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Teaching your Kids: It's Never Too Late to Ask for Forgiveness

Are you skeptical that asking forgiveness can be effective after too many years? Do you agree that it was too late for Steve in the last lesson? After all this time, maybe he's just better off letting it go and not open up old wounds, right? Perhaps. But that's not the decision Phil made after 25 years of guilt. See how it turned out for him, then you be the judge.

Phil spent his elementary school years in New Orleans, Louisiana. At the age of 5, he met a classmate who would become his best friend for most of those elementary years. We'll call him Doug. Phil and Doug spent much of their time together as best friends will do. Until 5th grade, that is. That year – and for reasons that Phil can't even remember – he decided that he didn't want to be friends with Doug anymore. But he had no idea how to break that kind of news to another 10-year-old boy. So, he didn't. He just stopped being friends with him, which means he just stopped talking to Doug. He stopped talking to him in class. He stopped talking to him on the playground. He stopped returning his phone calls at home. He just stopped. No conversation. No explanation.

To Phil, it must have seemed the quicker and less painful method for both boys. But to Doug, it surely felt like a cruel and inhumane thing to do. But since he wasn't talking to Doug, Phil didn't really know that – until Doug stopped showing up at school. Phil learned that Doug's parents had taken him out of school and registered him at another nearby elementary school. And while he couldn't be sure at the time, his suspicion was correct – that move was a caring act by Doug's parents to protect him from the daily torment of a best friend who wouldn't even face him at school.

Well, both boys grew up and went their own way in the world. Phil ended up in Tennessee and Doug in North Carolina. Phil was fighting back the tears as he told me, "For years, I was haunted by the memory of what I'd done. I ached knowing I was responsible for such a cruel act." Then, as with Steve in our previous lesson, social media happened. By the year 2008, Phil had already connected with several old elementary and high school friends on Facebook. And occasionally, the thought would enter his mind that eventually, he and Doug would cross paths. He said, "I was dreading that day. But oddly looking forward to it at the same time."

And then one day, it happened. Doug showed up in a list following the words, "You may know these people."

He said, "I saw his name, and my heart stopped. I knew this was my moment to make this all right." But before he did that, Phil decided there was one thing he needed to do first. By this time, he had two children of his own, not too far from the age, he was when he committed his transgression. "I went downstairs for dinner, and I told my kids, 'I have a story to tell you.'" And he went on to tell them everything: about his friendship, the cruel way he ended it, the 2-½ decades of guilt and regret and shame he'd been carrying with him, and finally the opportunity that just dropped in his lap to reconnect with Doug.

"My kids looked completely drained of color. One of them asked me, 'Daddy, why would you do something like that?' And I had to tell them I didn't know. Then they wanted to know if it was all okay with Doug now. And I had to tell them I didn't know that either, because I hadn't contacted him yet. I wanted to tell them about it first. I wanted them to watch me go through with something I should have done 25 years ago. I wanted them to see their father struggle a little with his guilt and his shame and then to see me do the right thing. And I could see they were disappointed in me, which was understandable. I was disappointed in myself."

The next morning, Phil sent a friend request to Doug. In it, he said, "I'd like to talk to you about some things I've carried with me for years."

Phil admits to not getting much work done that day, preoccupied with wondering what response he would get. When his kids came home from school, the first thing they asked was, "Well, what did he say? Is he your friend again?"

But all Phil could tell them is, "I don't know yet. He hasn't responded."

That, of course, set off a chain of speculation on their part about why. "Maybe he hates you and doesn't want to talk to you." Perhaps. They would all have to wait to find out. It was a cliffhanger for everyone. On the following day, the suspense was broken. Doug responded, accepting Phil's friend request, along with a message that said he was excited to connect after all these years. The two men traded several messages that day that surely included the requisite small talk about family life and careers. But Phil quickly got to the point – his apology. And it wasn't the kind of wishy-washy non-apology a bigger ego might have offered like "I don't know if you remember, blah, blah, blah . . . but if anything I did offended you way back then, I guess I'm sorry." It was a full-on, no-holds-barred apology: "Doug, I was so very wrong for the way I treated you in the 5th grade. And I am truly sorry. Would you please forgive me?"

And Much to Phil's relief, Doug accepted his apology. And he went on to try to shoulder some of the blame. "Phil, we were just kids," he said. "And you know, I was kind of a nerd anyway. I guess I may be brought some of that on myself."

But Phil knew better and wouldn't let that pass unchallenged. "No, Doug. You didn't deserve any of that. It was my fault. I'm to blame."

And with Doug's blessing, Phil felt a 25-year burden lifted from his shoulders. He said, "It was the most cleansing and freeing thing I've ever felt." He didn't know whether he should cry or shout for joy. But he did know what he had to do next. When his kids got home from school, he told them everything that happened. "I'll never forget the look on my kids' faces when I told them. Their disappointment was gone. And I could tell they respected me even more."

It's ironic, really. That something as vulnerable and humbling as asking for forgiveness can give you so much energy and strength – even after 25 years.

Okay, this may be one of those stories that you wait 25 years to tell to your child once they're grown and find themselves in a similar situation. But it's probably better to tell them now so they won't wait that long, to begin with. If you do share it now, here are some questions to ask:

  1. How do you think Doug felt coming to school every day not knowing why his best friend wouldn't talk to him?

  2. What would have been a better way for Phil to let Doug know that he didn't want to be friends anymore?

  3. Do you think Doug was glad Phil contacted him after 25 years?

Okay, in our final lesson, we'll talk about Gratitude.

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Written by

Paul Andrew Smith