How to clean every room of the house, according to my kids

We have a small house, by American standards. It’s about 1500 square feet, and 11 people live and move and have their being, and all their stuff, inside those walls. The trick to surviving and thriving in such limited quarters is to clean and organize assiduously. Assiduously, I tell you! This will require all family members to pitch in and do their fair share.

Does this happen? Well, I’ll tell you.

I’ll tell you.

My children care deeply about cleanliness. Or, at least, they have some very deep feelings about cleaning. I’ve been watching them in action, and I’d like to share with you some of the ways they manage their responsibility.

How to wash the dishes

If you’re overwhelmed by the massive heap of miscellaneous pots, pans, bowls, plates, and utensils, it will become easier to tackle the job if you stop and organize things first.

This is the last thing you want. Your goal, as with all cleaning projects, is not to end up with a tidy space, but to assemble legal evidence for the cosmos that you’ve been grievously wronged; so it’s best to make the job as unmanageable as possible.

Turn up your worst music, angrily tear open the dishwasher and begin cramming dirty dishes into it in this order: A single butter knife, a giant mixing bowl with onion skins clinging to it, a set of measuring cups still on the ring, the last remaining special blue glass from Mexico that your mother got from her sister for a wedding present; an iron frying pan, a novelty plastic souvenir cup in the shape of an ear of corn that always flips over and fills up with soapy water, and another butter knife. I guess this basting brush with glitter glue on it. Maybe a whisk, but sideways.

And that’s it. If you can find a pot with eggs burned onto the bottom, cram this down over everything else to seal in the doom and prevent the spray arm from spinning. If you’re out of dish soap, squirt some shampoo in there. It’s probably fine. How are you supposed to know, sheesh? Close the door, press ‘start’, and remind yourself that the reason the counter top is still crowded with dirty dishes is because you never asked to be born anyway, so how is this possibly your responsibility?

How to vacuum

A vacuum cleaner is a handy time saver, but like all tools, it has its limits. For instance, you can use it to suck up dirt, dust, dog hair, cat hair, sister hair, glitter, sister glitter, and sister dirt, but do not attempt to use the vacuum cleaner to suck up hair that is still attached to your sister. Why? Because girls are always screaming about something, who knows why.

Other than that, just sort of push the machine around the middle part of the floor until it starts making whining, gasping noises, and that’s the sound of being done. Shove it toward the corner of the room and leave it plugged in, with the cord flopping all over the place, as a courtesy to the next person. Man, that is some courtesy. You are awesome.

How to clean your bedroom

Spend all of Saturday morning begging and pleading to watch cartoons because you never get a chance to watch TV anymore because you work so hard. Watch cartoons for three hours, turn it off, think about cleaning your room, and announce that you never got to have breakfast. Eat breakfast for three hours. Turn on the TV again. When your parents notice you are still watching cartoons and demand you turn it off, shriek that it is a two-parter and it’s unfair to turn it off now, and anyway, your room isn’t even that bad because you just cleaned it.

Turn the TV off. Slither up the stairs like you were born with some kind of abnormal tendons, and announce that it’s impossible to clean such a messy room in such a short amount of time. Lie down on the floor and start playing with dolls.

When your parents come in to see how you’re doing, explain that the whole entire mess isn’t even yours, because you keep everything on your bed anyway, and everything else isn’t even yours! Throw three socks down the stairs, because they are laundry. Ask if you can have a little break. Turn on cartoons. Suddenly announce you never had lunch, and it’s unfair.

How to clean the bathroom

Don’t even go in there. Seriously just lie about it.

How to clear the dining room table

A place for everything, and everything in its place! Mail goes on the kitchen counter. Books and papers can be placed on the counter in the kitchen. Jackets and hats, straight to their spot in the kitchen, and why not on the counter? Laundry, apple cores, dog toys, a single roller blade, a puppet covered with very loose glitter, a broken table fan, a small plate of chewed-up mushrooms, a large paper mache model of Machu Picchu, a fleece blanket of Our Lady of Guadalupe with oatmeal on it, someone’s job application, and a curling iron: counter, obviously, kitchen-style.

A coffee mug: UGH, there’s nowhere to put this. Who’s supposed to be cleaning the kitchen counters? DO YOUR JOB, LAZY.

How to wash windows

I can’t believe they let me have a spray bottle of ammonia. We’re all gonna die.

***

And that’s how we do it at our house. Hope this helps. We feel that training children in household cleaning chores not only teaches them responsibility, it gives them a sense of ownership and pride, which sounds great, and someday we hope to get started on this. But right now, we’re watching cartoons, and it’s a two-parter.

