Teaching Young Children Values: Friendship and Forgiveness

Forgiveness is part of relationships.  Children develop forgiveness in stages, as they develop social skills and gain experiences. Like all other aspects of moral development, developing forgiveness takes coaching and instructing from parents.

Two and three year olds   

Two and three year olds are concrete thinkers, so they may not understand abstract concepts like forgiveness.  Two year olds in particular may not have a very clear idea of friendship, as they will generally play in parallel with other friends instead of with them. In general, three year olds begin to become more aware of others and to form relationships with other children. Depending on their maturity, three year olds may be able to distinguish between different emotions, such as being sad, happy or mad.   

What you can do   

At this age, children who are playing together require supervision. You don’t necessarily have to play with them, but be in the area so you can catch a dispute before it erupts.  You can start working on behavioral expectations for the two and three year old. You can tell them friends share or take turns and that they should never hit, pinch or bite someone. You can also explain that friends are nice to one another, and don’t say mean things.  Teach them to say they are sorry if they do something unkind to another child or to you. Try to explain that when someone says they are sorry, both people feel better.    

Four and five year olds   

Four and five year olds are beginning to understand the concept of friendship, and so will be able to better understand being hurt and forgiving. They can be affectionate to others, but they can also be exclusive and inadvertently mean to other children.  They are more verbal and are beginning to control their emotions better.   

What you can do   

Children still need supervision during play, so intervene if something goes wrong between siblings or friends. You can also model with your children appropriate ways to behave. For instance, if your child upsets you, state your feelings and be clear about what behavior you don’t like. State what behavior you’d like to see. For instance: ‘I feel upset when you say mean things to your sister. I’d like you to say you’re sorry to her, and to say nice things to her next time you play.’ For the person that has been offended, model forgiveness: ‘Your brother isn’t perfect. Sometimes he makes mistakes. When he says he’s sorry, he means it. Try to forgive him.’ It takes practice for children to say they are sorry, as well as to understand the concept of forgiveness and to forgive someone else. Talk to your children about the right way to behave, and if you offend your children (as we all sometimes do), say you’re sorry.  

Six and seven year olds   

Six and seven year olds have a more developed sense of emotional maturity. They can sometimes see something from another person’s perspective.  They are more compassionate and kind to others, and have an easier time verbalizing their feelings.  They also tend to be more competitive with each other, and jealousies begin to form within groups of children or with siblings.   

What you can do   

Encourage children to be sensitive to the needs of others.  Explain that excluding children from play is not nice.  Describe behavior that is unacceptable, such as yelling, calling people names, and hurting others physically. Discuss appropriate behavior with friends, such as taking turns and being kind.  When children are wounded by others, model how they should verbalize their feelings: ‘I feel hurt when you don’t play with me. Can you say you’re sorry?’ Explain that they too make mistakes, and it’s ok to forgive their friends. However, children can be exclusive—and even abusive. If your child continues to be emotionally hurt by another child, encourage him or her to seek out other, nicer friends. In the event of hitting, kicking, or pinching, make sure your child knows to tell you or a teacher right away. 

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