Kids’ first confession? Here’s how to make it easier

Adult converts sometimes sheepishly admit that confession scares them. What they may not know is cradle Catholics often feel the same way. Very often, anxiety around confession begins in childhood, when well-meaning parents send kids all the wrong messages about when, how, and why we go to confession.

But children aren’t doomed to hate confession. Here are some things you can do to mitigate their anxiety and even help them learn to look forward to confession:

Make sure your kids fully understand that confession is a place you go for help, not a place you have to go when you’re in disgrace. Mercy mercy mercy. Tell them until they’re sick of hearing about it. 

Practice ahead of time. Nothing eases anxiety like familiarity; and humor helps, too. Let the kid take turns acting out confession playing the part of different penitents with appropriate sins: Their two-year-old sister, for instance, or Indiana Jones. Let them know the routine inside and out before they make it personal.

Let them have as many crutches as they like, including a cheat sheet with the act of contrition or even the entire form of confession written out. They can bring in a paper with their sins on it, and throw it away or burn it afterward. 

Let them check out the confessional during “off hours,” so it’s not a mysterious or terrifying place. Or arrange for confession in a setting that is familiar. Confessions don’t have to be in a confessional to be valid.

Remind them repeatedly that father has heard it all before, and remind them that he’s used to people being nervous, too. It’s okay to say, “I forget what I’m supposed to say next,” and it’s okay to tell the priest you’re scared or embarrassed, too.

Sometimes the waiting is the hardest part. If a child finds it truly excruciating to wait in line, consider making an appointment where he can just pop in and get it done.

It’s okay to avoid difficult or unpleasant priests and to seek out helpful, reassuring ones. Yes, it’s always really Jesus in there; but it’s also a particular man. If your kid likes and trusts some particular priest, he may be willing to schedule a confession if that’s what make the difference between going and not going.

But for some kids, knowing the priest makes it worse.  Some kids would rather have an anonymous experience with less social awkwardness. If your kid would prefer to confess to a stranger, make an occasional pilgrimage to another parish for this purpose.

In any case, remind the kid about the seal of confession and what dire consequences face a priest who breaks the seal. Remind them that the priest can’t tell the penitent’s parents what was confessed!

If you’re going as a family, let an adult go first and alert the priest there’s a nervous kid coming up next, so he can do everything in his power to make it a good experience.

Make it sweet, not bitter. Associations are powerful things, for good or ill.  The Jews have a tradition of giving children honey as they learn the Torah, so they will know that the law of God is sweet. It’s not bribery; it’s helping children internalize something true. So celebrate at least the first confession with a small treat, and consider making subsequent confession trips as pleasant as possible. It may not be practical to include ice cream every time, but at last don’t make it wretched.

If necessary, wait. Some kids simply aren’t ready when most of their peers are ready. A young child isn’t going to be committing mortal sins, so it’s far better to wait an extra year or so than to force a traumatic first confession. If you have to literally drag your kid into the confessional, or if you have to threaten or coerce them into going, you may be harming your child’s relationship with God, and making it less likely that they’ll go at all, once they’re old enough to choose.

Make it a normal normal normal. Let them see you and their siblings going regularly, and then going about their day. Talk about it like it’s the normal thing it is. Let your kids hear you say things like, “On Saturday, we’ll pick up some cat food, then get to confession, then do a car wash,” or “I remember going to confession at St Blorphistan, and boy, those kneelers were squeaky.” No good can come of making it rare and unfamiliar, or speaking as if it’s some kind of mysterious, arcane experience that doesn’t fit into everyday life. Many people (not all) find that frequent confession is easy confession.

Be open about your own struggles and joys surrounding confession. If confession makes you nervous, acknowledge this to your kids. If you feel intense relief when it’s over, talk about that. If you ever feel grateful to God for the gift of forgiveness, talk about that. The last several times I went to confession and the priest said the words, “I absolve you from your sins,” I had to fight down the urge to shout, “JUST LIKE THAT?” It seemed like such an incredibly good deal, I couldn’t believe my good fortune. Every time I feel this way, I talk about it to whichever kid is with me.

Let it be a standing offer. Remind them they can always ask to go to confession, and resolve to bring them any time they ask, no questions asked, no fuss, no complaints, no exceptions. Acknowledging and overcoming sin is hard enough; the last thing a kid needs is for her parents to add obstacles by embarrassing her, or making her feel like she’s causing trouble.