Image: Detail of The Galley by Arthur Young (public domain)
A version of this essay was originally published in The Catholic Weekly in 2021.

Childhood is a wild bird

The first time I took my kids out to hand feed wild birds, it didn’t go well.

I had hit upon the activity out of desperation at the beginning of spring vacation. The kids were so bored, but I had COVID and was much too tired and contagious for outings. We had long since exhausted the charms of reading books via FaceTime, with and without silly filters, and even the kids were tired of TV.

But maybe we could feed the birds together! We could sit in chairs, safely distanced, enjoying nature, being quiet, doing something wholesome and memorable, and did I mention being quiet?

It didn’t go so well. But that was okay. It was pleasant enough just being outside, and I’m a firm believer in the value of unstructured, unplugged time for kids. We thought we might get a nibble or two, but you really do have to be quiet to attract birds, and my youngest is made out of monkeys. The first few times she squirmed or chattered, I fondly and gently shushed her; but I recalled that our goal was to have a nice time together, so before long, I released her, and we dispersed without having fed or even seen a single bird.

We agreed it was fun, though, or at least potentially fun. Apparently you really can train birds to get to know you. I talked about our attempt on social media, and people shared photos and videos of their kids’ success in making friends with these wild creatures.

The idea began to take hold. I started to see hand feeding wild birds as the ideal summer activity. By the end of vacation, I thought, this is how we would greet every morning: We would step into the backyard with a handful of seed, and our feathered friends, who knew our gentle ways, would flock to us like a gang of modern day St. Francises.

A eager twittering grew in my heart. It was everything I wanted for my kids: A break from screen time, a memorable bonding experience, and a naturally contemplative pastime that would sweetly, easily open the gates for all kinds of other goods of the spirit.

The idea took flight. This could be about so much more than birds, I thought…

Read the rest of my essay for Catholic San Francisco here

The secret life of Barbie and other cartel wives

Remember the sweet pretend games we used to play when we were kids? Remember baby dolls, and house, and school, and When Will My Husband Return From The War, and Tie Those Ropes Up Tighter, She’s Trying To Get Away?

No? Well, maybe you don’t want to let your kids play with mine, then.

Let me back up.

Maybe you remember when Barbie dolls were the toy that bad parents let their kids play with. I definitely do. Lipsticked, high-heeled Barbie, with her extreme bodily proportions and her cheap, trampy attire, was the wicked, modernist plaything that trained little girls in the ways of eating disorders and prostitution, according to the paranoid lore of the time.

I’m not really sure if my mother believed this, or if she only thought it might possibly be true; or possibly she just didn’t have the budget to buy us Barbies; but we definitely didn’t have any Barbies when I was growing up. And then when I grew up and had my own first several kids, who were all girls, I kept Barbies out of the house, because I was nervous about what would influence their ideas of the world and themselves.

The “Barbie is the devil” argument is extreme, but there’s some truth in it. Kids do internalize what they see, and if they’re constantly told that beauty looks like an impossibly tall, spindly waif who’s 90 percent hair and eyelashes, it certainly could contribute to feelings of inadequacy, and the desire to be thinner.

But it’s harder to make that argument against Barbie today, when today’s Barbies look downright wholesome compared to the vicious faces on so many of the other doll lines out there, which I can only describe as baby sex demons.

Barbie’s expression is a bit vacuous and her legs are still too damn long, but other than that, it’s hard to object. Even the clothes are made better than they used to be; and my kids would just as soon make their own doll gowns out of tissues and duct tape anyway. Anyway, one way or the other, we got worn down, and found less and less energy for worrying about certain things, and now we have eight daughters and something like 700 Barbies.

And this particular doll company really has been doing good things in the field of inclusiveness. Rather than denying the charge that kids are learning from their dolls, they’re embracing it, and a few years ago began producing a line of stylish dolls that sport prosthetic limbs and wheelchairs, hearing aids, and braces, and have bald heads or uneven skin tone, or otherwise appear in ways that would have scared me off when I was a kid, whether I saw these things on a doll or on a person — largely because I just didn’t have much exposure to it.

Kids learn to emotionally manage ideas through play, and playing with dolls who look different from them helps them become comfortable with people who look different from them. At least that’s the idea.

But the Mattel company has larger claims than that. They funded a study that says that doll play in general (not just dolls with disabilities or body differences) builds empathy (or at least, more empathy than playing games on a tablet). And this, too, seems like common sense to me.

