Let me tell you a story.
This happened while I was at work one day. A woman came through my check out line. She had her two grandchildren with her, one boy and one girl, and like many customers who shop at this particular store, was paying very little attention to them. The grandchildren, as small children who are largely left to their own devices are wont to do, were being as big nuisances as they could manage. They were under other customers’ feet, they were knocking things off shelves, and they were throwing candy and junk in their grandmother’s cart. Their grandmother, proving that she was not completely ineffectual as their guardian, took the candy out and had them put it back where they found it.
The children did not put it back where they found it. They put it on a completely different shelf, which, once I had the time to do so, I would have to correct. As they flounced off, the little boy, accidentally or otherwise, shoved the little girl into the shelf. Naturally, the girl started wailing.
The sound finally pulled grandma’s eyes from the smartphone she was struggling to figure out, to the kids she was supposed to be watching. Rather than asking questions in order to determine what had happened while she wasn’t paying attention, she sharply commanded her granddaughter to stop crying. And because no one has ever stopped crying simply because someone told them to, the girl kept crying, and the boy started giggling, because, after all, he was the author of the chaos now unfolding.
“What?” the grandma demanded. “What did you do? Why is she crying?”
The girl wailed something in toddler-speak which sounded vaguely like “He pushed me,” pointing an accusing finger at her (presumably) brother.
“Is that all?” The grandmother rolled her eyes. “Stop crying, you’re not hurt. You,” and here she pointed at the boy, “apologize to her.”
Still giggling and grinning a shit-eating grin, the boy choked out a half-hearted apology, which of course did nothing to appease the upset little girl. The grandmother, on the other hand, was perfectly satisfied with her grandson’s insincere apology. “There now,” she told the girl. “He said he’s sorry, now it’s your turn to forgive him. Go ahead and tell him it’s okay.”
Now, this incident is a relatively innocent one, and I’m sure the grandmother thought she was teaching her grandchildren a valuable lesson, but it still bothered me. Forgiveness is something Christians like to harp on, but they never really define it. Dictionary.com defines the word forgive as this: “to grant pardon for or remission of (an offense, debt, etc.); absolve.” To forgive someone is to say that whatever that person did doesn’t matter anymore. That the wound has healed, and whatever they did to cause it doesn’t hurt anymore. And forgiveness can be freeing and an important step in the healing process; to forgive someone is to take the Band-aid off after the wound has scabbed over. But to force someone who is still hurting to forgive another before they are ready is like taking off the Band-aid too soon. They’re only going to start bleeding again.
Teaching children that an apology, sincere or not, is enough to absolve them of the hurts they’ve caused others is how they become toxic. It encourages the type of behavior that begets rape culture. What we should be teaching our children and our grandchildren is that sometimes sorry isn’t enough, that some hurts are too great to heal with a few kind words and a hug. And, more importantly, we should be teaching them that they are not owed forgiveness just because they said they were sorry.
Being forgiven isn’t for your peace of mind. It’s for the peace of mind of the person doing the forgiving.