“And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die” – Genesis 2:16-17
The Catholic Church doesn't just set boundaries, she establishes consequences for misbehavior as well as consequences for good behavior. Establishing the consequences ahead of time ensures that your child knows and understands what will happen if they decide to go outside the safety net of the boundaries you have set for your family. It also encourages them to trust in the boundaries you set and to see them as beneficial and good.
“If any one sees his brother committing what is not a mortal sin, he will ask, and God will give him life for those whose sin is not mortal. There is sin which is mortal; I do not say that one is to pray for that. All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin which is not mortal” – 1 John 5-17
Sin is the Catholic word for stepping outside the boundaries of what is acceptable and good behavior. When establishing consequences, Holy Mother Church understands that some errors are more serious than others, so she has established a hierarchy of consequences for sin. For example, grave sins like the deliberate killing of a human being who has not been found guilty of a crime which endangers the life of another, whether done by your own hand such as one person shooting another or whether you have paid for someone else to do it as in the case of an abortion, is grounds for immediate ex-communication. Ex-communication is the Church’s way of telling someone that they have put the entire family of the Catholic Church in danger with their actions, and therefore cannot be welcomed back as a fully participating member of the Church until they have shown that they are no longer a danger.
There may be times when you, as a parent, will need to do the same thing. If your son or daughter, for example, is abusing drugs you might need to require them to leave until such time as they stop putting the family in danger. It’s never an easy thing for a parent to do, but the purpose of ex-communication isn’t to be hard hearted or to reject the child. The purpose of it is to force that child to realize just how much damage their choices are doing to the family and hopefully get them to change.
There is a two-fold reason for establishing the consequences for ignoring boundaries ahead of time. The first reason is so that you can let your child know what will happen should they choose to step outside the established boundaries. Depending on your child, knowing the consequences may be enough to make your child choose to obey when temptations come. The second reason for establishing the consequences before your child ever thinks about sinning is that it makes certain that you are never enforcing the rules when you’re angry. Anger tends to make the consequences more severe than the situation actually warrants because hurt feelings are involved. By establishing the consequences for breaking the rules ahead of time, you avoid that problem.
Consequences should be logical, fitting the crime that’s been committed. If your child doesn’t clean their room in a timely manner, for instance, the logical consequence could be the loss of that room temporarily. Sleeping on the couch for a few nights might sound like fun – until the realities of having no privacy and less comfortable accommodations kicks in. A room is not a right, it is a privilege which is earned through taking proper care of that room. The consequences, of course, must always be rooted in love, applied as a tool to help your child see the value of the boundaries you’ve established. Consequences that are excessively harsh or that are abusive will not engender respect but will engender fear and even rebellion.
Consequences must be consistently applied as well. Letting your child escape the consequences because it’s inconvenient to you, because you lack the energy, or even because you don’t want your child to hate you, isn’t going to do your child any favors in the long run. If you’ve noticed problems with Catholics who aren’t acting very Catholic lately, that’s in large part because the people who are supposed to enforce those consequences haven’t been doing their job. When any family ignores bad behavior and doesn’t enforce the consequences you’ve established, it tells the child that the rules aren’t really as important as you make them out to be. In the eyes of your child, it may even signal a kind of silent approval of the negative behavior.
“Give and it will be given to you, good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For the measure you give will be the measure you get back,” – Luke 6:38
Consequences should be positive, too. Focusing only on what happens when your child breaks the rules can leave your child wondering if there’s any benefit – other than avoiding punishment – to actually following those rules. Establishing positive consequences, or rewards, for the positive behaviors can actually get your child to not just accept but embrace the boundaries you've established.
The master was full of praise. ‘Well done, my good and faithful servant. You have been faithful in handling this small amount, so now I will give you many more responsibilities. Let’s celebrate together!’ – Matthew 25:21
Rewards for good behavior do not need to be monetary or material goods. Many times these kinds of rewards can backfire, since the child then comes to associate good behavior with getting things and this sets an unreasonable expectation about life. Good behavior does not always result in more money or more possessions in the adult world, so it shouldn't in the child’s world either. If your children love you, simply hearing praise from you might be enough.
And I heard a voice from heaven, saying, "Write, 'Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on!'" "Yes," says the Spirit, "so that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow with them." – Revelation 14:13
Another potential reward is getting time to themselves, time when they don’t have any expectations and aren't required to do anything in particular. As adults, we value our free time and so do our children. If your kids are busy with school and after school activities, the promise of some time to decompress might be much appreciated.
“See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that in heaven their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven.” – Matthew 18:10
One of the promises that the Catholic Church makes to her faithful is that obedience to her teachings will lead to an eternity with God. Children, young children especially, value the time spent with their parents. Most bad behavior exhibited by children is really a way of trying to get the parent’s attention. Explaining to them how their obedience can result in you being able to spend more time with them may be all the incentive they need to obey.
I hope you've found this chapter of Catholic Parenting: What the Catholic Church Teaches Us About Parenting useful and helpful. If you are just joining us, you can click on the link above to find the table of contents and get the other chapters. Join us tomorrow for chapter 6: Picking Your Battles. If you liked it, loved it, hated it, thought it needed work, thought it could use something more, or want to ask a question about what you've read, please feel free to leave a comment below. I'm always listening :)