Forming the Conscience
Sunday, 1:00 p.m.: the Martin family just got home from Mass. The children have been good for a long time, they are hungry, and Mom is rushing to get lunch on the table: the air is full of electricity. 7-year-old Henry is running around all over the place…and it ends badly: he runs into his mother, who spills the sauce on the new carpet.
“Look what you’ve done, the sauce on the carpet, can’t you see it’s serious?”
“It’s serious, Mom?”
“Yes, it’s serious; get out of the way so I can clean it up.”
Twenty minutes later, the mess is cleaned up and the family has sat down to eat…all except Henry who has disappeared. His mother finds him crying in his room.
“What’s the matter, Henry dear?”
“I committed a mortal sin!”
“You? A mortal sin? What did you do?”
“You know what I did, I spilled the sauce, and you said it was serious…”
The poor child is sobbing. With great affection, his mother takes the time to explain and correct her little boy’s conscience.
“When I said it was serious, I meant that it couldn’t be undone. But it really isn’t a very serious wrong, it’s not as if you had set fire to the whole carpet. And even if you had caused a catastrophe like that, it would only be a mortal sin for you if you had done it on purpose, and I can’t imagine you doing that. Even when you spilled the sauce on the carpet, which isn’t really that serious, you did not do it on purpose. You didn’t commit a sin at all, my little Henry, you were just clumsy.”
A Judgment to Educate
Children’s consciences are very often imprecise. In catechism class they learn in theory what a mortal sin is and what a venial sin is. But when it comes to putting it into practice… Out of ignorance, because their judgment lacks maturity, because they are impressionable and judge the gravity of the fault by the vehemence of the reproach, children can sometimes consider mortal a sin that is only venial, or vice versa. And with all the harm this causes: a soul that sees mortal sins everywhere can become discouraged or rebel against a morality that is so burdensome it becomes impossible to practice. But a lax conscience that does not see the reality of sin and its gravity can also abandon the path to heaven.
There is no need to take the place of the priest. Nor must one penetrate indiscreetly into the child’s conscience where the soul, face to face with God, recognizes and admits its guilt. But simply by the education they give, parents contribute greatly to the formation of their child’s conscience: “Mom congratulated me, so what I did was good; she punished me, so what I did was wrong. And if she really scolded me, it was really wrong.” Do we think to weigh our compliments or reprimands against the actual moral value of the act? Sometimes fatigue or annoyance brings the educator to deliver reprimands in proportion to the inconvenience caused rather than to the sin committed. Yes, children are often loud, awkward, clumsy, and scatterbrained: they are children, these defects are typical at their age, but their moral responsibility is often minimal or nonexistent, as in the example above.
The Cause and the Consequences
But here is another example of clumsiness. It’s raining outside, Bruno is bored, and to keep busy, the only idea he finds is to play with the ball in the living room. But his father has already twice forbidden him to do so:
“The ball is for outside.”
“No, Dad, look, I’m very careful.”
Obviously, the afternoon ends badly, with the beautiful China vase in a thousand pieces. His father is very angry: the China vase was so expensive… Yes, but Bruno’s real fault is not so much the material damage as his disobedience. And the little man would have been wrong even if he had not broken anything. That evening, while giving Bruno his goodnight kiss in bed, his mother takes advantage of this intimate moment to put things gently in their place:
“You made Dad very angry this afternoon, my little one. None of this would have happened if you had obeyed like Dad told you to. Sometimes God allows our disobedience to have immediate consequences, to help us understand that it is wrong to disobey. You are very sorry, and you won’t do it again, right? Let’s not talk about it anymore, it’s all over and forgotten.”
A little word at bedtime can thus be an occasion to form or correct the child’s conscience, in the calm after a fit of anger, stubbornness or jealousy… Both parents must then be the image of God’s mercy: when the child has understood what he did wrong, when he is sorry, and ready to make reparation if necessary, everything must be forgotten and he must once again find his parents’ affection. The worst punishment for a child who persists—refuses to forgive, for example—is to have no goodnight kiss.
“I cannot give you a kiss tonight, Alex: you refuse to make up with your sister, and you are not at peace with God either. I will come back in ten minutes to see if you have changed your mind and if I can give you a kiss.”
Family night prayers are also a good time to form the conscience. After thanking God for all the graces of the day, we take the time to see what could have displeased Him in us; the father or mother can suggest a few possible sins, different ones every evening: “Did I behave in church? Did I think to help out or was I selfish? Did I sulk? Did I get angry? Is there anything else?” After a short silence in order to think of things that are not on the list, everyone recites the act of contrition together. The suggestions allow the child to realize concretely the sins he may have committed. But it is important to remain discreet: it is not a public confession! Once a mother suggested: “Did I refuse to eat my food?” All the brothers and sisters turned towards Yves, who had just been punished at dinner for an enormous tantrum. He turned red as a beet and his mother promised herself to be more careful in the future so as not to rub salt on the open wound!
An upright and well-formed conscience, a delicate conscience, full of horror for all that offends God: that is the conscience of saints, the conscience that will lead us to Heaven!