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3 Words That Change Everything For a Child

I entered my son's bedroom to find him wrapped in a blanket, his lovey in his hands and his favorite book on his lap. Tears rimmed his baby blue eyes, threatening to fall at any moment. Minutes earlier, he made a hasty Irish exit in the middle of a debate about the grand opening of a new car hotel. Although he was only gone a few minutes, it was clear that a lot went through his mind during that time.

"It looks like you're feeling really sad right now," I whispered as I cuddled up next to him.

Silence.

"Did you get a little overwhelmed when you guys had trouble working together?"

Silence.

I hugged him close as the tears made their way down his cheeks and onto my chest. When I felt him relax in my arms, I uttered the three words that changed everything for the better:

"I forgive you."

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My kids have very different personalities. Most of the time, this works to their advantage. They see the world through different lenses, and that enables them to learn from one another and help each other out. Sometimes, they dig in their heels. While these standoffs don't have much of an effect on my daughter, my son tends to feel very big feelings. He knows when he makes a mistake, and he internalizes his feelings of guilt and remorse.

Parents talk a lot about apologies and forgiveness. "Say sorry," we tell a child when he takes a toy without asking or forgets to wait a turn. "We forgive you," we respond, speaking for the child who was wronged. We have the best intentions when we engage in these little conversations involving apologies and forgiveness, but there's more to forgiveness than acceptance of a forced apology on the playground.

We talk a lot about the process of forgiveness in our house. What does it mean to truly forgive? What do we have to do to reach a place of forgiveness? We talk about it, but we also practice it.

Testing limits is part of growing up and differentiating.

Those three little words — I forgive you — might seem small and insignificant, but they are three very powerful words. In using these words, we choose to let go of anger and other heated emotions. We choose to move forward together.

Children hear a lot of feedback about what they're doing wrong and what they shouldn't do. They hear a lot "no." They hear a lot of, "Why did you ...?" They hear a lot of, "Say you're sorry."

But what they don't hear enough of is, "I forgive you."

Testing limits is part of growing up and differentiating. Making mistakes is only human. While we might say that to our children at the end of a long day, what we really need to do is practice forgiveness.

Kids carry around their emotions in different ways. Some seem to wear their feelings on their sleeves while others stuff them down somewhere deep inside. Either way, when we practice forgiveness with our children, we give them permission to feel big feelings, make mistakes along the way and begin again. When we use words of forgiveness with our children, we teach them to do the same.

My son took in my words that day and decided to try again. We walked down the stairs, hand-in-hand, without saying much of anything at all. When he found his sister waiting for him, they said, "I'm sorry" and "I forgive you" and hugs and laughs.

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And then, there was play.

We often tell children to use their words, but sometimes we forget to use our own. Use your words. Practice forgiveness. Teach your children that life is bigger than one small misstep along the way.

Image via Twenty20/Ktlisitsin

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