In the study, they found that, when children spend time playing with dolls, together and singly, it activates regions of the brain associated with social activity, with behavioral control, and processing rewarding events.

The researchers concluded that pretend play —  at least, more so than tablet play — supports social processing and empathic reasoning. Even when kids played with dolls solo, rather than with other children, it “allows the rehearsal of social interactions and social perspective taking [and] provides a unique outlet for practicing social and empathic skills.” In other words, playing with dolls teaches kids how to act with each other.

And I believe it. Really, I do. I just wonder where my particular kids fit in.

My kids never once, to my knowledge, acted out a happy domestic scene. If there was a mother with some children, she was always dashing around looking for someone to take the little brats off her hands so she could go out partying with her boyfriend, the crazed leader of a Mexican drug cartel.

Sometimes the father was involved, but he was usually a mute and grief-stricken warrior dealing with the affects of having been betrayed by his own men in the war. Or sometimes the children themselves would be wicked, and would invite each other over for picnics, only to lure their innocent playmates onto what turned out to be sacrificial altars, where they were quickly tied up and disemboweled, their squeaky cries rising up into the night air, their blood running in rivers as a libation for the hungry gods.

Who wants to come study my children? Who wants to figure out what, exactly they are learning with this rehearsal of social interactions? I’m having a hard time classifying it as “practicing empathetic skills” when the end result is that the Midge doll has been snatched bald after a particularly vicious cat fight with Anna of Arendelle, who is meaner than she looks, especially when someone gets between her and her man. And never mind that her man is Luke Skywalker, who is once again naked. Oh Luke.

I don’t know, maybe they really are learning empathy through this kind of play. Maybe if it weren’t for doll play, they’d be even less empathetic than they are now. Maybe the bitter feud that’s been raging between Ariel the mermaid and Princess Organa is all that’s been standing between my daughters and world domination. One never knows.

The moral of this story is, you can worry all you want about what’s going to happen to your kids; and you can do all the studies you like about what’s going to happen to your kids. But in the end, all children are a little bit insane, and many children are almost completely insane.

The things kids do when they’re in a lab and someone is listening in with a microphone and a clipboard is one thing; the things they do when they’re alone in their bedroom with a teeming host of plastic dolls, a head full of nonsense, and no rules whatsoever . . . well, that’s another story entirely. There’s probably nothing you can do about it, so you might as well enjoy the ride.

A version of this essay was originally published at The Catholic Weekly on June 6, 2022.

Photo by form PxHere

 

Sing, muse, of the anger of our children

One of the great things about having a big family is that somebody is always mad at you. When I say “great,” I mean that somebody is always mad at you anyway, no matter what you do, so you might as well enjoy it.

It’s hard to explain. I never would have anticipated it, but there is a special kind of exquisite glee that comes with knowing that you’ve revolted your children down to their very souls.  I suppose it’s a small act of defiance, like a conquered people crouching in their cell blocks, grinning at their oppressors as they sing forbidden songs and eat forbidden . . . mouse sandwiches . . . I forget what we were talking about.

Anyway, the point is, I was nearly forty years old before I finally said certain things to my mother about the mistakes she had made in raising me, and it felt very psychologically important to me at the time, and I guess I’m glad I said it; but when I think of her being nearly seventy years old and having to still hear about things she did wrong thirty years ago, I’m kind of amazed she didn’t just smack me. My mother was a good woman, and didn’t do a lot of the smacking she was entitled to.

But this isn’t a heavy essay. I don’t want to talk about all the horrible mistakes one can make with one’s children, the wrong responses, the coldness when there should have been warmth, the weariness when there should have been attention, the sarcasm when there should have been sympathy, the times we forgot to pick them up, the times we got them the wrong present, the times we called them the wrong name, the times we did the wrong thing, and weren’t even sorry, and instead wrote stupid essays about it for clout on the internet.

Instead, I want to tell you about the worst thing my husband and I ever did to our children. They were all unanimously, instantly disgusted with us at the time, and as the years have passed, their revulsion has only deepened.

It has to do with a couch.

Someday, it may come to pass that the Fishers will buy a brand new couch. We’re not there yet, but in the last few years, we have started buying our couches at respectable used furniture stores, and this is quite a step up. We started out our family life acquiring couches by skulking into better neighborhoods at night and seeing what they had dragged out to the curb, that might fit in our minivan, and that seemed fine.

But on this particular day a few years ago, we were still halfway through our evolution from garbage pickers to respectable used furniture buyers, and we had made arrangements to buy a couch from someone online, someone who turned out to be . . . less than respectable.

