North Carolina State University study outlines ways to help children learn forgiveness
The Sector > Research > Understanding Children > North Carolina State University study outlines ways to help children learn forgiveness

North Carolina State University study outlines ways to help children learn forgiveness

by Freya Lucas

December 21, 2021

A study conducted by North Carolina State University suggests that teaching children to understand other people’s perspectives could make it easier for them to learn how to forgive other people. 


The study also found that teaching children to make sincere apologies can help them receive forgiveness from others. 


“Forgiveness is important in children and adults for restoring relationships and limiting future conflicts,” Associate Professor Kelly Lynn Mulvey, lead author of the study said. 


Researchers wanted to learn more about what makes children more likely to forgive others, particularly from early childhood to adolescence. To that end, Mulvey and her collaborators enlisted 185 children between the ages of 5 and 14 years in the study, conducting an in-depth interview with each child that collected background information and assessed the child’s “theory of mind” skills. 


Theory of mind refers to the ability to understand that someone else’s beliefs, intentions and desires are different from your own and to respond accordingly. 


Researchers then led each child through a series of scenarios involving other children who are “in group” and “out group.” Specifically, each study participant was told they were part of a group, such as the green team. 


During interviews, researchers described some children in the scenarios as also being on the green team (making them in-group), while other children in the scenarios were on the yellow team (making them out-group). In each scenario, interviewers asked study participants whether they were willing to forgive a group that left them out of a game or activity.


There were three main findings. First, children are more likely to forgive someone if they have apologised. Second, children are more likely to forgive people who are “in group.” Third, the more advanced a child’s Theory of Mind skills are, the more likely they are to forgive others.


“We found that children have sophisticated abilities to forgive others,” Associate Professor Mulvey said. “Children are capable of restoring relationships with others, and are usually interested in doing so.”


In terms of take away advice for educators, the researchers identified two things to focus on relating to forgiveness.


Firstly, the need to help children understand how important it is to apologise in a meaningful way.


“Children are capable of discerning an insincere apology, and insincere apologies were not conducive to encouraging forgiveness,” researchers noted. “The apology needs to make clear that someone understands why what they did was wrong. This, in turn, makes other children more likely to give them a second chance.”


The second focus area is helping children understand the perspectives of other people, even if they are different from their own. 


“One of the biggest implications of our study is that teachers and parents need to actively help children cultivate theory of mind skills,” Associate Professor Mulvey said. “A good starting point is getting children to explain the rationale behind their actions and how this might make other people feel. Helping young people develop these skills in childhood will aid them in navigating a diverse and complex world.”


To read the study, please see here

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