Thursday, November 14, 2013

Praying With Our Kids ~ Preparing Them For Reconciliation

I have been thinking about writing this very post for a few months now.  I know, I tend to be a procrastinator. Sometimes, I think that the Holy Spirit nudges me in a particular direction with blogging, and when a certain idea continues to weigh on my heart and my mind, I know I'm being asked to work the idea into a post.  Sometimes, the writing comes naturally, but other times, I feel a little burdened by the depth of the subject, and do not trust myself to do it proper writing justice. This time, the latter has been the case, as the topics of sin, forgiveness, and the formation of a child's conscience are not exactly light and easy writing. They deserve some thinking time....two months of thinking time, to be exact.

While this post may seem directed toward Catholics, I hope that it will not be exclusive to Catholics alone, as I am sure that all Christians can relate to the immensity of the gift of God's mercy, and as well, the need to acknowledge our own failings before the Lord, so that we can experience reconciliation with God, and with others, at the very core of our journey toward heaven.

A final note: entire books have been written on the subjects of mercy, grace, confession and reconciliation. My intent is not to dig into the theological details - you can study that on your own (see links to resources below).  The real purpose of the post is to help parents consider the value of their role in forming their child's conscience, and how our positive participation in their spiritual lives can potentially bear great fruit.

The list of topics I will briefly touch upon:
1.  First, setting it up with a story.
2.  This is where the rubber meets the road: We must know the problem (sin) to embrace the solution (salvation in Christ).
3.  Considerations for the formation of your child's conscience.
4.  How to begin formation, and why it's appropriate to begin instruction at an early age.
5.  A gentle examination of conscience for children.

On Halloween night, Steve and I sat down on the floor with the kids flanked by bags overflowing with a variety of sweet treats. Just looking at it made my teeth ache!  We decided to let each child choose 5 pieces (beyond the gazillion they had already consumed) that they could keep and enjoy at their own discretion, the rest would be put into a community basket to be handed out as rewards or for spontaneous enjoyment.

The next day, running downstairs to George and Henry's room to deliver the laundry, I discovered a countless amount of candy wrappers strung out all over the floor.  I knew that someone had taken far more than the 5 pieces they were allowed to keep.  Pausing here for a moment, I will say that this is probably a typical experience for most parents - kids sneaking candy.  But, in sharing the ordinary story, I hope to point out that in the natural daily occurrences of life, there are ample opportunities for parents to guide their children away from sin and toward virtue.

To a certain extent, hoarding a handful of candy isn't isn't the end of the world. However, when I stopped to think about the fact that the boys had to scheme, plan and execute a mission to break into the community stash and steal their favorite pieces, instead of just asking me for more, I saw how their poor decision could eventually become a habit, and habitual sin often times turns into bigger sins. This situation provided an opportunity for me to speak briefly (not lecture) the boys about honesty, self-control, and obedience as well.

Beginning to dialog with your kids at an early age about sinful (yep, I said it, SIN, SIN, SIN, let's just call it what it is, folks) behavior vs. virtuous behavior paves the way for future spiritual growth, whether it's preparation for the sacrament of confession for Catholics, or, for people of other faiths, spending time in honest self-reflection and contrite prayer before the Lord.

As Catholics, when two people get married, they make a promise during their vows to be the primary teachers of the Faith to their children.  To me, that promise is not to be solely fulfilled by school teachers or religios education volunteers at church. Those generous individuals are here to assist us, but we as parents are the primary educators of our children.

With that in mind...
Three of our sons each made their first confession around the age of eight.  Preparing them for that new spiritual experience was quite a mission, a mission that is on-going. The first time Steve an I prepared our oldest son, Benedict, to receive the sacrament, we were both nervous, wanting to be sure that Ben knew the 10 commandments, what the effects of sin are, the proper step each person goes with the priest during confession.  We were fresh at this, careful to cross our t's and dot our i's as if there were some formula to it all. Our heart's intentions were noble, but our methods a bit mechanical.

A child's mind is so very impressionable, and their little hearts so sensitive.  More than we give them credit for, I believe.  In essence, to place a young person before a crucifix, a staggering image of both suffering and hope, and tell them that Jesus died for our sins isn't simple stuff.  Proclaiming that Christ died to save you and me is a statement of ENORMOUS proportions. What can it possibly mean to a child??  And yet, even as adults, we hear it over and over again, all of the time. But what does it mean to us?? To our kiddos??

