Sunday, March 20, 2011

Prayer of Confession for Perfectionist Children

Today, after lunch, we had a family meeting. The meeting occured in lieu of going to church.

We had every intention of going to church this morning. We'd missed last week because of a family trip, and we'll be missing next week because my wife will be running the Dallas Rock 'n Roll half marathon. So we really wanted to make it to church this morning.

But things happen. Some of it this morning involved a harmonica being snatched from an elder brother (and the subsequent drama of trying to get a four-year-old girl to relinquish the stolen toy and apologize for the theft). Some of it, however, involved what was supposed to be a pleasant mother-son run before church, but which took much longer than anticipated (and was less pleasant). My wife and son planned to run to the bagel shop (a little over a mile away), eat breakfast together, and then run back. But as the return journey was about to start, after my wife had told my son she'd be happy to carry his full bottle of orange juice home so that it wouldn't get wasted, my son threw it in the trash.

My wife scolded him for wasting orange juice. Now my son hates to do anything wrong, and responds very strongly when he feels he's done something he shouldn't have done. The wasted orange juice (which he's decided to give up for Lent and so only drinks these days on Sundays, making it a special treat) inspired a sulk that slowed the run into a ponderous walk, which then delayed the return home...which he then felt bad about. In short, he descended into a cycle of self-recrimination which culminated in a hand-written note delivered to my wife. The note said, simply, "All the bad things that happened this morning were my fault."

And I was reminded of my Lenten meditation from last week. I recalled the liturgical Prayer of Confession with which my son is familiar. For those unfamiliar with it, it runs essentially as follows:
We confess that we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves. We have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart. We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. For the sake of your son, have mercy on us. Forgive us, renew us, and lead us, so that we may delight in your will and walk in your ways, to the glory of your holy name. Amen.

This prayer is often misunderstood, treated as a kind of litany of self-recrimination. But I don't understand it in that way, because the prayer is really about forgiveness, about acknowledging our common human condition, our collective tendency to be less than we can be--and then looking forward (and upward, towards the divine resources that not only help us to forgive ourselves, but also to do better than we knew we could do).

So I thought about how to word that idea in language that would make sense to a very precocious, perfectionist seven-year-old. I wrote something up and gave it to my son during our family meeting. I told him I tried to put the meaning of that prayer of confession we said in church into second-grade language. And he seemed to really appreciate it. He seemed to think it would help him stop beating himself up so much when he did something he shouldn't have done.

Just in case others have children with similar personalities (or have inner children with similar personalities), I thought I'd share this children's version of the prayer of confession--really more a meditation than a prayer--on this blog. Here it is:
We all make bad choices. That's part of being human.

But we can all make better choices, and God helps us do that. We pray for God's help to be better than we thought we could be.

We shouldn't beat ourselves up for making bad choices. God doesn't. God loves and forgives us. So should we.

Instead of being mad at ourselves for our bad choices, we should say, "I can do better," and then try to do better next time, with God's help.


  1. As a brand new father, this post strikes a chord with a concern I'm having that perhaps you have some insight into as it involves the intersection of theology and parenting. I loved the language of the prayer you wrote for your son but not simply as a second-grade version of the liturgical prayer. To me, the two prayers could not be more different in tone. The liturgical prayer places all its emphasis on the petitioner's failure and begs mercy while your prayer places its emphasis the petitioner's desire to be better and willingness to seek help in doing so. Speaking theologically, it seems to me that this difference might be explained by a commitment to the doctrine of sin in the former and a blessed freedom from that notion in the second.

    While mainline churches (and more progressive Catholic congregations) tend to ignore the ugly history of this doctrine, its dark, moody, guilt-inspiring fingerprints still seem to dust both the liturgy and, more broadly, the very language game of religious practice. We attend a very progressive, non-liturgical UCC church in Oklahoma City, but even there, the language of sin and guilt sometimes pops up in instructional or discursive contexts. I may be overestimating the potency of such intentionally benign use of this language, but its effects in my own young life as well as those of many people close to me seems to suggest otherwise.

    I suppose my question comes in two parts. First, do you find any redeeming value in continuing to espouse a doctrine of sin, especially where children are concerned, and second, if so, how might one shield his or her children from the inevitable shame and self-doubt that accompanies such teaching? Personally, I would prefer my son never be told as a boy (or as a grown man for that matter) that his actions have offended g-d or angered her, but I realize that I can't protect him from exposure to this or other psychologically corrosive ideas.


  2. cheek--

    Thanks for the thoughtful and eloquent comment. I've struggled with some of the same issues concerning the language of sin and the dark shadow that the doctrine of original sin seems to cast. Especially given my son's character and my wife's negative personal experience with conservative Christianity, I'm very uneasy about the resonances and implications carried by the language of "sin"--language which I don't use at home for that very reason.

    But I've also seen--especially in my volunteer work in prisons (facilitating Alternatives to Violence workshops)--how some people have found the Christian language of original sin, paired with the notions of forgiveness and redemption, highly valuable as a resource for moving forward in transformative ways.

    This suggests to me a couple of questions. First, are there some senses of "sin" which, when internalized, are more helpful than others? Second, does one's life situation and/or personality impact whether one is more likely to be lifted up or beaten down by the notions of sin and original sin?

    I think the answer to both questions is yes, but working out the details is a trickier business. hence, I'm inclined to devote a post to the issue in the near future.

  3. Eric,

    I was thinking how much better “bad choice” sounds rather than “sin”. One associates the idea of “bad choice” with the idea of a mistake, and mistakes can be overcome. One can learn from mistakes, indeed in one sense one can only learn from mistakes (an insight that may have implications for theodicy). The concept of “sin” on the contrary is often associated with the idea of blemish or stain. I don’t think that in God’s view our transgressions (i.e. our actions against instead of in favor of the purpose of creation) stain us or diminish us; the parable of the prodigal son comes to mind.

  4. Hallelujah. Thank you so much for this. I struggle with how to talk with my daughter about making mistakes. She's just so hard on herself! Amen Amen Amen!