I seem to have blotted the details out of my memory, but this couch we were going to buy must have been pretty horrible, because we came home without it. But we knew the kids were all waiting in an empty living room, champing at the bit to see the splendid new couch we had found for them. And if there’s one thing I hate, it’s disappointing kids. So, I did what any normal mother would do in these circumstances: I said to my husband, “Let’s pretend we got an invisible couch.”

Now, one of my husband’s main jobs in life is to listen to my ideas and say, “No, that’s dumb.” But for some reason, he didn’t do his job on this day. Instead, the two of us parked the rented truck in the driveway, opened the back, and went into an elaborate pantomime of carefully, laboriously unloading first the cushions and then the body of a heavy, unwieldy, slightly wobbly, completely invisible couch.

We shooed the kids out of the way, had some imaginary trouble figuring out how to wedge it through the door and had to back out a few times, scuffed our way through the dining room, slid some furniture out of the way, and set the nothing down, panting, and then asked the kids what they thought.

Well, they thought we were a couple of idiots. And they still do.

I, on the other hand, fall off my actual real couch laughing every time I think about this story. It may be the stupidest thing I’ve ever done for no reason at all. Those kids were so profoundly disgusted with us, and for once, we totally deserved it. Somehow, that feels like a some kind of score was evened up.

Let me sing you the song of my people! We’re morons, my husband and I, and there’s nothing our kids can do about it.

***
A version of this essay was originally published on February 22, 2022 in The Catholic Weekly.

Photo by artistmac via Flickr (Creative Commons)

Señor Secondthoughts

Who wants to hear about a parenting victory? This one comes with a mascot, and his name is Señor Secondthoughts. 

Our youngest got a much-desired present for her sixth birthday: A stuffed Owlette and and a stuffed Gecko, of PJ Masks. She’s had Catboy for a while, but she really wanted the other two. I discovered it was cheaper to buy a set of three, so when the new stuffies arrived, I tossed the extra Catboy in my closet and wrapped up the other two, and she was absolutely thrilled.

A few weeks later, she barged into my room and stumbled across the extra Catboy. So we explained what happened and said she could keep the extra toy if she wanted to. My husband suggested that she could give him a mustache and turn him into Catboy’s evil twin. She thought that was amusing, and went on her way.

Half an hour later, she barged in again, this time in tears. She explained that she “actually took Daddy seriously” and went ahead and gave Catboy a mustache, and now she changed her mind, but it was too late, because she used permanent marker. She then dissolved into sobs of real, terrible sorrow and regret.

 My first struggle was not to burst out laughing, because Catboy looks hilarious with a mustache. The one she gave him has a little twirl and looks very evil indeed. 

My second struggle was to resist doing any of the things I would have done in the past, if a child had come to me with a problem like this.

In the past, if I had been feeling cranky, I would have told her that it wasn’t so bad, and it wasn’t worth crying over, because it was just a toy and she does have another toy, and some kids would be happy to have two Catboys.

If I had been feeling sympathetic, I would have said I don’t want her to feel sad about a birthday present, and I would have ordered a replacement on the spot (for a grand total of three Catboys) to make her stop crying.

Or if I had been in a hurry, I might have just tried to distract her, make it into a joke, or change the subject, so she would forget her problem and be cheerful again.

Behold: I have been in therapy for several years, so here is what I did instead.

I held her and rubbed her back while she cried, and said I could see how sad she was and how bad it felt, and how I know she wishes she hadn’t done it. And we just stayed with that for a while, and were sad together, until he started to calm down a little. In pop psychology terms, this is called letting her “feel her feelings.”

Then I said there is a name for what she’s feeling, and that name is “regret.” I told her regret is when something seems like a really good idea, so you do it, but then you suddenly realize it wasn’t a good idea. I said that everybody does things and then feels regret sometimes. She is a kid who loves words and loves to understand how human beings act, so giving her a name for what she was feeling was important; and it was important to let her know that it was a common human feeling, and she wasn’t uniquely foolish or uniquely suffering. This also gave her something intellectual to focus on, and broke up the storm of feelings somewhat.

Then I told her that sometimes, we feel a lot of regret over something, and it feels really bad, but sometimes, after a while, we figure out a way to make it work, and then it stops feeling so bad, and might even start feeling good. I said that it was okay to feel bad right now, but that she probably wouldn’t feel this bad forever. I said that everybody knows she’s really good at figuring stuff out and finding ways to have fun with things, so she could probably someday figure out a way to have fun with Evil Catboy — or, as I was by now calling him in my head, Señor Secondthoughts. I wanted to build her up a little, and remind her that she’s capable of rising above this. And I wanted her to know that this was going to be something she herself would be dealing with. 
 
