discipling children by teaching mortification and penance to lead their hearts to God


I spend a lot of time thinking about how Christ parents us.  And how we can imitate Him.


What is the point of discipline?  What is the ultimate goal as parents?  It’s to lead our children to surrender themselves to God, to love the Savior with everything they are.  It really bothers me that I can’t make my child love God.  I want a magical formula that if I just do X, Y and Z then my children will become saints.  But they have free will.  They decide who or what they will love.  I can never force them to choose God.


What I CAN do is lead them, especially when they are small, to do the external things that prompt internal conversion.  


With that outlook, what does discipline look like?  When talking isn’t enough, and Mama needs to impose a consequence, how can I make it helpful to their souls, instead of just “behavioral training?”


Teach Mortification


I have a daughter who LOVES apple juice. (well, sugar of any kind, really) This particular daughter has a tendency to be selfish and greedy.  Recently, I gave the kids juice with their snack.  This daughter quickly finished her cup, then snatched her sister’s and completely drank that as well!  I was horrified.  When I asked her to explain herself, she just said “I wanted it so I took it.”


So, here I am, with a child who is not remorseful, received no natural consequences, and in fact her appetite was rewarded for drinking her sister’s juice.  So Mama’s gotta do something!


She loses her juice privileges!


Framing it well


We could just say “Okay, you took your sister’s juice, so no more apple juice for you!  That will teach you!”


But that doesn’t really address the underlying issue.  Sure, she might learn on a selfish level not to take her sister’s drink, so she doesn’t suffer the consequence… but it’s still only self-serving obedience. What really needs to happen is a heart change.  For her attachment to the juice, her attachment to her own appetites, to be weakened.


And weakening of our appetites comes from mortification.


“Okay Baby. This is the third time you’ve drank your cup of juice really fast then taken your sister’s juice. Who are you loving?  Only yourself. What are you loving more?  Jesus or juice?  We need to ask Jesus to break your love for juice.  For the rest of the day, we will only drink water with meals.”


Then,  every time we drink water, we will pray in front of the crucifix. “Jesus, I really want juice, but I am drinking water for You.  Please help me not love juice more than I love my sister and You.  Please help me love You more than anything! Amen.”


Or if the child continually acts ungrateful and indignant about what is for dinner, they can start doing the dishes to practice serving… and offer it as a prayer for cultivating a servant’s heart.


The beauty of this is that if the child hasn’t quite reached the age of reason, losing the juice and being reminded of why will still help on a purely behavior modification level.  But as my child grows into to full use of reason, her understanding deepens. Her participation in the discipline deepens. She doesn’t suddenly “outgrow” the appropriateness of this consequence.  And hopefully, guided by God’s grace, she will internally embrace the sacrifice, and merit from it.


What is Mortification?


discipling children by teaching mortification and penance to lead their hearts to God



Saint Louis de Montfort writes that mortification is “the deliberate restraint that one places on natural impulses in order to make them increasingly subject to sanctification through obedience to reason illumined by faith.”


Mortification is denying ourselves pleasure to lessen the strength of our selfish love.  This is the path to holiness.  This is ”taking up the cross.” Giving up our little pleasures opens us up to love God.


It can affect a heart change.


“This hurts me more than it hurts you.”


There is one key thing I’ve found. Spiritual growth just doesn’t work if we try to force it.  It needs to be something we do WITH our children.  Not TO them.  I think it is very important that we practice the mortification with our child.  If she is drinking water instead of juice, Mama needs to be drinking water instead of coffee and tea.  We can unite our own suffering to our child’s to help them.


In fact, we should sacrifice MORE than we are having our child do.  Have them give up their favorite thing for a week?  Give up yours for 2 weeks!  Make it hurt you more.


Show your child that you love their soul more than you love your pleasure.  Afterall, that is exactly what Christ did.  The God of the universe suffered and died to pay the price for our sins.  As our children grow older, we can explain that while we are giving up our coffee to help them overcome their sin, Jesus gave up His LIFE.  I am hoping that seeing Mama willing to suffer will make them love Our Lord.  


Heart change.  Not behavior change.


Joining in the mortification will also merit.   Even if she is resistant and not meriting the graces herself, we can.  We can earn graces to help our child overcome their faults.


Don’t overdo it


Moderation!  One of the main jobs of a Catholic spiritual director is to prevent weak souls from takings on too much.  To keep them from taking up more penances than they can bear.  To prevent discouragement.  Let’s not actually do this to our children!


We definitely don’t want to start piling the kids with heaps of mortifications. A good limit seems to be never more than 2 at a time.  And make sure there are often times without any consequences going on. Nobody wants to be always in trouble.


This is another advantage of practicing these penances with, and in greater intensity, than our children.  We won’t be as likely to overburden them if we feel it ourselves!


Also, we can’t be imposing these consequences for every pet peeve. It just won’t work.  We need to focus on only the behaviors that come from our child’s primary fault.  


Help them Attain Heaven



“Mama, my godmother has a job of teaching me to love Jesus.”

“You’re right!  If mama was not teaching you about Jesus, she would help.  But I try to to a good job and teach you to love God…”

“But you are not , Mama.  I need my godmother!”


Well, despite what my 3-year-old thinks, I really am trying to teach them the faith!  That is our main goal.  Not to get through the grocery store without our children embarrassing us. Not to have peace and quiet, or tidiness.  Not to modify their behaviors to make our lives easier.  Just to help them learn to love God and reach heaven.

Everything we do should be laser focused on leading their hearts to Jesus and helping them earn the graces they need to win the battle.  And I’m not very good at remembering that moment-to-moment!  May Our Blessed Mother make up for all that this forgetful and distracted little Mama lacks!


Mary, help us lead our children to your Son.  Especially the way we correct them when they misbehave.


In Corde Maria,

Jessica Ghigliotti

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