Surely, this is a primary argument against the Catholic Church encouraging confession at such a young age.  Perhaps.  I can relate to certain points of the opposition.  But, objective knowledge of the truths of the sacrament of reconciliation combined with personal experience of seeing the fruits of preparing a child to receive sacramental grace is an undeniable good. The opportunity to help our children grow in virtue is one not to be missed.  So how do we make "Christ died for you and me" real and desirable for our children rather than scary, bewildering, or overwhelming??

Going back to the image of Christ on the cross and the communication of His coming for our salvation, (for me), is where the rubber meets the road.  The Old Testament is filled with stories and images that reveal humanity's deep, deep need for a Savior.  One who could redeem us by paying a debt we could never pay, one who could save us from our own sinfulness by inviting us to share in the outpouring of His graces, a Savior who can strengthen us, through his example and through his mercy, with the courage to forgive others as we, ourselves, have been forgiven, a Savior who heals, who loves, who longs to draw us into Himself and lead us to spend eternity with Him in heaven.

What does that mean for us, and particularly for our children? To state that a SAVIOR is coming to SAVE can only imply one thing: that we need to be rescued, pulled out of the muck and mire, away from the attachment to our selfish, sinful ways, to free us from that which binds us (sin), that which keeps us from embracing what is true, good and beautiful.  But, if one cannot, or will not, recognize a problem (sin), then what need is there for a solution (Christ)??

The words, "He has come to set us free from sin, "He has come to heal the broken-hearted," "He has come to SAVE us" means nothing to a child (to any person) who cannot or will not recognize a need to be saved.  If a child's conscience isn't lovingly formed to recognize right vs. wrong, virtue vs. sin, and in turn, shown the beautiful, passionate love of Jesus to help us, to guide us and to free us, when the time comes for the child to go to confession, confession will merely be a formality, another Catholic "hoop" to jump through, another parental "because it's just what we Catholics do", a routine without reason. Or, worse yet, their little hearts will reject the idea of confession, sorrow and contrition entirely and never embrace it's essential importance in their life's journey toward heaven. Jesus longs for us to be with Him in heaven.  Heaven is our goal! Children really can embrace this truth!

The primary way, then, in my opinion, to help a child turn toward Christ, without fear or hesitation, is to gently begin to dialog with them about sin and virtue.  The church recognizes that most children do not reach the age of reason until 6 or 7 years old (for some, it's younger), and therefore, are not as responsible for their own misbehavior as an older child would be.  But, we have found that around the age of four children are very receptive to simple yet specific instruction. For example, if a child hits another person, a natural reaction is to say, "NO, NO! Don't do that! That's naughty!"  Instead, try pausing, bending down on your knees, holding the child's hand and saying, "Our hands are for love. When you hit others you hurt them.  Hitting does not make Jesus happy." In doing so, you take the moment beyond scolding.  The child will eventually make the connection between the virtuous choice (our hands are for love) and the sinful choice (hitting), and is encouraged to choose that which is pleasing to Jesus.

Then, it is very important to encourage the offender to ask for forgiveness. Saying "I'm sorry" to another is never easy, but encouraging the child to be contrite and then receiving his/her contrition with affectionate reassurance will only strengthen them in the virtue of humility as they grow and mature. This is just the beginning of the formation.  Gentle and simple.

By the age of 6 or 7, the child can receive even more specific formation.  It is important not only to recognize when a child falls short of virtuous behavior, but to catch them doing good.  Teaching the power and beauty of virtue is equally as important as your instruction on sin - they both are essential for formation of conscience.  I cannot place enough emphasis on being careful that you do not fall into "scold and preach mode" with your children, especially for the sake of being right all of time. Doing so will quickly and easily discourage the child, and he/she will either solely desire to please you (instead of the Lord) so as not to be in trouble, or worse yet, they will rebel against your authority and their hearts will become hardened and insensitive.

Let me give you a simple example of this type of positive formation. If one of our children is seen sharing freely something that they value with another, I might say something like, "Thank you, Henry for sharing! You are being very generous, and that is a virtue!  God is so happy right now!" If the child refuses to share, encourage them with, "Henry, I believe that you can be virtuous in this moment and share your toys.  I know it isn't easy, but it pleases the Lord and makes others happy too!"

