QUAERITUR: Should I teach my child to confess sins in kind and also number?

From a reader:

I’m preparing my oldest child for his First Holy Communion. This great little Communion book from TAN publishers instructs the child to confess his sins and the number of times he committed them. Now for myself, in confession I always understood that I only tell the amount of times I’ve sinned mortally. As most children do not commit mortal sin, I’m unsure what to do. I want to instill good habits into my son but I don’t want him stressing over the amount he committed each venial sin. Should I teach him to tell the number of
times no matter?

Yes, I believe you should.  Start forming good habits early.  Don’t stress it to a point where little stupor mundi becomes worried, however.

Also, I am not sure about “children can’t commit mortal sin” thing.  I have looked into the eyes of a three year old.   I’m just sayin’….  o{]:¬)

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. “Number” is useful for the priest (and you) to know how rampant each specific sin problem is. So yeah, there’s a difference (even with venial sins) between “I bugged my brother on purpose once, last Tuesday” and “I bug my brother on purpose all the time, like 8 hours a day and 13 on the weekends”.

  2. Young Canadian RC Male says:

    Yeah I’m in agreement with Fr. Z. here. Mortal sins in number and times I was aware of. For venials it’s a good habit too, but a lot of the time I’ve done the venials so many I cannot generate an accurate number!

  3. tobiasmurphy says:

    Speaking in general terms, how could a 3-year-old commit a mortal sin? He has no understanding of the gravity of the sin and his self-control is reduced. My 2-year-old sins plenty of times and even gives us an evil little grin before doing it, but I think he finds it all to be a game more than anything. When he does recognize his actions as a sin, he apologizes, but this leads me to believe he doesn’t realize that those things are sins for which he doesn’t apologize. Kids develop a sense of sin slowly. Right now, he knows that if he hits his little sister with something and she starts crying, he did something naughty and he will go try to kiss her and say sorry.

    Kids sin, but I really don’t think kids that young or generally capable of a mortal sin. Since a mortal sin requires a deliberate act of the will, they’d have to be capable of deliberation, wouldn’t they, and that would require that they’ve reached the age of reason, which is why First Reconciliation is around that age.

    My wife once had a misguided theology teacher tell her that infants are committing personal sin when they cry. Please don’t confuse poor parents.

  4. JulieC says:

    LOL, Father! I’ve always thought my kids were worse in their THREE’s than during the ‘Terrible Two’s.” The Fours and Fives were very enjoyable, though, for the most part.

  5. I guess my idea of number is really more frequency and volume. Once, twice, a few times, sometimes, often, constantly…. Some people’s minds do run to actual accurate numeric values for these things, but most of us don’t. (And keeping a running tally is just not prudent, both because of possibly encouraging the spiritual disease “scruples” and because it can’t possibly be discreet. Kids will find other kids’ stuff, and there’s some stuff even parents don’t have a right to know. Thus the seal of Confession. And no, keeping a list of sins on your computer or phone is not discreet. There’s no such thing as a safe password and you’re bound to hit Murphy’s Law.)

    Also “I bugged him automatically”, “I didn’t mean to but I did it”, “I was trying not to but I did”, “I thought about it and then I did it”, and “I did it and I wasn’t sorry — not then, but I guess I’m sorry now — anyway, I’m trying to be sorry”.

    Yeah, you can tell I’m destined to become a great spiritual writer of clarity and vision. :)

  6. Supertradmum says:

    Children can commit serious sins, even in rebellion and disobedience. The numbering and type of sin creates a sensitive conscience which we all need. Also, habitual sins are move obvious to us if we keep track of the number of times we do something out of imperfect actions and imperfect intentions.

  7. michelelyl says:

    I teach children to prepare for the Sacrament of Reconciliation…and I give them a great ‘Examination of Conscience’ based on the Our Father. Here’s the link-
    And yes, we teach them to confess in kind and number. Our priest also ask the children ‘how many times did you do that’ to help them form good habits. I also give them a little card with an Act of Contrition on one side, and the steps to Reconciliation on the other. It also encourages them to receive the Sacrament more frequently, because they have a little ‘aid’ to help them. Remember, we’re talking about 7 year olds here! Some can memorize everything, others cannot…so we give them tools for success.

