It is easy for most children to nurse a grievance against someone, but difficult to forgive. Forgiveness not only heals hurt feelings, but also fosters hope and friendship

Forgiveness is the basis for friendship and for building long-term relationships. A child who learns to forgive learns to open up his heart and reflect on his own feelings and thoughts. Yet, it is becoming very difficult to teach our children the value of forgiveness. The words "I'm so sorry" have become rather mechanical. The media, too, in its own way glamorises revenge, and 'hitting back'. To 'turn the other cheek' is synonymous with being a wimp, and is misconstrued as an indication of weakness. However, nothing could be further from the truth.

Forgiveness requires qualities such as generosity, courage, and faith. A child who learns how to let go of a grudge has learned to heal himself and this will take him far in life. Dr. Robert Enright, a professor at the University of Wisconsin, has researched how the ability to forgive is related to a child's self-esteem.

The act of forgiveness means much more than passively accepting an apology. It is a welcoming healing act for both the giver and the receiver. When people forgive others, they feel more hopeful, less anxious and depressed, says Dr. Enright. You don't feel like a victim who has been betrayed.

Dr. Enright points out that children's ideas of forgiveness change over time. Babies obviously don't have any sense of their ability to hurt or forgive but they still need to learn the language of emotions.

When Mum tells her four-month-old daughter, "You're so happy!" or "Does your hand hurt?" and blows soothing kisses on her palm, she is helping her child learn that emotions have words. Before a baby can understand another's feelings, she has to understand her own feelings. Around the age of two or three years, toddlers begin to understand that their behaviour (both positive and negative) affects others. When Dad says, "Billy, you made me so happy the way you shared your toy with Sam", Billy realises he has the power to make his father feel happy.

By the time a child is four or five years old, she is capable of feeling sympathy and can put herself in another's shoes. However, the dominant feeling is a desire for revenge: "I can't forgive my friend until she is punished for hurting me." Parents and teachers can help children see that retaliation doesn't help. Around the age of nine, friendships are on a roller coaster, anyway. Yesterday's best friend becomes today's worst enemy, and in a paradoxical way, this helps children learn forgiveness almost on a daily basis.

They know that sooner or later they too will need to be forgiven! Take a typical situation. Ten-year-old Cannon Baker comes home from school and tells his mother, "I hate Ben, and never want to talk to him again." Five minutes later when the phone rings, it is Ben wanting to apologise, but Cannon isn't ready to forgive. Cannon's mother spends the entire evening asking Cannon to weigh his hurt feelings against the strength of their friendship. Cannon thinks it over, and invites Ben over to play. It is his way of saying, 'I forgive you'.

Children learn forgiveness from their parents. If you find it really hard to forgive your friends, your children may pick up that same attitude from you. Or, if you never say sorry to your children, the harder it could be for them to forgive others.

Four simple steps to teaching forgiveness

Here is what you can do when your six-year-old comes home in tears because her friend, Annie, called her stupid.

- Let your child express her feelings of anger. You can add, "No one likes to be called names. No wonder you are feeling upset."

- Ask her what she wants to do about her angry feelings. Help her deal with feelings of revenge and hatred. Ask her, "Will calling Annie more names make you feel better? Don't you think it'll make things worse?"

- Explain that even good people do bad things sometimes. Ask your child, "Why do you think Annie called you a name? Was she upset about something else?" Help her learn that actions have complex causes.

- Finally, suggest something she can do to resume a relationship with Annie. Don't force the issue as only she can make the decision to forgive or not.

Dr. Onita Nakra has a Ph.D. in Educational Psychology from the University of Minnesota, U.S.A. Her specialisation is in assessment, diagnosis and intervention methods for children with special needs.