Mind your own business. Yes, you have to educate them in a general way about what kind of things they ought to be bringing to confession, but it’s not a great idea to shout, “Ryan, you apologize to your sister’s hamster right now, and you better be confessing that next week!” It’s the penitent, the priest, and God in there. Parents aren’t invited.

But do check in. Without asking for any personal details, occasionally make sure the experience they’re having at confession is okay. If they seem distraught when they come out of the confessional, ask if anything happened that makes them feel weird. Kids should know that confession can be difficult and intense, but it’s not supposed to be excruciating or humiliating. And they should know that safe adults never ask children to keep secrets.

Take anxiety seriously. If a child is showing severe reluctance or anxiety around confession, don’t assume it’s because he’s a reprobate who’s resisting spiritual improvement, and don’t be sarcastic or dismissive of his anxiety. Maybe something bad happened to him in confession, in which case you need to find out what happened and address it swiftly.

Or maybe he’s suffering from anxiety in general. If confession is just one of many things your child can’t bring himself to do because of anxiety, then you should be talking to a pediatrician to figure out what the next steps are. Put confession on the back burner until you have a better idea of what’s really happening, rather than cementing the association of confession with fear and misery.

When a penitent meets Christ in the confessional, it’s about a relationship. Like any relationship, it takes time to develop naturally over the years, and there will be highs and lows. Sometimes helping our kids through the lows helps us become more comfortable with this great sacrament, too.

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Image by Michael_Swan via Flickr (Creative Commons)
This essay was originally published in a slightly different form in The Catholic Weekly in 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

How I’m teaching about confession with the Sheep Game

My faith formation class — mostly eight-year-olds — has watched this amazing video several times.

It’s short, and shows a man rummaging around in a hole in the deep grass. He grasps something and starts to pull, and we eventually see legs, and then realize that it’s an entire, full-grown sheep who’s somehow got himself buried. The man pulls steadily and the sheep emerges, very much like in a birth. The sheep shakes himself, looking confused and relieved, and gallops away while the men chuckle.

Our class is getting closer to the big day: Their first confession. They won’t receive their First Communion until next year, so I had the task of teaching them to understand sin and repentance and forgiveness, without overwhelming them with guilt and self-accusation. They’re learning what their sacramental relationship is with God, and I would hate to frame it as some kind of adversarial trial. That’s something I’m still unlearning, myself.

So I’ve been trying to lay a lot of the emotional framework for confession, before we really dig into the logistical part of it. We talk a lot about how the whole story of salvation is how much God wants to be with us, and how he keeps coming up with plans to save us from all the problems we get ourselves into. I want very much to teach confession as a place we want to go when we need help, rather than a place we have to go when we’re in disgrace.

One class, I showed them the sheep video without any introduction. We watched it twice, and I asked them to talk about what the sheep was like. They decided he was pretty silly, and confused, and that he needed help, and he was probably scared, and it was dark and awful in the hole, and he wouldn’t be able to get out by himself. And maybe it wasn’t the first time he had fallen down in there, either, and he might even do it again.

Then we talked about the man who saved him. They thought he was Spanish, first of all. Ha! Okay, what else? He was strong, and he cared about the sheep, and he knew what to do, and he wasn’t going to give up until he got the sheep out. And he felt sorry for the sheep (“Pobrecito!” he says at one point), and he liked the sheep, and didn’t want it to get hurt. And he liked seeing it come out of the hole (“El milagro de la vida!” one of the men exclaims.) It was his job to take care of that sheep. That was why he was there.

Then I told them we are like the sheep, and Jesus is like the man who pulls the sheep out. This was a little confusing for them at first, but kids this age are quite capable of understanding analogies with some help.

We talked about different kinds of things we can do that make us fall into a hole. Calling someone a mean name. Not doing what our moms tell us to do. STABBING SOMEONE. (They liked that one.) Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

Teaching 7- and 8-year-olds about their faith

In 2019, I started volunteering as a faith formation teacher for Grade 2, which is preparation for first confession. I always had it in my head that I’d like to do it someday, and that I ought to. Then suddenly it occurred to me that now would work, so I signed up before I could change my mind.

I only have a little bit of experience teaching a group, but I do love kids this age (seven and eight). They are extremely sincere and funny, eager to please, and ravenous for information about how the world works, and most of them haven’t developed a fear of asking questions that might sound foolish. They are also very silly, very immature, and some of them are in constant need of redirection. My hat is off to full-time teachers who manage kids for many hours every day! I don’t think I could do it.