This same approach can be used effectively with older children as well.  Our oldest son, Ben, is nearly a teenager, and responds so well to conversation, affection and instruction.  When we see him behaving in a virtuous way - especially when it would be so much easier to choose the easy, sinful way, whether it be selfishness, anger, fighting, disrespect etc, we praise him for the specific virtue that he exercises (self-control, generosity, prudence, etc.). We can immediately see in his demeanor that our praise is meaningful to him, because it balances out the more difficult instruction that we are often called to work on with regards to his struggles with particular types of sin.


PLEASE know that there are times when we do not succeed in teaching according to methods I'm sharing with you.  Honestly, on the days when I feel that hell can't possibly get any deeper, catechetical methodology is the last thing on my mind. Sometimes I'm completely overwhelmed and exasperated, and I don't feel like talking to my son about why he shouldn't throw a book across the room out of anger at his brother, knocking pictures off of the wall, shattering them into pieces. Sometimes that kid just gets sent to his room, is then forced to do a multitude of chores or miss supper, because I'm too frustrated to gently remind him why acting out in anger never bears any fruit.  That's real life - and I get it.  But, if you have a long term spiritual goal to form your child's conscience, don't give up! Even on the hardest days, we must keep trying! With a little effort and cooperation with God's grace, our attentiveness to our children's souls, with consistent encouragement and instruction, will bear a multitude of fruit.

As well....sometimes kids are just going to be kids.  They are going to be fussy, emotional, ornery and crazy!! Sometimes you just need to let them be.  Don't hyper-analyze their every word or action. Use prudent judgement when it comes to focusing on certain sinful behaviors that you see are becoming habit and work with your kids on those.
Once a week, Steve or I sit down with the boys in the evening for a general examination of conscience. All of the children are invited to join us if they choose, but when they reach the age of six or seven, we request that they always participate with us in this form of prayer.

Examination of conscience may sound formal or technical, but really it's just a way of thinking about the way you have lived your life over the course of the day, week, or however long it's been since you last contemplated your actions and the positive or negative effects your actions may have had on the state of your soul.  For our kids, it's once a week (the older kids are encouraged to include it in their own personal nightly prayers).  There is a simple format that we use. And, we don't stick to it rigorously.  Sometimes, we ask different questions, say different prayers, or talk about the life of a saint and how he or she struggled, just as we do, toward heaven.

The goal for this examination experience is that it be NATURAL. The atmosphere should be peaceful and positive.  Remember, the goal isn't to pull out your naughty/nice measuring stick - it's to help the child recognize his/her weaknesses and to praise their virtuous strengths.

The questions used in the examination of conscience (step #4 below) are structured around the Ten Commandments.  While it's good for your kids to memorize the Commandments, they will need help with the application of the Commandments in every day life.  This approach helps the kids to embrace the good news that God wants us all to be free, to be healthy, to be happy.  His laws aren't meant to be a ball and chain, they are meant to liberate us from that which is harmful to our happiness, to our health (sin) so that we may know and live the fullness of the abundant life He desires for us!

Our prayerful examination is typically is experienced in these steps:
1.  Find a quiet place where you can sit together and begin with the sign of the cross.
2. Opening prayer:
 My Lord and my God, I firmly believe that you are here, that you see me, that you hear me. 
I adore you with profound reverence, I ask your pardon for my sins, 
and the grace to make this time of prayer fruitful. 
Mary, my Immaculate Mother, Saint Joseph my father in the Lord, 
and my guardian angel, intercede for me. - Amen.
3.  Allow several minutes of quiet personal reflection.
4.  One parent will read the questions (noted below) aloud as the child contemplates the question       quietly in his or her heart. *  End the examination with and Act of Contrition (below).
5. The parent(s) may then confess his or her shortcomings for the week, ask for forgiveness, and request that the their children pray for them. Remember, we lead by example.  Humility is not an easy virtue to exercise, but if we lead in love, they will surely follow.
6.  The children may then confess any of their own struggles (but, they DO NOT have to), and ask for prayers as well.  This step can be huge for kids, not only are they practicing humility, but also patience with and compassion toward the shortcomings of others.
7.  The parent(s) spend time praising the virtuous behaviors that they have seen in their children that week (being very specific - see link to list of virtues below).
8.  The children may then praise one another as they so desire.
9.  Take turns reading select verses or parables on God's mercy from the bible (see list below).
10.  Recite a litany of your favorite saints, followed by "Pray for us."

