The covert dimension of normal childhood guilt

The horizontal relationship

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When a child hits another child (with fists or words), it’s easy to tell them, “That’s wrong because it hurts someone else. You wouldn’t want them to do that to you.” There are also easy-to-point-to practical consequences of such behavior: “If you hurt other kids, they won’t want to play with you anymore.”

That’s how we address making relationships with one another right when there’s been wrongdoing. Those are the horizontal relationships.

But what about the vertical relationship?

The relationship between a child and the God they believe in? There is often another level of damage to repair that we don’t think to address. Wrongs can create a guilty conscience and distance between a child and their God. How can we help them right that relationship?

The covert dimension of wrongdoing

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Sometimes the wrong doesn’t seem to directly affect another person, but the child’s conscience still bothers them. Even if no one else knows about the wrongdoing and no one else appears to be hurt by it, the knowledge of that wrongdoing can be festering inside the child. That’s what I’m calling the vertical relationship– the spiritual dimension of wrongdoing.

That’s an issue between a person and their God: guilt. Healthy guilt occurs when we do something wrong. When we ignore guilt, we deaden and numb it, which results in the deterioration of our conscience, our God-given sense of right and wrong.

Children ask, “What do I do after I mess up?”

Different traditions have different approaches for dealing with guilt. Consider whether this response will fit your child:

  • Ask for forgiveness and be willing to make up with the person you hurt, or return the items you stole, or admit you lied and tell the truth.
  • Accept the consequence that comes from your teacher or parent.
  • Then go out and do something good.

What other ways do you know of for helping children deal with guilt in a healthy way?

When we ignore guilt, we deaden and numb it, resulting in the deterioration of our conscience. Click to Tweet

Children ask, “Does God punish me when I do wrong?”

109806_3414 sad boyNo. God keeps loving you the same whether you make a wrong choice or a right one.*

But God often provides a consequence.

It might come through your teacher, or from your conscience and you feel miserable the rest of the day, maybe have trouble sleeping that night.

God loves you but God is not pleased with hateful, lying, mean behavior.

Consequences are an important way God expresses love to you.

  • 954294_83183508 choreSometimes consequences from bad behavior leave you feeling guilty, embarrassed or mad.
  • You might lose a friend.
  • Occasionally you have to find jobs to do in order to earn money to pay for damage done.
  • Your family can start to doubt you and act suspicious of you for a long time when your words or actions break their trust.

God hopes you will choose wisely next time because he wants a good life for you, a life of love.

God is for you, not against you. He knows that a good life comes when you live by God’s rules.

Freddie's kidsConsequences from good behavior give you a happy feeling.

Often you feel that God is pleased with you and proud of you. In fact, one great way to let God know you love him — follow his rules of life.

Many people say that he had people write them down and put them in a book. Different religions have different books: The Torah, The Bible, The Koran. For the most part, these different books will have similar teachings about right and wrong — no lying, stealing or killing. And treat others the way you want to be treated.

You might have a book like this at your house.

For sure you can find one on the computer. Ask an adult you trust. They may have a children’s version of the book and they can help you find some of those rules.

Tweetable: Consequences, not punishment, is how many people prefer to explain God’s response to wrongdoing. Click to Tweet



Eastern & Western spiritual traditions unite & children benefit

Sifu Ed Monaghan, martial artist and UCLA Professor, had been talking about the value of meditation to his class of 13-16 year olds at Ekata Training Center.

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I asked the kids, “Have you ever seen anyone on a boat when it’s windy?” All had seen boats rocking on the water. I asked, “Can you see things on the surface of the ocean – like boats, oil rigs, birds, etc.?” They replied in the affirmative.

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Then I asked if they ever saw “Shark Week” on TV? Most of them had. I said, “Is there a lot of life and action under water that we can’t see from the surface?” Again they agreed.

I said, “The ocean is like our minds. The waves are like our thoughts jostling us around. We see and are very concerned with the stuff that we can see on the surface, but there is so much more underneath. When we meditate, we learn to calm the waves and look below the surface. Our mind is like a drop of water, and the ocean is like universal consciousness. Our mind is a part of that consciousness just like the drop of water is a part of the ocean. They are inseparable. But we need meditation to help us see beyond the surface.”

Eastern tradition unites with Western tradition in understanding that there is inner life below the surface of what we see with our physical eyes.


919568_17785692 meditationChildren seek a firm footing in this inner life and they enter into it differently.

  • One 6-year-old girl says, “Mindfulness has been my favorite thing in my whole life…when I’m mad, sad or frustrated.”
  • A man told me that he remembers weeding in his front yard and talking to Jesus: “I’ve heard about you–that you’re good–and I want you to be part of my life.”
  • Thinking back on her childhood, a woman states,  “I always had a clear sense that God is there. Sometimes he seemed distant or like he doesn’t like me, but I’ve always felt that he was there watching.”

When we notice signs of their interest, and enter their world with them, most children are grateful for our attention to their inner life.

Tweetable:  An idea for how to discuss the personal yet universal colors and shadings of a child’s inner life? Click to Tweet




Video games: a mind-blowing lesson in spirituality

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Children are drawn to video games. Kids get wiped out here and crushed over there, but they learn how to navigate even when they are too young to read. They recognize that a certain character has special powers. The holistic experience of surround sound with all the different visual game elements engages their mind, senses and spirit.

The same is true of imagination games, immersing children into an environment they create. It’s how they like to learn and play at a certain age.

But what happens when we introduce them to religion?

When adults tune in to religion, we are most likely tuned in to what others did or experienced. When we read sacred writings, discussion is on the interactions of someone else. When we hear a sermon, we are spectators to someone else’s thoughts and observations.

Outsiders looking in

Like a Sci Fi movie in which aliens observe human beings on Earth but do not enter into the human experience, this approach to the spiritual world has somehow become objectified as the outsider looking in.

170452_6640 teenage photographer

As a teenager, Robert enjoyed taking pictures of family parties and social events until he had an epiphany: “I realized I was spending my whole life documenting the fun other people were having. I put away my camera for years and simply wanted to experience the relationships and social dynamics myself.”

By contrast, video games allow us to enter the environment….

… act and interact as if we are there — a tremendous image of the way children could encounter the spiritual. It’s completely different from religious people for whom the spiritual is external, rather than something they enter and experience moment by moment.

Help children engage their spiritual imagination to enter into the moment. Learning comes as they reflect and process, not just flit from experience to experience. Doing both — engagement and reflection — brings insight.

Next week’s post will highlight specific ways to begin doing this.

Tweeable: Video games-a tremendous image of how children could encounter the spiritual dimension. Click to Tweet