In classes that I have taught, and in Christian circles in general, the concept of what I might call “instant repentance” often comes up. After a parent disciplines their child for their behavior or actions, is it wise or biblical to expect that the child immediately ask for forgiveness? Fitzpatrick and Thompson address this topic in their book, Give them Grace.
We know that some parents insist that children immediately ask for forgiveness for their offenses, sometimes so that the correction will cease. Although such parents long for immediate reconciliation and repentance, we disagree with this practice. We do not think it is ever advisable to tempt children to lie. Certainly children should be taught that pain is a consequence for disobedience and that their disobedience affects others, not just themselves. They should be encouraged to ask God and others (including their parents) for forgiveness, but only if they are genuinely sorry.
If we encourage children to ask for forgiveness when their hearts haven’t been stricken by the rod of the Holy Spirit’s conviction, we are training them to be hypocritical. We are inadvertently teaching them that false professions of sorrow will satisfy God. God is never pleased with outward proclamations of devotion when the heart is far from him (Isa. 29:13; Matt. 15:7-9); in fact, he hates it. The truth is that we can never know with any certainty whether their proclamations of repentance are true, because only God knows the heart (Jer. 17:5)…
Rather than insisting on an immediate show of repentance, you should give your children time respond to the prompting of the Holy Spirit. Assure them that you are praying for them. Ask them to wait for a while, pray that they will have grace to understand and change, and then leave them in the hands of the Holy Spirit.
I believe that there is a difference between teaching repentance and requiring repentance. Yes, we do need to teach our children, and one of those spiritual truths that they need to learn is to repent of their sins (1 John 1:9). But as the authors state, the only one who can prompt repentance in the heart is God, through the Holy Spirit. We must not try to take control of something that is God’s work. Maturity and your child’s particular temperament are factors to consider. The goal of our instruction is heart change, not immediate response. We should instruct towards repentance and allow God to do that work in our child’s heart.