I’ve heard that some people love going to Confession. I personally don’t know any of them. Maybe it’s an urban legend. I think avoiding the confessional is our human default, because we are uncomfortable exposing our weakness to others. The Church wants us to know that the Sacrament of Reconciliation is a gift. It’s more an opportunity than a duty.
Confession brings our human failings to the Light where we can find healing, courage, and support. The devil hates that! He thrives in the dark, like a fungus. He wants us to keep our sins and moral struggles to ourselves, because full freedom from them requires community – it requires family, friends, and counselors, especially our priest when he acts as Christ in the confessional. In particular, as embodied creatures we need the physical experience of the confessional: when we feel and hear ourselves speaking aloud the truth of our failings, when the priest with his body and his voice acts as Christ extending his mercy to us, we can understand better the power of repentance and the reality of God’s forgiveness.
How can we raise children who understand this deeper truth about Confession, who welcome it as an opportunity? Here are a few lifestyle tips that may help. These aren’t lessons our children learn from a book, but rather from the way we relate to them:
1. Use positive, gentle methods of discipline.
We human beings approach every new relationship through a filter created by our previous relationships, especially our earliest relationships in our family of origin. That filter creates in us expectations about how we will be accepted, loved, and treated, how we should respond to disappointments and tension in our relationships. We tend to approach our relationship with God the same way we approach these human relationships.
So, how we respond to our children when they fall short of our expectations or rules will create a model in their minds for how God responds to them when they seek his forgiveness. No matter how much we may love our children, if we are scary and rejecting when they make a mistake, they may internalize that model so deeply that they perceive God as scary, harsh, and unapproachable rather than merciful and loving. If God is too scary, our children will never experience fully the graces of Reconciliation. It may even lead them to avoid the Sacrament of Confession altogether as they mature.
Gentle, non-punitive discipline methods actually strengthen your relationship with your child. Help your child recognize where he went wrong (what virtue was missing in his choice?), how he can fix the mistake he made (apologies, reparation, confession), and what steps he can take in the future when confronted with the same choice. When we do this, eventually our children understand intuitively that Confession works the same way: they are safe, they are responding to an invitation made in love, and the priest is there to help them reflect upon where they’ve been and where they need to go next in their relationship with God.
2. Help your child identify what kind of person he wants to become.
It’s crucial to their moral development that we help our children define who they are and what they want their lives to be about. They should avoid sin, yes. But I think it’s even more important to help children focus on something positive — something to rise to and not just the mud they should avoid. This is a central insight of Catholic virtue ethics. If we focus only on what we shouldn’t do, we may miss the clues God gives us about who he wants us to become and where he wants to take us.
My husband and I certainly have “don’ts” in our home – behaviors that our children know are unacceptable. But we emphasize the “do’s” – actions and choices that are loving, generous, and wise. We actually spent a few family meetings making a list of the virtues we hope define our family – our current strengths and those virtues we aspire to live better. This exercise is great for building family solidarity. When my children are wrestling with a behavior, I can use the virtues we’ve adopted as a family to point them in the right direction. If they are squabbling over a toy or the last cookie, I might ask them, “What would a kind and generous person do?”
With my two older children (ages 16 and 11), I’ve been leading them to define for themselves which virtues are most important to them as a Christian with a unique mission. In Dr. Greg and Lisa Popcak’s book Parenting with Grace, they suggest that older children create their own mission statement. Love this. When older kids are confronted with a choice, they can check in with their personal mission statement and ask themselves whether that choice supports their mission statement and whether it will lead them closer to becoming the person God is calling them to be.
3. Guide your child in a daily examen.
An examination of conscience before Confession is basically a way to check in with ourselves, to reflect honestly on our spiritual health. Why not make this kind of spiritual self-awareness a daily habit for our children (and ourselves!). The Ignatian examen is a great tool to use with your kids for this purpose. When we pray the examen, we review the events of the day, recognizing our blessings and our failings, asking God for the strength to do better as move forward.
We can use the examen at bedtime. Help your child reflect on how her day went. How was she blessed? Did she love well? How did she use her gifts and talents? Did anything happen to hurt her or did she hurt anyone? Thank God for the blessings of the day and ask him for help in serving him better and more fruitfully tomorrow. Guide your child in making amends with God and others for the mistakes she has made.
Leading children in the daily examen gives them practice in noticing their own interiority – their joys and struggles — so that approaching their parish confessional feels more natural to them. When this practice begins in childhood in the warmth of your child’s bed and in the safety of your arms, she is encountering those physical reminders of the joy and comfort of drawing closer to God which she can experience during Confession.
Is it possible, even with our generous, loving parenting, that our children will still be hesitant and nervous about Confession? Yes. Because it’s a human tendency to avoid facing our sinfulness, to hide in the dark with our failings tucked up inside our sleeves. But children who are emotionally whole are less likely to get stuck on their way to Confession. They will possess a great gift: a maturing readiness to encounter God and to accept his invitation of friendship and mercy.
For more great tips on raising emotionally whole and holy children, see Dr. Greg and Lisa Popcak’s book Parenting with Grace and my free parenting magazine Tender Tidings which you can access along with other resources at www.intentionalcatholicparenting.com.
Kim Cameron-Smith is the founder and editor of Tender Tidings magazine and www.intentionalcatholicparenting.com. She lives in Northern California with her husband Philip and their 4 children. She is a regular contributor on the topic of “intentional Catholic parenting” on Dr. Greg and Lisa Popcak’s radio program More2Life. Kim is a licensed attorney and a member of the California State Bar. She holds a B.A. in English from Wellesley College, an M.Phil. in Medieval Literature from Oxford University, a Master of Theological Studies from Harvard University, and a J.D. from U.C. Berkeley.