  8. Accuracy in type and number is definitely going to be less of a burden if you’re going to Confession every week or two, and if you’re always using the same examination of conscience also. Being able to keep better tabs on your spiritual life is definitely one of the best reasons for frequent Confession.

    But of course, the good you get done is better than the ideal you don’t. I’m one of those people who had a real problem with perfectionism from my earliest days, and I even did a brief and scary brush with scruples as an adult. I was sitting there in first or second grade at maybe my 3rd Confession ever, wondering if Father had actually understood the depths of my horrible crime and if my absolution counted. For what was maybe a venial sin if it was anything. In the Seventies, when if anything our catechesis was way too lenient.

    So yeah, for me, reaching for absolute exactitude is where madness lies. For kids who aren’t crazily perfectionist and don’t cry bitterly over A minuses, it’s probably good for them to try a bit harder to be exact in number and to remember things, as a good habit.

  9. isnowhere says:

    @tobiasmurphy “Speaking in general terms, how could a 3-year-old commit a mortal sin?”


    “Age of Reason” is not an absolute definition of when a child is capable of making moral decisions. Souls do not go through a mystical puberty where one day they are capable, and the next day (when they turn 7) they are not. “Age of Reason” is more to do with ecclesiastical laws.

    Modern child psychology can often lead to a form of child abuse, where instead of helping children (yes even from the time they are babies) to form a strong moral conscience, parents are convinced to let the child develop on its own. Parents are told that a child is not capable of “knowing any better” when in fact they are capable of quite a bit… especially with a good parent to help guide, educate and form them consistently.

  10. MikeM says:

    More seriously on the mortal sin bit, isn’t it possible that a child commit a mortal sin by around their First Communion time? Don’t we set the minimum age by the point where they have a sufficient moral compass for a sin to be mortal?

    I expect that it’s rarer among kids, but I think they should be well equipped for a time when they do commit a mortal sin.

  11. Dr. Eric says:

    Once a priest who was known to be orthodox told me to limit the number of venial sins in confession to only 3 sins as otherwise we’d be in the confessional all day. Good idea or bad idea?

  12. Mark of the Vine says:

    “Also, I am not sure about “children can’t commit mortal sin” thing. I have looked into the eyes of a three year old…. I’m just sayin’ ” <– humour

  13. Nan says:

    Suburban Banshee, clearly the child bugging the crap out of his brother all day long was snowbound and had limited options for entertainment!

  14. gambletrainman says:

    Didn’t Sister Lucy say she saw the soul of a 5-year old in hell? Also, someone told me the story of a 3-year old child who was told by his mother not to touch the new batch of cookies she made, and to make sure, she put them out of his reach on top of the refrigerator. After she left the room, he managed to stack some stuff on top of a chair so he could reach the cookies, then fell and broke his neck. The moral that was given on that was that for him it was a mortal sin.

  15. Stephen Matthew says:

    None are fully immune to either sin or grace. Each of us at evey point has at least some remote possibility of radical embrace of sin or radical embrace of grace.

  16. papaalex says:

    Fr. My confidence in you has erroded [sp.] with your belief that children, esp. 3 year olds are capable of mortal sin. A sin has to be grave to be mortal. No child is commiting [sp.] grave acts, maybe defiant or rebellious and self-willed but the are certianly [sp.] NOT grave matters that would send them to hell. I would never come to you for confession unless there were no other choice.
    I am the father of 3 girls now teenagers and I have never seen or heard such nonsense, and from a priest no less. [This is nonsense and a falsification of what I wrote. Did I say I believed 3 year olds commit mortal sins? Read (and spell) with greater attention, please. Include this in your next examination of conscience after you send me an apology! o{]:¬) ]

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