Going to confession for the first (or second or fiftieth) time can be quite intimidating. Much more so the younger you are! Ultimately, we all need confession, desperately, even as children. Repentance is the path of spiritual life which leads us to salvation. Life without repentance cannot be called faith in God. Salvation is impossible without repentance. Orthodox parents, then, must do all they can to help their children prepare for confession. We must teach them what sin is, what repentance looks like, and how good and forgiving the Lord is.
1. Be a good example
Through their own spiritual experience, parents teach their children what is good and evil, how to act and how not to act, how to pray, and how to fast. As parents, we have one of the most difficult jobs. And that is raising Saints.
You must set the example of what a real relationship with God looks like. You must pray regularly, read the Scriptures and lives of the Saints, fast in accordance with the Church calendar, and truly understand what it means to repent, to struggle toward holiness. If you do not live the life you preach, then your children will see this disparity. When they grow up, they will either become “cafeteria Orthodox” or simply abandon their Faith altogether.
If you hope for your children to take confession and repentance seriously, you also must take them seriously. When your children see your joy, your utter freedom in Christ, they will want that, too.
2. Wait until your child is ready
Many parents think that the earlier a child begins to confess, the better. However, the Orthodox Church, knowing the nature of man through its spiritual experience, does not confess very young children. Seven-year-old children come to Confession. However, all children develop differently, and you should not strictly mark seven years of age as the time for their first Confession.
According to Christian anthropology, a child does not confess until at least age seven not because he is sinless—children often, even at a very early age, do nasty things—but because Confession is not only a recognition of one’s personal sin, but also a resolute struggle with it. Children in early childhood are not capable of being genuinely conscious of their sins. Nor are they capable of beginning to struggle with them. Therefore, the correction of the negative qualities of a very young child’s soul lies entirely with the parents. A trusting conversation with his mother or father is the young child’s Confession. Without the help of his parents, a child can neither be conscious of his sin nor correct it.
If you feel your child is ready to begin going to confession, have a conversation with your child and priest present together. He will be able to discern whether your child is indeed ready. Learn your priest’s expectations and practices regarding confession of children. Let your child ask questions if he has any, and allow him to develop rapport with his priest. The more your child trusts you and your priest, the more comfortable he will be.
3. Talk to your child’s Sunday School teacher
Your child’s Church School teacher may already have plans to discuss confession in your child’s class. Even in the older grades, students often revisit confession as a topic at least once a year. This helps to deepen their understanding of the Mystery as they grow more mature. Check with the Church School teacher(s) first, so you are aware of the curriculum and can supplement your child’s learning at home.
The teachers may also be able to recommend additional resources for you, including books, websites, activities, and lessons to help you prepare your child for confession.
4. Read about confession together
Spend an evening or two reading about confession and repentance with your child. If you aren’t sure where to start, open up your Bible and read through some familiar stories: the Publican and the Pharisee, the Prodigal Son, or King David and the Prophet Nathan. After this, you can dive into books outside the Scriptures, like A Child’s Guide To Confession.
The goal in reading together is for your child to become comfortable with the concept of confession, sin, and repentance. As you read and explore this topic, make sure your child understands that God is not a dictator. He does not demand our confession like it’s some sort of payment for sin. Confession is purely voluntary. It is a way for us to come to God and ask His forgiveness when we realize we have done something that “misses the mark” of holiness. Try not to diminish sin to just a crime. Rather, it is something we do that ruins the relationship of love, respect, and trust we have with our Heavenly Father. But that trust and love can be restored through repentance. And that is the beauty of confession!
5. Pray together
If you are not already doing so, you should pray together as a family. Our children learn best by observing those closest to them; as parents, we must be ever-cognizant of this fact and take care. If we hope for our children to develop a relationship with God, one of trust in which they can take their sins to Him in humility and receive forgiveness, we must have that same kind of relationship.
During your morning and evening prayers, add a prayer or two into your prayer rule that focus specifically on repentance. Most Orthodox prayer books will also contain the Canon of Repentance, which you can read one evening in the place of your normal prayers.
6. Let your child witness your own confession
Ask your priest if your child can “tag along” to your confession and watch. Before you go to your confession, talk with your child and discuss what he will see and hear, and why he would see and hear those things. By witnessing the entire process, your child can visualize his own confession. He will realize there really is nothing to fear, except in withholding sins we should have confessed.
7. Help your child recognize his/her sins
A day or two before your child is scheduled to go to confession, sit down with him. Review what sin is, what repentance means. Have your child read through a reflection guide to help him name his sins. This preparation guide focuses on Ten Commandments, asking thought-provoking questions to help your child search his heart and find sins he may not have considered on his own. For older children in their early and mid teens, check out our full guide for preparing for confession.
It may help to keep a small notebook, so your child can write down sins as they come to mind. She can then take that list with her into confession, to help her remember what she wishes to say to the priest. It is okay to guide your child through this step. But try not to tell your child what she has to confess. She can only repent of and overcome the sins that she recognizes in herself as evil. Instead, have a conversation about why particular sins are evil, and allow your child to discern whether those sins apply to her or not. If you have concerns about your child’s ability to do this, speak with your priest.
8. Explain that the Eucharist is a gift, not a right
As your child grows older, it is important to communicate what Holy Communion really is: the Body and Blood of Christ. The Eucharist is not a casual weekly event we waltz into without preparing ourselves, physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. You cannot approach just like that, expecting to receive something of which we are all grossly unworthy.
If your child misbehaves during the services, and continues to misbehave after your constant redirection, it is better not to take him to the Chalice. It is better for him to understand that we cannot approach communion in a state of “open sin”. And it is better that he not commune as often as you would like, rather than to partake to his condemnation.
The Eucharist is a gift. It is the ultimate privilege, to be adopted by the Heavenly Father through the Body and Blood of the Son. We should do everything in our power to be worthy of that privilege, to prepare ourselves for it and cleanse our souls and bodies.
There is no galaxy which could hold God. And yet the human heart can contain Him. But it can only do so if it is prepared to accept Him. For this, we need to work on ourselves. We need to try and organize our family attitude to Divine services in such a way that we do not bring our children to the chalice, but that they want to come themselves. Nevertheless, parents should not make their children come there if they have reached their age of reason already; parents can only offer them to come.
How often should my child go to confession?
Unfortunately, there is no easy answer to this question, even for adults. Much depends on the spiritual tradition in which the family lives. Why? Because it is meaningless to demand of your child that which you do not (or will not) do yourself.
If you go to confession four times a year (once during each of the major Fasts), then your child should do the same. If you go once a month, your child should do the same. And she will come to this naturally, because it is the “tradition” of your family. If you never go to confession, you cannot expect your child to go on a regular basis either. Remember: children learn by observing.
According to Fr. Vitaly Sinkar, “Parents’ [ultimate] goal is not to prepare children for Confession, but to show them the depth of life, to teach them how to understand it. […] We need to talk to them: about life and its content, about this world. We should not separate them from the world because of the evil within it. Instead we need to provide them with their own spiritual shield. And of course we need to pray for them: to not only speak with them about God, but to speak with God about them as well.”
Remember that when taking part in the social, spiritual and psychological development of our children we should not make them meet our own expectations no matter how much we want this. Our task is to prepare them for their future life. To teach how to establish their personal relationship with God.
How have you helped your children prepare for confession?