I cringed when I saw her wiggling in her chair in the restaurant. “Hey,” I whispered, “do you need to go to the bathroom?” She wrinkled up her nose, as I knew she would. “I already go-ed.” I tried to subdue the growing frustration in my head. I bit my lip and sternly and coolly said, “Let’s go to the potty… right now.” Cue the dramatic crying, the stomping, the protesting. She knew she did something wrong, and I probably embarrassed her. Of course, a four-year-old can’t really process those emotions that well. Thus, tears.
Back in the car, I buckled her baby brother first. The lateness of the day was made apparent by his tired whining. Let’s just get everyone home and in bed as soon as possible, I thought. By the time I had coaxed little baby’s flailing arms through the straps of his car seat, she still had not buckled herself. “You have to the count of three to buckle yourself, and then I will do it for you.” The annoyance from her “accident” was quite evident in my voice. Finally my impatience, coupled with her grand frustration, bubbled over. I tugged at the car seat straps while she swatted my hands and wiggled her legs, trying to prevent me from reaching the buckle. I gritted my teeth, trying not to completely lose it. I put my face right into hers, holding her wrist, all the while repeating, “Stop it, stop it, stop it.” Customers in the parking lot witnessed everything. I was so embarrassed.
Somehow, she gave up the fight. I finished buckling her and drove home, fuming. I was mad at her for causing a scene, and at myself for not being able to handle it.
No one said a word, whether it was out of the tension, exasperation, maybe even mere tiredness, or a combination of the three. Nevertheless, the car ride gave us each some time to calm down. When we got home, I unbuckled her and mustered up a much warmer and approachable voice, “Look. You made two mistakes tonight. Now is your chance to make them right. Your first mistake was not using the bathroom when you should have. We can make that right with a quick tubby. The second mistake was to scream and hit me when I tried to buckle you in. You can make that right by saying sorry. So what do you say?” She had her tear-smeared face down while I gave my explanation, but when I put the question out there, she seemed a little surprised and perked up a bit, as if she realized that a simple apology was all there was to fixing a wrong. “Sorry,” she mumbled and sobbed. I helped her out of the car after a great bear hug and encouraged her to head upstairs for the bath.
The rest of the night she was quick to respond to the bedtime routine and more than happy to help with her baby brother. Forgiveness had released her and she beamed in her freedom. And her willingness to help and take care of her bedtime obligations was her affirmation to me that she had forgiven me for my impatience and shortness.
Kids need to know that they are loved, and demonstrating forgiveness confirms that love. Without a forgiving hug, a child will wallow in their own self-pity until they start to believe that somehow, they became “a bad kid”. Forgiveness gives a child closure. I doubt her misbehavior would have magically ended had I maintained the stern face and cold demeanor.
Give kids a way to make it right, because the freedom of forgiveness is incomplete without it. A punishment alone teaches a child that the mistake is bad. But no consequence at all dismisses the misbehavior and eliminates the responsibility. The “making it right” strategy gave my daughter an exit for the shame of her mistake. It channeled her stubborn independence so that she could take care of what she could control. In short, she knew she was forgiven, and she was able to move on.
Getting a kid to say “I’m sorry” is not all that difficult, but having them appreciate the meaning behind the words is the tricky part. For them to fully comprehend their responsibility and take control of the mistake, they have to know forgiveness. Where there is love, they will be more willing and eager to “make it right”.
Do you know you are forgiven, or do you still hold on to your guilt, like the child who continues to commit the same misbehaviors? Do you assume responsibility for your actions, or do you avoid thinking about it, uttering a meaningless “sorry” as a jaded and aloof kid?
In our own grappling with sin, let us never forget, the battle has been won. Our sins were nailed to a cross. Let us serve Him then, and “make it right”, not because His sacrifice was insufficient, but because our love and gratitude for Him is abundant. For when we start to comprehend the immense love and forgiveness of Christ, the “make it right” desire bubbles over, and we beam like a preschooler eager to show her mom how well she brushed her teeth.
Kim is a former marathon runner and high school French teacher turned a Catholic wife and stay-at-home mother of four littles all under the age of 5.