My daughter loves to bake. A few years ago she decided to create fortune cookies from a recipe book dedicated to artful baking.

Nine-tenths of the recipes in this book are banned in our house because they are too fiddly to make, require too many odd ingredients that cost a fortune, or have flavors that just don’t work with the delicate palates of my family. The fortune cookie recipe was quickly added to this list.

The author promised to deliver 12 cookies, but the instructions over-simplified the task of folding and bending hot cookies into the required shape before they cooled. We ended up with about eight from the batch and quite a few of them did not have good fortune. Despite many tears, we had one perfect fortune cookie that was set aside for later worship and the baker and myself retreated to different parts of the house to regain our composure.

I have three children and the baker is my youngest, so I’m sure you can imagine what happened next… Within an hour the perfect fortune cookie-looking cookie was missing. It was later found to be in my eldest’s insides, with the report that it was “good.” More tears followed and the drama played out for days as only an eight-year-old girl can do. 

All would have been good if it ended there, but fortune cookies are still a touchy issue in our house and any injustice this child experiences is directly related back to the fortune cookie saga. At the time, I thought the greatest challenge was crafting the tricky cookies. In reality, the toughest part has been getting a child to let go of an injustice.

Why do children hang on to grudges?

When someone wrongs us, there are probably three paths we can take. We can shrug it off as a mistake and forgive them. (That’s what most adults would expect in this situation, particularly as the offender was unaware of his crime.) The other responses are to nurse a grudge or seek revenge. From experience, boys tend to seek revenge in situations like this, with a quick swipe of the fist or an old-fashioned wrestle on the floor. Girls seem to have a preference for the grudge option. 

So there’s a fair chance that no child – girl or boy – is going to choose to shrug it off and forgive. Sorry if that’s news to you.

The reason is that kids’ brains are just not wired to think about forgiveness until they have moved into double digits, age-wise. Two big theories of what they call “moral reasoning” were developed by Jean Piaget and Lawrence Kohlberg and map out the development of how kids think about rules, law and order, and forgiveness.

They found that up until kids are eight or nine years old, they focus on the outcome of someone’s behavior, rather than the reasons behind what they did. They are also very strict on sticking to the rules, which I’m sure you’ll know if you’ve ever played Monopoly with an eight-year-old. 

When you have a number of kids in your family, you can be dealing with different stages of this moral development. So the wronged eight-year-old could be caught up on their older brother not following the rules about asking before eating a cookie, while the 12-year-old can reason their intentions and decide their little sister is over-reacting and being a drama queen – and then make matters worse by telling them how good the cookie was. 

As parents, we need to help our kids develop an understanding of forgiveness and help them move towards this option even if they’re still caught up in the breaking of rules.

The brain of a child doesn’t have an in-built setting to forgive. If we are going to teach our kids to forgive, we need to be patient and help them to develop moral reasoning over time.

Here are five things that you can do when a fortune cookie saga unfolds:

1 | Talk about forgiveness

We have to make it clear to our children what forgiveness really is. It’s not excusing what has happened but accepting that person’s mistake and letting go of the resentment we feel towards them. Remind your kids that humans make mistakes and sometimes hurt one another. For the eater of the fortune cookie, it’s also important to talk about how to ask for forgiveness and how to show true regret rather than throwing out a quick “sorry.”

2 | Set up a process of apology

Forcing an apology when everyone’s tempers are up is unlikely to bring about forgiveness, so parents have to choose the right time to bring the two together to sort out what has happened. There should be some formality in the delivery of the apology and it’s acceptance. You need to be able to draw a line in the sand about what has happened. 

3 | Shut it down

This is the hardest part with young children who are determined to hold a grudge, but ultimately, parents just have to keep reminding them that the situation has been dealt with and they’ve accepted the apology so they can’t talk about it anymore.

4 | Unpack what intentions, love, and harmony are all about.

Over time, your own fortune cookie saga will provide a rich learning space for talking to kids about why people do things that hurt us, the scale of hurt we should feel for different forms of injustice, how people who love each other should treat one another, and how valuable peace and harmony are to good relationships. 

5 | Look out for others poking the bear

One of the greatest joys of being a sibling is being able to poke at one another’s sore spots. If one of your kids makes a big deal out of a little thing, you can be sure they will have that injury poked relentlessly. This, too, needs to be shut down, with a reminder to the offender that if they were truly repentant they would let the matter go and give everyone a chance to move on.

If you feel that your role as a parent has taken on a level of negotiation the FBI would be proud of, then take some time to work out at what point your kids might be in the development of their ability to forgive. Then put these steps into action when needed.

With a bit of time, and a whole lot of patience, you’ll find that your kids can forgive one another and live in relative harmony. 

Just don’t mention the fortune cookie.