Transgressions violate people's psychological or physical boundaries. People can deal with transgressions by seeking to reestablish justice or redress the injustice. They may do this by enacting revenge (i.e., vigilante justice) or by appealing to some formal system to reestablish societal justice-such as judicial, criminal, political, or social justice. They may seek personal justice in the form of receiving an apology or restitution, or they might turn judgment over to a divine power to bring justice about.
People might also respond to transgressions by trying to control their emotions. They might forebear the transgression. Forebearing is withstanding and perhaps suppressing anger and hatred while controlling negative emotions. People might also simply accept the transgressions and the injustice and move on with their life. Acceptance acknowledges injustice and its ill effects but reduces the future importance of the event in governing one's behavior. It releases one from emotion by giving up one's expectations for the redress of injustice. People might reduce injustice through narrative approaches by excusing or justifying transgressions against themselves. Essentially, they tell a different story about the transgression. Finally, people might deal with injustice by forgiving.
Emotional forgiveness is the emotional replacement of negative unforgiving emotions (like bitterness, resentment, and anger) by positive other-oriented emotions such as empathy, sympathy, compassion, or love.
When people forgive, their negative emotions subside. They are less motivated to get revenge or avoid the transgressor, and if forgiving is complete, they might feel love, compassion, sympathy, or empathy for the transgressor. Some people grant decisional forgiveness. They decide not to seek revenge or to avoid the transgressor even though they might not have emotionally forgiven him or her. Decisional forgiveness is a sincere statement about controlling one's future behavior. Forgiveness may be initiated by reasoning, simply experiencing positive other-oriented emotions toward the transgressor, acting kindly toward the transgressor, or having the transgressor act contritely or in a way that provokes empathy, sympathy, compassion, or love.
A child can be induced to grant decisional forgiveness at very early ages. Parents can model and instruct children to foreswear avoidance and revenge through decisional forgiveness. By controlling his or her negative behavior the child might even experience changed negative emotions and motivations, thus come to emotionally forgive. But the child also might not experience emotional forgiveness in tandem with decisional forgiveness.
Robert Enright and his colleagues have conducted substantial research on the development of reasoning about forgiveness. They identified six stages of development of how people reason about forgiveness.
Enright's stages, which emphasize mercy, parallel Lawrence Kohlberg's six stages of reasoning about justice. The timetables of development of reasoning about justice and mercy are also parallel.
In Enright's model, very young children think that forgiveness will help them avoid punishment (Stage 1) or get rewards (Stage 2). As children progress into middle childhood and early adolescence, they learn to grant forgiveness and perhaps experience emotional forgiveness after reasoning that considers social disapproval and approval for their responses to transgressions. Only in adolescence and beyond are children thought to be capable of reasoning abstractly about forgiveness.
In some ways, the consideration of how children develop the capacity to reason about forgiveness is less important than whether children actually experience forgiveness after a transgression. One's capacity to forgive (for instance) at Stage 5 does not imply that one will ever actually forgive. We all know brilliant adults who are spiteful, bitter, unforgiving, and vindictive.
Substantial research has shown that emotional unforgiveness has negative effects on people's mental health, physical health, and relationships and perhaps on their spiritual lives. Therefore, if people are to benefit from forgiving a transgressor, one important question is not When can children learn to grant decisional forgiveness? (Answer: Very young, if parents emphasize and enforce granting decisional forgiveness.) Nor is it When are children capable of mature reasoning about forgiveness? (Answer: Sophistication of reasoning changes with age.)
Rather the important questions are:
When do children actually experience emotional forgiveness?
How can parents and teachers facilitate their emotional experience?
What factors determine how quickly the experience of emotional forgiveness develops?
What factors affect whether children actually forgive emotionally when they are transgressed against?
Clearly, the capacity to reason in such a way that a child concludes that one should forgive can be important to whether he or she emotionally forgives. To reason that one should forgive for reasons more socially motivated than motivated by rewards and punishments will also affect how children and adolescents think about and try to experience forgiving. So, development of reasoning capacities is not unimportant to actually forgiving.
However, by understanding forgiveness as an emotional replacement of negative with positive emotions leads us to understand the development of forgiveness as being more complex than mere obedience or as being primarily a function of cognitive development. Other developmental considerations that are in line with the child's emotional development are important to understanding whether children actually forgive and at which ages.
First, temperament is important. Babies often develop easy, difficult, slow-to-warm-up, or mixed temperaments by 3 months. If emotional forgiveness is seen more as an emotional replacement than as a cognitive decision, we might note that babies with easy temperaments can legitimately be considered to be emotionally forgiving. The mother delays a diaper change: No problem. All is quickly forgiven by easy babies. In difficult babies the crankiness persists and may generalize. Obviously, there is no cognitive understanding of forgiveness, but emotional unforgiveness has been replaced with positive emotions toward the mother. Reasoning thusly, even infants emotionally forgive (in a primitive way), and some infants are more temperamentally geared for it than are other infants.