Children and Reconciliation
Diary of a Parish Priest
“I fought with my sister.” “I forgot to feed my dog.” “My brother picks on me.” “Um … um … I don’t remember.” Yes, it’s time once again in our parish for the Sacrament of Reconciliation for the students in our Religious Education program. And it’s time for me once again to get a review of Lawrence Kohlberg’s theory of moral development.
I find it fascinating to hear the different perspectives that children bring to the idea of “sin,” based on their stage of development. For the pre-First Communion second graders, there’s something irreducibly arbitrary about sins: “I put a cup onto the table too close to the edge, and it fell off and broke.” No evil intent, but a bad outcome – and that’s a sin. (It’s intriguing to me that a well-formed adult might feel responsible for the same thing, taking responsibility for the inattention of putting the cup too close to the edge – but that’s not what the second-grader is getting at.) So part of my work with the youngest is helping to shape a sense of personal agency – sin involves intention, as well as outcomes.
As the classes of slightly older children come by, there’s less and less of the “march of the accidents.” Instead, fairness/unfairness rules the confessional. “My brother hit me, so I hit him back.” “I didn’t feed the dog, but I blamed my sister for it even though it was my turn.” Now my guidance – mostly expressed in a one-sentence snip of an idea – shifts. Children this age know that intention matters; but what’s missing and has next to be attained is a larger perspective. “What do you think it was like for your sister when you blamed her?” “What was your brother trying to do when he hit you?” A new stage of moral growth will open for these children when they can get out of their own perspective, and see things from someone else’s point of view.
When I look back on the way children’s confessions have changed since I first started hearing them almost four decades ago, I now see so much less of the shame and guilt that pervaded the 1970s. That’s a good thing; kids today are, by and large, spared that burden and are delightfully forthcoming in talking about their actions. But they bear a different burden – a chaotic moral universe in which they’re adrift. (Sometimes I think that adults’ choices of Scripture passages for reconciliation services for children – heavy on the “Prodigal Son” story and the like – reflect an adult’s need for the alleviation of guilt and reminder of forgiveness, rather than the contemporary child’s need for guideposts to right and wrong.)
The few minutes I can spend with each child no doubt don’t do very much in themselves. But my attempts at attunement – accurately hearing from each child how morality is being construed – make it more likely that at least I’m not hindering or diverting the development of an accurate and sensitive conscience. It also presents a challenge for me; I have to remember that my own moral perspective – not the what of right and wrong, but the how of understanding what “right” and “wrong” mean – isn’t the same as the child’s, and isn’t the same one child to another.
A few times in my life I’ve been given the gift of a new perspective on some aspect of my life from a confessor, or spiritual guide, or friend. In those times they’ve spoken as if from “inside” my own way of looking at things at the same time as they offered a glimpse beyond. The healing that comes in confession is, of course, primarily the work of God’s grace in the sacrament. But to the extent that my care and attention can enhance the work of grace, it’s that sort of understanding I try to bring to each child. I can’t expect a third-grader to have the moral perspective of a grownup; but I also don’t want to leave him or her without an invitation to take an age-appropriate step toward the next level. Hearing what’s unsaid around “I fought with my sister” is the work of soulcraft.