The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Moving lessons on forgiveness out of religious spaces and into schools

8 min

Forgiveness is known as a virtue that is preached in churches and other places of worship. Until recently, it was not a subject that was taught in the classroom. Suzanne Freedman, a professor of education at the University of Northern Iowa, wants to change that.

“The increase in school shootings, bullying, violence and discrimination experienced by children and adolescents,” she said, is evidence that schools are failing to help their students cope in a healthy way with trauma and deep hurt.

Freedman is one of a team of researchers led by Robert Enright, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, who have been developing practical methods for helping young people cultivate forgiveness for more than three decades. Their workbooks and teacher training programs have been shared with thousands of educators worldwide.

Enright and others point to research that shows the mental health benefits of forgiveness.

Karen Swartz, the director of the Adolescent Depression Awareness Program, a project of Johns Hopkins Medicine, says that people who forgive are less anxious and angry and have lower blood pressure, improved cholesterol levels and a better quality of sleep. Studies also show that children who learn how to forgive are better adjusted socially and have higher levels of self-esteem than those who don’t. They even perform better academically.

Enright says that within his field, the idea of teaching forgiveness in nonreligious settings was not immediately accepted.

When he and his colleagues began looking into forgiveness in the mid-1980s, a religious stigma attached to the subject made it difficult to get funding for research. But resistance from the scientific community gradually faded away, Enright said, as the benefits of forgiveness were empirically demonstrated. There are now well over a thousand scientific papers on the psychological impact of practicing forgiveness, Enright said.

Nowadays, forgiveness researchers face criticism from a surprising new direction: religious believers who resent what they see as an intrusion onto their home turf.

“When they say, ‘You are stealing our stuff,’ I ask them: ‘How deeply do you know forgiveness? Are you really talking about it in an accurate way?’” Enright said. “You practically never hear sermons on forgiveness that are practical and give clear instructions on how to approach it. I say to them, ‘You guys are not really doing your job, not to the depths that you could be, so why don’t we work together?’”

Mount St. Michael’s Primary School, a Catholic school in Randalstown, Northern Ireland, 23 miles from Belfast, has taken Enright up on his offer. The school recently paired up with a Protestant school in the same town, to offer forgiveness education to a joint class of 7-to-9-year-olds.

“We really need this over here,” St. Michael’s Principal Philip Lavery said. “We teach children how to read and write, but we have to spend more time teaching them how to live, how to be members of a society.”

That is especially important, he says, in a nation that has been torn for decades by religious violence. In their forgiveness journals, one preadolescent from Northern Ireland wrote: “We need to learn this to be friends.” Another observed that only through forgiveness and unselfish love “can we leave the past behind us.”

Stranmillis University College in Belfast includes forgiveness education for all students in its teacher training program, where they learn the protocol developed by Enright and his team at the University of Wisconsin.

The first step in the process is to admit that one has been hurt and is angry, Enright said, adding that it is important to process those negative emotions and not sweep them under the rug prematurely. After children have sufficiently grappled with their feelings and made the conscious decision to forgive, their teacher encourages them to reframe the way they view the offender.

Freedman taught forgiveness in a low-income school in Waterloo, Iowa, for a year. She gave her fifth-graders dollar store “magic glasses,” she said, to help them “expand their view of the person who hurt them, to see that there are reasons for their behavior, they are not just a monster, but a complex individual” who deserves kindness and respect. She emphasized that we don’t forgive for the sake of the other person, but for our own mental well-being.

Amiaha Weatherly, a high school senior from Marshalltown, Iowa, who took Freedman’s forgiveness class, agrees that the main person who benefits is the one who forgives. “When I forgave this person for the things they did to me, it felt like weights coming off my shoulders. I felt like a completely different person,” Weatherly recalled. “I tell my friends to forgive instead of holding grudges because everyone is human and humans make mistakes. That helped me forgive someone I have been fighting with for years.”

Weatherly also learned in forgiveness class that you don’t have to wait for an apology to forgive. Furthermore, you can forgive someone and still choose for them to not be in your life. Whether you end up reconciling or not, she says, you forgive to free yourself, not the other person.

Another student of Freedman’s, Shyanne Sporrer, is now a 23-year-old graduate student in educational psychology at the University of Northern Iowa. She used to think that forgiving someone who does wrong lets them off the hook. She viewed it as a sign of weakness.

“I grew up believing that the power was held by the one who showed the anger,” she said. But the class made her aware, she said, that holding on to a grudge makes one weak not strong. It keeps one locked in the role of the victim.

“Forgiving does not mean you are giving up power,” Sporrer observed. “On the contrary, when you forgive, you are the person who is in control. By forgiving, you can empower yourself to move forward from the anger and resentment to be a better version of yourself.”

While the aim is for young people to appreciate the benefits of forgiveness, teachers are urged not to have any expectations. “We’re very clear that children don’t have to forgive, it’s their choice,” Enright insisted. “We let them take a look at what it really means to forgive, but we never impose it.”

While it is never too early to learn about forgiveness, Frederic Luskin, the director of the Stanford University Forgiveness Project, says he is cautious when introducing the youngest children to the subject.

“You want to teach kids that whatever happened to them is wrong,” Luskin said. “By no means does forgiveness minimize the hurt and loss. It’s only when kids can articulate the harm, can say why it is wrong — before then forgiveness is not appropriate.”

If a child has not yet developed healthy ego boundaries and a sense of right and wrong, he explained, they may take the blame on themselves when someone else — especially an adult who is in a position of power — harms them. Real forgiveness, on the other hand, can only happen when you clearly know that you have been wronged, but still freely choose to release your anger and resentment.

Forgiveness work, Luskin said, is an ongoing struggle that often entails grappling with profound injustices within society.

Luskin has been working with Jonathan Adanene, a 26-year-old MBA student, to help him set up an after-school program for inner-city youths in Minneapolis after the murder of George Floyd left the community in turmoil.

The group of 9-to-13-year-olds meets five times a week at a local fitness center. Adanene leads them in a mix of yoga sequences and breath work.

He ends with a forgiveness meditation and shares some practical tips about how to forgive others and also themselves.

“We spend a lot of the class talking about who they forgave and how it made them feel,” Adanene said. “Many of them never even heard about forgiveness before, and they don’t see a lot of it in their lives.” He says there is a cycle of retaliation and gun violence in the Black community that has been hard for him to watch. “Kids tend to hang onto things too long. I want to help them to break that cycle.”

Adanene recalls one 11-year-old in his group, Jameer, who was inspired to forgive his brother and mother after a fight. “It’s just amazing,” Jameer said. “I’ve never been so happy in my life.”

To help support the project, Adanene designed a T-shirt that he will be selling online that sums up his philosophy. The front of the shirt reads, “Choose forgiveness.” On the back are the words, “Forgive others, not because they deserve forgiveness, but because you deserve peace.”