Catechism: Having the Talk

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Q17. What happened to man in the fall?

A: Man fell into a condition of sin and misery.

I want to take this musing to focus on the importance of reflecting with your child, or debriefing them, after a mistake or an act of disobedience.

There’s often a great deal of interest or concern about how to properly react to such an incident — what kind of immediate disciplinary measures or punishment is appropriate — but much less discussion about the talk to be had when everything cools down. I would argue, however, that that talk is often more critical to character formation and learning than the show of justice we put on in the heat of judgment. In the heat of judgment, of shame and defensiveness on one side and anger and disappointment on the other, the mind and soul will not be open to deep exploration. It’s a bad time to lecture (at least in length); much better to be clear and definite, with the assurance that a more measured, empathetic conversation would be forthcoming.

When such a time comes, I would start with the goal of genuinely understanding your child’s situation, mindset, and rationale. Not “Why did you do it?” as in “How could you ever do such a thing?!” but “Put me inside your head. What pressures were you feeling? What outcomes did you desire? What were you afraid of? What emotions bubbled up?” Help him or her talk through it; if they have trouble articulating themselves, put out your hypothesis of the context and ask them to adjust it.

You need to be compassionate and reassuring in this first step — but not because you are trying to find a way to sanction or validate what they did. You want to get at the truth of the moment, so that you can help them diagnose what temptations and traps they fell into, what idolatry lay at the core of their slip-up. You are speaking in kinship as a sinner to another sinner in a fallen world, struggling to get some sense of the chains that enslave us.

Once some conclusions are collaboratively established, you need to emphasize two points: sin keeps us mired in sin, and sin makes us miserable.

Discuss with them (over and over) about how sin sets up a slippery slope in expectations, in future behavior, in self-worth and self-definition.

Make them talk (over and over) about how they felt once they knew they had done something wrong, how they felt about themselves, how it alienated them from others, how God seemed more distant, how their freedom eroded.

This is not an easy conversation, nor will it ever be a convenient one. But there are few conversations that will be as important. I wish I had more of them — with myself as well as with my children.

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