much about what makes children more likely to forgive others, particularly from early childhood to adolescence. That’s what we wanted to explore with our study.”

A total of 185 children (ages 5-14) took part in the study. Each child underwent an in-depth interview intended to gauge their “theory of mind” skills, which refers to one’s capacity to understand that someone else’s beliefs, intentions, and desires are different from their own. Researchers led each child through a series of scenarios involving other children who were either part of the “in group” or “out group.”

To start, the team assigned each child to a specific group, for example, the “green team.” For the rest of the interview, other kids were either described as being part of the same group (green team) or a different group (yellow). At the end of each scenario, researchers asked the youngsters if they would be willing to forgive a group that left them out of a game or activity.

‘Kids have sophisticated abilities to forgive’

This process yielded three main findings. The first is that kids are more likely to forgive someone else if they’ve previously apologized themselves. Also, children were more likely to forgive “in-group” peers. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the higher a child scored in terms of “theory of mind” skills, the more likely they were to forgive others.

“We found that kids have sophisticated abilities to forgive others,” Mulvey explains. “Children are capable of restoring relationships with others, and are usually interested in doing so.”

Consequently, study authors suggest parents and teachers focus on two major factors while instilling forgiveness in children. To start, help kids understand how important it is to apologize meaningfully.

Children are capable of discerning an insincere apology, and insincere apologies were not conducive to encouraging forgiveness,” Mulvey comments. “The apology needs to make clear that someone understands why what they did was wrong. This, in turn, makes other kids more likely to give them a second chance.”

Next, help kids take on the perspectives of others, even if they may be “out of group.”

“One of the biggest implications of our study is that teachers and parents need to actively help children cultivate theory of mind skills,” Mulvey concludes. “A good starting point is getting kids to explain the rationale behind their actions and how this might make other people feel. Helping young people develop these skills in childhood will aid them in navigating a diverse and complex world.”

The study is published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology.