“Helping Children Repent,” Ensign, Apr. 1985, 40
Sara came timidly into the kitchen where her mother was fixing dinner. She stood quietly, her eyes staring at a crack in the linoleum, until her mother, sensing another person nearby, looked at her. “Sara,” she asked, “is something wrong?” Sara nodded. “Do you want to tell me about it?”
Sara nodded again, and after another brief silence, blurted, “I took the cookies you asked about and then I didn’t dare tell you. I’m sorry.”
This scene and others like it are a regular experience for many families throughout the world. They are happy scenes, for they show a child who has recognized that he has done wrong and wants to repent.
The responsibility for teaching children to repent rests with the parents. Indeed, we have been told that “inasmuch as parents have children in Zion, or in any of her stakes which are organized, that teach them not to understand the doctrine of repentance, … the sin be upon the heads of the parents.” (D&C 68:25.) Our children need to know that only through repentance can they return to live with their Heavenly Father, and it is we as parents who must teach them.
We need to teach our children not only what repentance is, but also to have a proper attitude towards it. Repentance is not something to be feared; rather, it is a daily tool to help us in our efforts to reach perfection. Too often our children feel that repentance is some terrible ordeal to be used only when they have committed grievous sin. This is not true. Children should be taught that repentance is the way by which they can also overcome small sins, minor wrongdoings, and bad habits. They also need to know that it is better to remain without sin than to sin and repent.
One way we teach our children to repent is through our example. If we are willing to humble ourselves and admit the mistakes we have made, asking for forgiveness, and then make an honest effort to change, our children will be able to see the happy effects of repentance. They will see it as a positive step, not a frightening one.
A family that uses the words “I’m sorry” and “Will you forgive me?” in prayer and in dealing with each other will see repentance as a natural part of daily life.
Children also need to be taught about the feelings that a repentant person will feel and some of the ways he will act. A repentant person will manifest the following characteristics: he will recognize his action as a sin, feel godly sorrow for the sin, confess it, forsake it, and make restitution for his wrongdoing. He will also forgive others and keep the commandments of God.
Everybody comes into the world with the light of Christ, which we often refer to as our conscience. This light, especially as acted upon by the Holy Ghost, can help us and our children distinguish between good and evil. However, for our conscience to work effectively, we must know the difference between right and wrong. We must teach our children as much about this difference as we can before they reach the age of accountability.
Teaching right and wrong is not always as easy as a family home evening lesson; too often children don’t apply what they learn to their own actions. So teaching right and wrong often means using moments when we can help the child see how lessons relate to his life.
Chad, a six-year-old boy, had just been taught in a home evening lesson that it is not kind or right to hurt another’s feelings. Two days later he crept into his brother’s room and stole a candy bar his brother had hidden and was saving for a special occasion.
Chad’s father, seeing this as an opportunity to reinforce the lesson, asked, “How do you think your brother feels when you take his candy?”
“Well, I wanted it.”
“Yes, but how do you think your brother feels?”
Chad, finally getting the idea, said, “Bad.” He and his father then discussed the principle of repentance in terms Chad could understand. The father also pointed out that anytime we steal, the person who steals and the person stolen from both feel bad.
Too often we equate guilt with sorrow for sin. However, guilt is usually a sign of embarrassment or shame; godly sorrow is a deep regret at the knowledge that we have offended a loving and kind God.
Children first learn to feel this sorrow when they see that they have disappointed their parents—parents who desire them to do good and who love them even when they do something wrong. This sorrow becomes a godly sorrow as we teach them that their Heavenly Father also desires them to be righteous and that he loves them even when they sin. As we and our children come to love God with all our hearts, we will sorrow at breaking his laws or at any thought or action which removes us from his presence.
Sometimes when we see our children suffering because of their mistakes, we want to shield them from the hurt. We may be tempted to tell them, “Oh well, it doesn’t really matter. You’re young and you have your whole life ahead of you. We all make mistakes; don’t worry about it.” However, if we do this, we give them the false impression that repentance is not necessary or important. We do not let them feel the sorrow at being separated from the spirit of God.
On the other hand, our children sometimes feel so bad about their mistakes that they feel they can never be forgiven. It is at these times that we need to be there to lift, comfort, support, and encourage them. When they see that we forgive them, they will better be able to believe that God will forgive them.
Tom and his friends loved playing in the new houses that were being built in their subdivision. One day, when several of his friends were testing out the deck area, Tom thought it might be fun to throw rocks at them. They were just little rocks. Surely they couldn’t hurt anyone. But one of the rocks hit a younger girl and her head started to bleed.
Frightened and worried about what might happen to his friend, Tom ran home and told his mother what had happened. His mother listened to the story, then called the girl’s mother to see how she was. The two walked over to her house, Tom carrying one of their new kittens to comfort her. Satisfied that everything was fine and that they could do nothing to help the girl or her family, they returned home, where Tom and his mother talked about the danger of throwing rocks. She also thanked him for coming home to tell her about his mistake.
This mother could have become confused or upset when Tom came to her. She might have wondered what the neighbors would think about her ability as a mother and about her son. She could have become angry with him. However, each of these responses could have told her son that confession is something to be avoided. He might have learned to try to cover up his mistakes. While it is appropriate to let our children know that we are disappointed—this is one of the consequences of wrongdoing—it is not helpful to become angry and condemn them. As parents we can express appreciation for being told about the problem, yet make it clear that the act itself is wrong.