*This is a good time to remind the kids, especially if you are reading the questions in preparation for the sacrament of confession that three things are necessary for reconciliation: 1. Thorough confession of the sin 2. True contrition for the sin 3. Fulfillment of the penance given by the priest.

Questions For Examination:
As the children get older, based upon their maturity, you may ask more detailed questions specific specific to each commandment.  These are simply our suggestions, you may fill in your own questions as you like.

 - 1. -
I am the Lord your God. You shall not have any other gods before me.
Did I make time to visit with the Lord today?
Did I speak about the Lord with joy and courage? Or did I turn away in embarrassment or fear?

- 2. - 
You shall not take the name of the Lord, your God, in vain.
Did I speak the Lord's name in a way that was disrespectful?
Did I honor the Lord's name in prayer and praise either aloud or in my heart?

- 3. -
Remember to keep holy the Lord's Day
Did I grumble over going to Mass/church on Sunday?
Was I disruptive or did I misbehave at Mass/church on Sunday?
Did I skip going to church in order to attend a sporting event or other activity?
When children are young, it is the responsibility of the parent to prepare the kids for church, to teach them about the liturgy, to help them learn their prayers, to dress them appropriately, and to lead by example through personal reverence and joy.  Therefore, this question, for young children, should be focused on behavior and attitude.  For older kids, you may wish to include questions related to doing unnecessary work on Sundays or skipping Mass in favor of extra-curricular activities or if they are expected to drive to church on their own, and simply choose not to go.
- 4. - 
Honor your mother and father.
Did I treat my parents with love and respect?
Do I listen to and respond to my parents' requests with promptness?
Have I tattled on a sibling or a friend today?
Do I honor and respect the authority of my teachers, my grandparents?

- 5. -
You shall not kill.
Did I recoginze the needs of others and help, or did I turn away?
Have I caused physical pain or harm to anyone today?
Were you too hard on yourself today?
Did I speak positively of others? 
Did I recognize others hurts and seek to comfort them?
Was I a leader to my peers by virtue and good example or did I lead anyone astray?

- 6. -
You shall not commit adultery.
Did I look upon others with charity (and purity - for older children)?
Did I look at any pictures or watch any television that might cause me to think impure thoughts (older children)?

- 7. -
You shall not steal.
Did I take anything from anyone which didn't belong to me?
If I borrowed something that belonged to someone else, did I return it promptly?
Did I share my blessings and gifts with others today?
Was I quick to be generous, or did I choose to be selfish with my possessions?

- 8. -
You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
Was I truthful in all matters today?
Have I stretched the truth at times to make myself look good to others?
Have I said anything dishonest about another out of spite, so that they might get in trouble?

- 9. -
You shall not covet your neighbor's wife.
Am I demanding of my parents' time together, or do I allow them to have personal space? 
Am I controlling in my friendships, or jealous of others' relationships?
Do I exclude others, or do I invite others to join me and my friends in play?
Do I think of myself as better than others, or do I try to see the good in everyone?

- 10. -
You shall not covet your neighbor's goods.
Am I thankful for the gifts God has given me, or do I wish to have what others have?
Am I content with what my parents have provided for me, or do I complain?
Do I share my material possessions with others?
Am I thankful for the strengths and talents God has given me? Do I use them to serve Him?

Act of Contrition:
O, my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended you. I detest all my sins because of your just punishment, but most of all because they offend you, my God, who are all-good and deserving of all my love. I firmly resolve, with the help of Your grace, to sin no more and to avoid the near occasion of sin.
- OR - 

For little ones, a simple, yet earnest prayer can be said with them.  For example:
My Jesus, I am sorry for the wrong that I have done.
Please forgive me.
Help me to do my best and to be my best each day.
I love you! Amen.

