I smiled when I looked down the line of anxious and intently focused souls: My two adolescent boys were in line for confession that Sunday morning. I turned my head forward and breathed a happy sigh as I gazed upon the closed tabernacle doors. When I know that my family enjoys sanctifying grace, nothing else matters. Bills, politics, work, and unfinished house projects all seem insignificant. Yet I struggle to remember the advice of St. Therese of Lisieux for myself and my children: “Our Lord needs from us neither great deeds nor profound thoughts. Neither intelligence nor talents. He cherishes simplicity.” Regardless of our hardships and our busy schedules, how can parents inculcate in their children a devotion to the sacrament of penance? How do parents know when to push and when to back off regarding their child’s need for confession?
St. John Baptiste de la Salle taught, “Fathers and mothers owe four things to their children: maintenance, instruction, correction, and good example.” You may have to discuss specific sins with your little ones to help them before a particular confession, but it is never licit to ask your child what he or she revealed after they received absolution. You could ask in general, how did it go? Your child may voluntarily reveal his or her sins and imperfections to you anyway, especially if you have already created an environment of open communication. But do not insist. Remember that the Church imposes a seal on the confessional to protect our souls. Consider the words of St. John Vianney, who spent hours in the confessional: “The home must be in accord with the Church, that all harmful influences be withheld from the souls of children.”
My older adolescent boys are now in the habit of going to confession regularly, meaning every two weeks or so. As younger boys, they needed more coaching and indeed coaxing to frequent the sacrament. I no longer ask how confession went for them, but instead strive to create an environment conducive to communication.
This environment requires deliberate time alone with each boy, within the context of doing something, such as working together in the backyard or running to the hardware store and then stopping for drinks or a snack on the way home. The important thing is that the busy father makes a deliberate effort to spend time with each child at least once a month. This makes it a lot easier for the eager, yet reticent, adolescent to have an open discussion with his father. St. John of the Cross mentioned the challenge of spiritual direction in his classic Dark Night of the Soul. “[G]ood and fearful souls who walk along this road and would like to give an account of their spiritual state to him that rules them, are neither able to do so nor know how” (Book II, ch. XVII).
As parents, you can also strongly orient your children’s minds toward the sacrament every night when you lead them in a nightly brief examination of conscience. You could use the phrase “since our last confession” when announcing the examination of sins and reflection on God’s blessings.
Developing a devotion to the sacrament of penance, or “going to confession,” ideally requires that the child made his first confession barely after reaching the age of reason. The child has opportunities to learn from each parent, who offer their own style of interacting and teaching the child about the sacraments. This best practice of sacramental inculcation also involves both parents following up consistently, encouraging frequent confession and providing examples of this, as St. John Baptiste de la Salle exhorted.
Parents should also watch for either extreme of despair or presumption. Remind your children that God judges on how much we love Him and on the fruit of this love, which should give hope to struggling souls. At the same time, God’s mercy should not be taken for granted. St. Alphonsus de Liguori in his work, Preparation for Death, firmly relates that “the Lord does not instantly punish sinners ... but God keeps an account of them” for the fateful day of judgment (ch. XVIII).
A combination of compunction and hope may thus be seen as two virtues necessary for a balanced approach to the sacrament. This balance helps a child develop a habit and thus a devotion to sacramental confession from the age of reason all the way through young adulthood. Remember, however, that it is never too late to influence your children and shape their habits. Your examples, explanations, patience, and prayers will certainly go a long way no matter the age of your children.
Patience and coaching may be recurring duties of parents. I asked my younger son if he needed to go to confession, but I asked him in a whisper when he walked by me to get to a pew. I was already in the confessional line. “Yeah,” he whispered back. He stood next to me for a moment with a blank look on his cherubic nine year-old face. “I’ll go next week.” With that, he turned on his heels and walked to a pew which held his siblings.
Next week, he walked straight for the confessional without my prompting him and stood in line. I walked over and in a whisper, asked if he remembered his Act of Contrition and did he remember how to begin confession? “Yeah, bless me, Father, for I have sinned, uh…”
Once a child becomes a young adult and moves away from your home, you of course lose control and even some influence over the child’s spiritual and moral life. It is then time to differentiate between letting go of that which we can no longer truly control, and working harder to practice what we can: our own spiritual practices as parents. The book of Proverbs states it bluntly: “He that trusteth in his own heart, is a fool: but he that walketh wisely, he shall be saved” (28:26).
Control is mostly illusory anyway, even when it comes to parenting a seven year old. We coax, we influence, we manipulate with sanctions and rewards, and we are responsible for driving the children to church. We might walk them right up to the confessional, but as they grow older (especially after age 13), it becomes less appropriate to simply tell them, “It’s time for your confession.” They gradually need, over the years, to take this responsibility on their own.
Trust in your child’s baptismal and confirmational grace. The Holy Ghost will definitely prompt them to make a regular confession, and He certainly does a better job at motivating than I as a parent. Consider the importance of providing a good example and have confidence that you are doing what God wants for your adolescent and young adult children, who may seem to have longer and longer cycles between confessions. Reminders are certainly good. Examples are better. Keeping up one’s Catholic spiritual life is imperative. The parents may remind the children about confession, especially if several weeks have passed, but this should be done in a general way if other children are within earshot.
Then there is the psychology of human development, which you can use to your advantage as a Catholic parent. The pioneering Catholic psychiatrist Rudolph Allers wrote that in adolescence, “certain types of authority are rejected altogether, while others are accepted gladly and with an amazing lack of criticism” (Character Education in Adolescence, 1940, ch. III). Dr. Allers also wrote that adolescents who revolt against traditional authority are “astonishingly ready to submit to some other authority.” Older teens and young adults should find that a confessor, and especially a regular confessor, can be their ally in the fight for moral purity and against their own sinful inclinations. Adolescents have a natural yearning to pull away from their parents, but they struggle to fill this void. The Catholic priest thus fulfills both a spiritual and a developmental need.
Confession grows with the person. The child becomes aware, as well as the parents, that the sacrament of penance is critical to restoring sanctifying grace and staying right with God. Without penance, the other sacraments as the child matures simply would not be possible. Sin and its depressive effects become an insurmountable barrier.
The growing child learns a lot about himself through confession. He strengthens his will and learns more about self-control. Imagine for a moment what your teen would be like if he or she never even once went to confession. The sacrament develops their souls better than anything you could do in the natural realm as a parent. Catholic parents thus have the consolation of knowing that amid all their hardships and duties, they are not alone when raising Catholic souls. Remember the words of Therese of Lisieux when you become tempted toward anxiety over your duties as a parent: God “cherishes simplicity.” Therein lies our peace.