As we develop a close and trusting relationship with our children, they may come to us with confessions that do not directly involve us. We should appreciate their confidence. However, their confession to us does not remove their responsibility to confess to anyone else who may have been hurt. This is especially true when the sin may affect the child’s standing in the Church or advancement in the priesthood. This type of sin must be confessed to the proper Church authority. We should encourage our children to make such a confession, letting them know that we will support and help them.
Elder Marion D. Hanks tells a story of a young woman who received this type of support from her parents. “In counseling with a young lady concerning a transgression committed long before, I became thoroughly satisfied of her complete repentance and was much moved by the strength of her feeling for the Lord and her heartfelt compliance with his instruction when we have made a mistake. As we parted I asked her who else knew of her problem. She said that only those involved, her bishop and her stake president and I, and her parents, knew. I asked her if she had told her parents voluntarily and she replied that she had.
“‘What did they say when you told them?’ I asked her.
“She said that her father had taken her in his arms, wept, and said, ‘Oh, sweetheart, how could you bear this heavy burden so long without us to help you?’
“There was no chastisement, no criticism, no ‘how could you,’ just this warm outpouring of his unconditional love.” (Used by permission; as told in a meeting of Regional Representatives’ wives, April 1980.)
“By this ye may know if a man repenteth of his sins—behold, he will confess them and forsake them.” (D&C 58:43.)
Along with teaching our children to confess their sins, we must teach them to forsake the sin. We should build in them a desire to keep all the commandments of God. To merely say we are sorry or even to feel sorrow and confess our wrongdoing is not enough. We must continue striving until we purge ourselves of the error.
Again, in this aspect of repentance, our example can have a powerful impact on our children. If we apologize for becoming angry with our child and then become angry again at the slightest cause, we teach our children that forgiveness is a mere recitation of words. If, on the other hand, they see us make an honest effort to rid ourselves of angry feelings and to treat them kindly, they will understand that repentance means changing their lives to conform with gospel standards.
We can help our children when they are struggling to overcome some habit or wrongdoing by expressing our confidence in them. We can give them love, understanding, and a feeling that they are not alone in trying to overcome their weakness. We can help fill their time with good, wholesome activities. We can spend extra time with them. We can be available to talk. We can pray with them and for them. His father’s faith and prayers were a positive influence in Alma the Younger’s conversion and repentance. (Mosiah 27:14.)
We can also teach them that great strength comes from their own prayers, and, if appropriate, fasting. We can help them understand that even though change sometimes takes time, Heavenly Father is able and anxious to help them. They will find as they pray a source of strength far beyond their own abilities to control themselves.
“In abandoning evil, transforming lives, changing personalities, molding characters or remolding them, we need the help of the Lord, and we may be assured of it if we do our part. The man who leans heavily upon his Lord becomes the master of self and can accomplish anything he sets out to do, whether it be to … overcome a habit, or conquer a deep-seated transgression.” (Spencer W. Kimball, The Miracle of Forgiveness, Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1969, p. 176.)
As we teach our children the principles of repentance and help them cultivate a repentant attitude, they will want to make restitution for what they have done wrong. Restitution means that, as far as possible, we must make right any wrong we have done. We can help our children learn this principle when we do not “rescue” them from the consequences of their actions.
An eighth-grade girl skipped class one day to go to a nearby grocery store with some friends. She felt bad about what she had done and was worried that her teacher would discover her act and punish her. So when she came home from school, she told her mother what had happened and asked her to write a note for her, saying she had been needed at home.
The mother wisely refused to do as her daughter asked. Instead, they talked about the principle of repentance and what could be done to make restitution for skipping the class. The girl decided to talk to her teacher, telling him of the mistake she had made. She also volunteered to stay after school to make up the lost time and to accept the drop in grade for the paper she had not handed in because she had missed class.
Forgiving others is an important part of repentance that is often overlooked. We must be as willing to forgive as we are to receive forgiveness. Having a spirit of forgiveness means that we do not gossip about other’s mistakes, we do not condemn them or feel that we are better than they are, and we do not hold a grudge. We do not remind the son or daughter who ate the dessert we had planned for dinner how good it would have tasted and how miserable the whole family is without it. The Lord expects us to become cleansed of hate, bitterness, and bad feelings against our fellowmen. We have been told that “if ye forgive men their trespasses your heavenly Father will also forgive you;
“But if ye forgive not men their trespasses neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” (3 Ne. 13:14–15.)
The miracle of repentance is that with the Lord’s help and parental love and guidance, our children can be better tomorrow than they are today. They and we can overcome our sins through the gift of the atonement and can experience the joy of being forgiven and of becoming like our Father in Heaven.
1. With your family discuss how repentance can help bring about peace of mind and happiness; love for self, others, and the Lord; increased activity in the Church; progress; and increased love and harmony in the home.
2. Discuss sins of commission and omission. Give examples of everyday experiences to show the difference.
3. How do phrases (and the accompanying attitudes) like the following affect your children’s feelings for repentance: “Can’t you do anything right?” “Why do you always get into trouble?” “Heavenly Father doesn’t love you now,” “You’ve told me that before.”
4. With your spouse go through each of the following situations, discussing ways you could help a child repent.
* A child neglects to do the expected chores before going to play.
* You overhear your child talking with a friend about how they had cheated on a test at school.
* You are working in the garden with the family when one of your children begins to swear.
* A child admits a lie that has caused someone else to be punished.
* A son or daughter admits to having drunk beer or wine.
* A tearful teenager admits to having done some immoral things.
5. Examine your own life. Are there areas where you need to apply the gift of repentance? Do you owe your children an apology for something you have done, with an appropriate change in attitude and behavior?