Scripture Verses For Memorization and/or Reflection:

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. - Micah 6:8

Christ came that we might have life and have it to the full.  - John 10:10

You are forgiving and good, O Lord, abounding in love to all who call to you.  - Psalm 86:5

Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need. - Hebrews 4:16

But God, who is rich in mercy, for his great love with which he loved us. - Ephesians 2:4

If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. - 1 John 1:9

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! 
- 2 Corinthians 5:17

The LORD is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. He will not always chide, nor will he keep his anger forever. He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us.  - Psalm 103:8-12 

For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that we should not perish but have eternal life. - John 3:16

I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. - Galations 2:20

Above all, love each other deeply, for love covers a multitude of sins.  - 1 Peter 4:8

Parable of the Prodigal Son - Luke 15:11-32

One of the beautiful messages I have learned from spiritual direction through Opus Dei is the phrase, "begin again."  Our lives are full and busy and at times very overwhelming, so much so, that most people, myself included, would probably admit that it is difficult to find time to pray, or to direct our attention toward the Lord throughout the day.  This is where the examination of conscience comes into play and can be so very helpful in the spiritual life.  You aren't just working toward temporary earthly goals, but toward the greatest goal of all, which is heaven. God's mercy is new with each and every day, so even though we fall again and again, we can also, with courage, begin again and again!!

We spend all kinds of time ensuring our kids can catch a pass, shoot a free throw, sing on key, are bilingual and can do long division in their heads, and all of those things are good and noble.  But, whatever we place a strong emphasis on, whatever we demonstrate as important through our actions, our children will also deem important and value as priority. With the parent's leadership, working together, as a family, toward spiritual goals can be a natural part of daily life.

Printable Version of the Guide for Examination: 


  1. Wow!!! This is awesome - we aren't Catholic but I think that all of us (myself as well as my boys) could benefit from your weekly questions.
    Thank you for taking the time to share all of this.

    1. It's kind of difficult to be a passionate Catholic and write in a way that don't scare Protestants away! I'm glad you found something worthwhile in the post!

  2. This is a wonderful post, Susan. I can see how it took 2 months to think it through.
    I love that you have a time for examining your conscience each week. Our family has a time to go over the coming schedule, yet we don't have a time each week to discuss things like this. Why? What priorities are we showing the kids? Not the right ones, for sure. Thank you for the inspiration to change a few things around here.

    1. Thanks, Christine! I need to post something humorous now - this one was a little heavy!

  3. THis is so wonderful! Our oldest is preparing for first confession and communion in the spring. As a family we sometimes do a very general exam. "What have I done to make Jesus happy?" "What have I done that made JEsus sad?" "What can I try to do better tomorrow?"
    But this is far more specific and helpful now that we have one preparing for the sacrament of mercy! This is so beautiful! Thanks for the print outs!

    1. Thanks, Kathleen! I hope it will be a beneficial tool for helping parents prepare their kiddos for confession.

  4. I love this post, Susan. Thanks for taking the time to put it all together!

    1. Uggghhh! I know in many ways its a very incomplete and simple post - not for the intellects, but hopefully practical and somewhat applicable.

  5. Susan, thanks so much for writing this! You have some great thoughts about how to incorporate our faith into our parenting. It seems like that should be obvious, but unfortunately it isn't always. You are clearly doing a fabulous job raising your boys into men-- keep the tips coming.

    1. Thank you for the encouragement with raising our boys. We can only do our best, but in the end they are God's kiddos, and we have to entrust them to him. Thanks for being here!

  6. This is beautiful, Susan, truly a wonderful resource. I am so thankful for all of your tips, honesty, and openness.

  7. Thank you, Susan, for sharing your insight. I hope to improve in this area.

  8. Thank you, Susan, for sharing your insight. I hope to improve in this area.

  9. Thank you, Susan, for sharing your insight. I hope to improve in this area.

  10. Susan...can you add a "pin" so I can pin this to my pinterest account. I want to be able to reference it. When I try to "pin" says it can't.
    Thanks...this is wonderful!!!

  11. This is great. My youngest daughter is receiving this year and I'm going to incorporate those scripture verses into her copywork. And I love the 'gentle examination of conscience'. Currently, when someone in our family makes it known they're planning on going to confession, another member of the family starts "reminding them" of some sins they could bring up. It usually doesn't end well and I certainly wouldn't recommend the method to other families.


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