She was quite a bit calmer by this time, but I know she has a habit of suddenly reminding herself of what she was upset about and getting worked up all over again; so I seized the moment and distracted her with some other topic entirely. She took the bait, got excited about the new thing (some snack or something, I forget what), and off she went, leaving Señor Secondthoughts behind.  
 
She has since re-discovered this mustachio’d villain, and it doesn’t seem to bother her at all. 
 
Here’s the important part: This is not a formula for making everything better. That did happen in this case, with this particular kid, for this particular problem she had. But even if she hadn’t responded so well, I would have been happy with how I handled it, because it’s not about the problem right now. It’s about the kid and her future.
 
More and more, I’m realizing that my job as parent is not to fix my kid’s problems, and it’s definitely not my job to make them stop feeling bad and start feeling good as quickly as possible. You can do that with babies, but once a kid is old enough to have a conversation, they’re old enough to start talking about feelings, and learning what to do with them. 
 
When a kid is upset, my first impulse is usually to try to push past the bad feelings, either with sternness or with sympathy. But even if it does quiet the kid down quickly, this is just papering over an emotional mess. The mess will still be there, and the kid will not have learned any skills for how to clean it up when it inevitably happens again. 
 
I had a big revelation: Part of the reason I want to fix things as quickly as possible is because my kid’s strong feelings elicit strong feelings in me; and sometimes, that’s actually what I’m trying to manage: My own feelings, not my kid’s. It’s very normal to feel impatience or disgust or distress or pity when a kid comes to you sobbing. But it’s not fair to make the kid to change her behavior so that my feelings about it are more manageable. This doesn’t help the child at all. It doesn’t equip her for the future, and may even teach her awful mental habits of inappropriate shame and nameless resentment that will emerge in various unpleasant ways for the rest of her life (not that I would know anything about that, twitch twitch). 
 
My job isn’t to make her shush. My job is to teach her how to be a human being who will inevitably make mistakes, feel bad about them, and live to tell the tale.
 
So this is how we do it: We let kids feel their feelings. We name the feeling, and we call it normal, and let them know it’s okay to feel this way. Then we talk about what might happen next, and remind them that they do have the power to move on and be awesome. And then we do something else. You can actually do this with kids of all ages, using age-appropriate terms. 
 
Important: Sometimes, you just don’t have time for this, and that’s okay, too. Sometimes a little kid is melting down and you absolutely need to be somewhere, so your only choice is to scoop them up and deal with it later. This, too, is normal. But if at all possible, it is a good idea to deal with it later, and not just chalk it up to a kid being bad. 
And sometimes you just blow it. Sometimes you’re not the ideal parent, and you handle things wrong. And what is this called? This is called having regrets. It feels bad, but etc. etc. etc. See?  You can do this for yourself, too. 
 
When you do have time to go through all the steps, though, remember that it won’t always result in a calm, happy kid, but that’s not really the goal. The goal is having a kid who has emotions, knows it’s okay to have emotions, and has some clue about what to do with her emotions.
 
That’s my goal for myself, as well. We can do it! Señor Secondthoughts is here to cheer us on.  
 
 

How to clean up, according to my kids

We have a small house, by American standards. It’s about 1500 square feet, and 11 people live and move and have their being, and all their stuff, inside those walls. The trick to surviving and thriving in such limited quarters is to clean and organize assiduously. Assiduously, I tell you! This will require all family members to pitch in and do their fair share.

Does this happen? Well, I’ll tell you.

I’ll tell you.

My children care deeply about cleanliness. Or, at least, they have some very deep feelings about cleaning. I’ve been watching them in action, and I’d like to share with you some of the ways they manage their responsibility.

How to wash the dishes

If you’re overwhelmed by the massive heap of miscellaneous pots, pans, bowls, plates, and utensils, it will become easier to tackle the job if you stop and organize things first.

This is the last thing you want. Your goal, as with all cleaning projects, is not to end up with a tidy space, but to assemble evidence for the cosmos that you’ve been grievously wronged; so it’s best to make the job as unmanageable as possible.