I think it’s going well so far. Here is what I have discovered about teaching kids this age:

They love body movement. When I want them to remember something, I try to come up with a bodily motion or gesture to help it stick in their heads, and they love getting up and doing something.

One especially popular one is when I shout, “Who made you?” and they shout, “God!” I shout, “Why did God make you?” And they shout, “To know him [stamp left foot], to love him [stamp right foot] and to serve him [stamp left foot] in this world [point to the ground dramatically like John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever], and to be happy with him forever IN THE NEXT [point to the sky dramatically like John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever].

We also learned the American Sign Language sign for Trinity when we did our first lesson on the Trinity: Three fingers of your dominant hand are showing behind your non-dominant hand, then the dominant hand goes under and comes up in front with one finger. Three persons, one God. We shall see if they remember next week. I bet some of them will.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

Photo By: Cpl. Katherine M. Solano (detail) (Public Domain)

Juggling, jargon, and the golden ball

Last week, I read Tomie dePaola’s wonderful story, The Clown of God, to my faith formation class. (If you don’t own the book, you can hear and see it read aloud in this video.)

Before I read the book, I prepped the class a bit. It happened to be my daughter’s birthday, as well as the last class before Christmas, so we talked about birthdays and presents. To my relief, they all knew that Christmas is Jesus’ birthday.

And what present does Jesus want for his birthday? We established that he probably doesn’t want a Hot Wheels Ultimate Gator Car Wash play set, and he probably doesn’t want a Barbie Sparkle Lights Mermaid.  So what does he want?

Most of them were baffled. Then a few hands shot up.

“Love!”  said one kid. I smiled and nodded, and wrote that down on the white board.

“Community,” said another. “Respect, service, compassion.”

He laid the words out flatly, like a card dealer mechanically snapping cards out on a table. He had clearly heard them a thousand times before, and knew how to say the thing the teacher wants you to say: Jesus wants us to love one another. Jesus likes community. Jesus likes service. Some of these kids are barely in contact with anything religious, but others have been in Catholic school since they were tiny, and at the tender age of eight, they are full to the brim with jargon.

So I read them the book. The story goes like this . . .

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Image: Detail from illustration from Tomie dePaola’s The Clown of God

In which I give thanks for the Chicken of Life

Last Sunday, I had the kids in my faith formation class draw a picture of a Thanksgiving feast at their house. Most drew a table, some food and family and friends gathered around. Then I had them draw a picture of the Mass and nudged them toward drawing a similar scene. We talked about how the altar is a table, as well as a place of sacrifice, and how the food is Jesus, and all of mankind is one family.

I was working my way up to the central idea—that “Eucharist” literally means “Thanksgiving.” But the lesson did not really land because most of the kids did not know the word “Eucharist” yet. Also, some of them did not know what “Mass” meant, and some of them did not know what to draw since they were going over to their mom’s new boyfriend’s house for Thanksgiving, and they weren’t sure if he had a table. One child steadfastly insisted that last time he went to Mass they had wine and chicken. The chicken of life.

And, of course, three of the boys were still convulsing on the rug because, during the story portion of class, I had made the tactical error of showing them an illustration of St. Juan Diego in his tilma, and you could sort of see part of his butt. His butt.

Some weeks, my husband says I come home from teaching with my eyes shining and my face alight. This was not one of those weeks.

On a good week, the kids are spellbound while I tell them that God made the world because he is so overflowing with love, that he just wanted to be even happier by making more things to be good and beautiful and true, which is why he made the stars and the animals and you and me, and all he wants now is to get back together with us again.

On a good week, someone wants to talk about the war in heaven, and another kid pipes up, “But Ms. Simcha, the devil didn’t have to go to hell because he had free will!”

On a good week, we read about how Jesus called the shambling, shocked Lazarus from his dark grave, and one of the boys screws up his face with skepticism and blurts out, “Is this a story true?” and I can look him in the eye and say: “Yes, sweetheart. This is a true story. It’s all true!”

Those are the times when I feel keenly what a privilege it is to be there, to be allowed to feed these eager young Christians who are so hungry for the truths they were made to receive. Sometimes it feels like the cluttered little classroom is blazing with light and I am so glad, so glad to be there with them.

But we do have bad weeks . . . 

Read the rest of my latest for America Magazine

Image: Dion Hinchcliffe via Flickr (Creative Commons)