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Of course, it is only absolutely necessary to go to confession once a year, or when someone has a grave sin to confess. But as Pope Benedict XVI once told children: We clean our rooms regularly, not just when it is “absolutely necessary”— shouldn’t we treat our souls the same way?
I want my kids to go to this Sacrament regularly —every 2-3 months for the little ones, more often for teens. But I’m driven by two stories that have stuck with me.
I will never forget the explanation I heard of what confession felt like to one woman who experienced it in her 1960s Catholic school:
“I hated those days when you had to wait in the long line in the cold church, forcing yourself to think of things to feel guilty about.”
I hope my children never feel that way. I hope they experience something closer to what writer Danielle Bean described about her confessions as a child:
“What a liberation!” she wrote of ripping up her confession list and throwing it in a gutter. “‘Hit my sister six times’ and ‘talked back to my mother four times’ were no longer my burden to bear.”
One mom told me she starts kids young.
A mother told me she likes to show her small children the confessional and build excitement about the sacrament years in advance of First Confession.
They are fascinated by seeing where the priest sits and where the confessor kneels. She tells them how wonderful it is to step into the confessional weighed down by sin, hand the sins over to Jesus, and step out of it brand new, like a butterfly from a cocoon.
I tell my kids the confessional is like a coffin — you go in with darkness and death clinging to your soul and you emerge from it in your own personal resurrection.
One family makes it a routine.
Children love routines. Every night, my youngest, who is 6, puts on his pajamas, then brushes his teeth, then hears a story, then says his prayers (for each of his siblings, in age order), then kisses me goodnight, then kisses Mom goodnight, then goes to bed. Mess with that order (or the order of siblings in the prayer) at your peril.
Routine makes things natural and “safe” for kids. One father told me that they make confession as routine as possible for their children: They go every first Saturday.
Everyone knows what the end of a month means: Confession Day is coming. That way, it isn’t a surprise to anybody.
But one mom says she likes to make it a surprise.
I heard the same advice from other families as well: Make confession an outing which starts with confession and ends with ice cream. She says she likes to spring confession on her older teens — then take them to coffee afterwards. That way no one drags their feet for confession — or they don’t drag them too much.
This approach also gives a psychological sense that confession is a special occasion, worth celebrating.
Parents say it is important that they go to confession, too.
Don’t send your kids in without going yourself. Seeing parents go to confession makes a powerful impression on kids. They see how important it is, and they even take a kind of thrill in knowing that when they go to confession, they are doing something grown up.
Children also imitate what they see — especially what they see in their parents. This may not be obvious in the short term — and in fact it might not even be true right away. But 15 years from now, they will be much more likely to go to confession if they saw their parents do it regularly and joyfully with them.
An important corollary: Let them see you do your penance right away, in the church.
Another great idea: Try a different church.
One father told me he likes to drive across town occasionally for confession.
This might allow teens and even younger children to be a little more free about sins they might be embarrassed to share with their pastor. It also exposes them to the universality of the Church by letting them experience first-hand how the sacraments are the same all over.
You can do too much church-hopping, however. Having a confessor who knows you can be a great benefit, so that he can call you on patterns of behavior that might not be obvious to a priest hearing you for the first time.
Anyway, however you do it, go!
Advent is the perfect time to start.
This appeared at Aleteia.
Image: Prince of Peace, Olathe, Kansas.