Turn up your worst music, angrily tear open the dishwasher and begin cramming dirty dishes into it in this order: A single butter knife, a giant mixing bowl with onion skins clinging to it, a set of measuring cups still on the ring, the last remaining special blue glass from Mexico that your mother got from her sister for a wedding present; an iron frying pan, a novelty plastic souvenir cup that always flips over and fills up with soapy water, and another butter knife. I guess this basting brush with glue on it.

And that’s it. If you can find a pot with eggs burned onto the bottom, cram this down over everything else to seal in the doom and prevent the spray arm from spinning. If you’re out of dish soap, squirt some shampoo in there. It’s probably fine. How are you supposed to know, sheesh? Close the door, press ‘start’, and remind yourself that the reason the counter top is still crowded with dirty dishes is because you never asked to be born anyway, so how is this possibly your responsibility?

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

Image: Pieter Brueghel the Elder, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

It’s easier to recover from being spoiled than from being abused

One of the toughest, potentially most painful, potentially most rewarding parts of being a parent is sorting through what you experienced yourself as a child. As soon as you start raising a child of your own, you have to figure out which parts of your childhood you want to live out with your own kids, and which parts you want to leave behind forever. Everybody goes through this, whether consciously or not.

The huge, unwieldy question of “How will I discipline my kids?” is especially tough. It strikes at the heart of so many profound issues, and the stakes are so high.

Like most of the really tough things in life, there are perils on both sides. If you’re either too harsh or too lenient in how you discipline your child, it could truly harm them, and that harm can ripple out to affect their relationships with other people and even with God.

So yes, it’s important to get it right. But there’s some comfort in knowing it’s not actually possible to get it completely right. You are going to make mistakes. You are going to be inconsistent, and give mixed messages to your kids. This is just how humans act, and I’ve never seen even really wonderful parents get it exactly right.

But I’m here to tell you this: If you are going to err, it’s far better to err on the side of laxity than on the side of harshness. This is not because being spoiled isn’t bad for kids. It is.

But if your child is going to have to recover from one extreme or the other as an adult, is far easier to recover from spoiling than it is from abuse. And there are all too many parenting philosophies calling themselves “discipline” that are really abuse.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

Image: FeeLoona via Pixabay

All these kids, and nowhere to go

How are you holding up? Are you okay?

As for us, we’re doing surprisingly well as we head into another of who-knows-how-many-weeks of being stuck at home together. I feel like our family has spent the past 20 years training for an extended period of social distancing such as this.

Working from home, buying in bulk, going long periods without seeing friends, and living our lives with a constant sense of impending doom? These are already our routine, so the past several weeks have just been an intensification of our normal lives, plus the luxury of not having to drive kids into town and back eleven times a day. I told my therapist (via hygienic telemedicine video chat, of course) that we’re actually kind of living my ideal life, minus the obligatory medical panic.

As you Australians head into your enforced staycations, allow me to share some of the things our family is enjoying or planning to enjoy as we find ourselves alone together:

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly.

 

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. 

10 Ridiculous family games that need no equipment

  1. JEBRAHAMADIAH AND BALTHAZAR (also called “Master and Servant”)

Another role-playing/narrative game, but you can sit down for this one. I am not sure why my kids call this one “Jebrahamadiah and Balthazar,” except that (a) it has something to do with the Jeb! flyers we kept getting in the mail when Jeb Bush was running for president, and (b) they are weirdos.

One person gives orders, the other person explains why he can’t carry them out. The answer has to be part of a consistent narrative — you can’t just make up a new excuse for each command.

Here is an abbreviated example. The longer you can draw it out, the funnier it gets:

Jebrahamadiah! Go get me a glass of water.
I would, but I just broke the last glass.
Then go get me a cup of water.
I would, but when I broke the glass, I cut my finger, and I can’t use my hand.
Well, use your other hand.
I would, but when I was searching for a Band-aid for my one hand, I slammed the medicine chest door on my finger, and now both hands are useless.
Then call an ambulance.
I can’t, because, if you’ll recall, my hands don’t work.
Then use the speaker phone.
I would, but when I slammed the medicine chest door, some nail polish remover fell on my phone and now the speaker doesn’t work.
Then just shout out the window for help.
I would, but the neighbors saw me wrecking my phone, and he’s a big jerk, and laughed so hard that he drove off the road and now he’s in a coma.
Well, shout out the other window on the other side of the house.
I would, but when the other neighbor drove off the road, he knocked a utility pole down, and a live wire landed on the house on the other side and now it’s on fire, so I don’t want to bother them.
Well . . . okay, fine, I’ll get my own water.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

Image: From Wikihow Play Charades (Creative Commons)