What Young Kids Know About Forgiveness

A new study suggests that preschoolers prefer people who are forgiving
By Maryam Abdullah
Maryam Abdullah
Maryam Abdullah
June 13, 2019 Updated: June 14, 2019

As much as we try to teach our kids to do good, research suggests that they already have the seeds of goodness within them. Kids as young as 18 months old spontaneously help othersenjoy helping, and prefer people who are kind.

For the first time, a new study suggests that preschoolers value another relationship-enhancing strength in others: forgiveness.

Psychologists Janine Oostenbroek and Amrisha Vaish studied forgiveness with 20 4-year-olds and 20 5-year-olds. The children lived in the mid-Atlantic region of the United States, were mostly white, and nearly all had parents who were college graduates.

The researchers showed children different videos where one character shows the second character, Susie, a new toy that she is excited about. Susie picks up the toy to admire it, but accidentally breaks it. Susie responds remorsefully, apologizes, and says that she didn’t mean for that to happen. The toy owner responds with sadness and initially says she is upset with Susie.

Half of the videos end with forgiveness and the other half end without forgiveness. In the forgiving videos, the toy owner eventually tells Susie that she recognizes she is sorry and that she is no longer upset with her. In the unforgiving videos, she also tells Susie that she knows she is sorry, but that she is still really upset with her.

After testing the children for their understanding, the researchers asked about their judgments of the situation. They asked the kids whom Susie liked more (the forgiving or unforgiving character), whom they preferred to play with, whom they thought would push Susie off the swings, and whom they thought was not so nice—and why. Finally, the researchers gave the children three flowers and told them that they could give some to the toy owners (whom the researchers were going to see) if they liked.

The findings? Both 4- and 5-year-olds understood that Susie damaged the toys. Most 4-year-olds and all 5-year-olds understood that the toy owner was upset about it. Children of both ages had a good understanding of the toy owner forgiving or not forgiving.

But their judgments of the situation were different. While 4-year-olds had mixed judgments, the 5-year-olds’ judgments were more consistent: They more often wanted to play with the forgiving character and expected that Susie would like this person. They also thought the unforgiving character was not so nice and expected them to push Susie off the swing.

Compared to 4-year-olds, 5-year-olds also showed advanced understanding and reasoning about forgiveness. For example, when researchers asked why they thought Susie liked the forgiving character more, 5-year-olds’ explanations used words other than those used in the videos.

Finally, both 4- and 5-year-olds gave more flowers to the forgiving victim compared to the unforgiving victim. But, again, the 5-year-olds gave more sophisticated justifications for how they distributed the flowers, including ones that referenced morality and goodness, like “because she’s a nicer person” or “because she did the right thing.”

In short, 5-year-olds consistently—and 4-year-olds less consistently—prefer and have positive impressions of victims who are forgiving compared to those who are not. Both 4- and 5-year-olds are more generous toward forgiving victims. These findings suggest that children as young as 5 have a hearty appreciation of the social value of forgiveness and that this value begins to emerge by age 4.

The authors take this as evidence that showing forgiveness is one of the ways that humans have historically maintained cooperation.

“We [propose] that forgiveness displays convey to the transgressor and to observers that the forgiver is a reliable cooperation partner who values her relationships,” explained Oostenbroek and Vaish. “Forgiveness displays thus serve deep-rooted and vital social functions, and do so from early in development.”

Trucks will lose their wheels, and a doll’s clothes are bound to rip during playtime. Instead of acting in revenge and further harming their relationships, children can act on their instinct to be forgiving. As a parent, then, you can begin having conversations with your preschoolers about how forgiveness can help mend friendships that have been fractured by conflict—even if the toys remain broken.

Maryam Abdullah, Ph.D., is the parenting program director of the Greater Good Science Center. She is a developmental psychologist with expertise in parent-child relationships and children’s development of prosocial behaviors. This article was first published in the Greater Good Magazine online.

Maryam Abdullah
Maryam Abdullah