Explaining sin, shame and guilt

24 March 2021

It's a tricky one! Whatever their age, how do we explain these big concepts to our children?

In one of our Facebook Lives for parents and carers, Rachel tackled this topic. As usual, there are three videos, one for parents and carers of under-5s, one for parents and carers of primary-aged children and one for the parents and carers of pre-teens and teens.

You can watch the videos below, and we have added short notes to help you as you watch.

For parents and carers of under-5s:

For parents and carers of 5–11s:

For parents and carers of pre-teens and teens:

Rachel suggests five things to think about, which we summarise below. Watch the videos for more specifics of how this plays out in each age group.

Do it in the everyday

The responsibility of teaching our children about such important ideas can weigh heavily on us, but God designed children’s discipleship to happen in the everyday, ordinary bits of life (Deuteronomy 6:4-9). So don’t feel you need to save it all up for a big conversation: teaching them about sin, shame and guilt is just like any other part of showing them what a life lived with God is like.

Create windows into what it’s like for you

Although this may make you feel vulnerable, it’s important that children see how people deal with sin, because they need to work it out what that looks like in their own life.

Take opportunities to create windows into what that is like for you – either in the moment or as you talk about your day. Include how you felt, what you did, what God did. Then children see that the pattern of connection with God, disconnection, reconciliation and forgiveness are a normal part of living life with God, and they get ideas of how to do that for themselves. This also allows you to help them understand what sin feels like, how you know when you’ve sinned so they can begin to work out what it’s like for them.

Train them in the concept of sin, shame and guilt

When we sin, our connection with God is damaged, just like our connection with friends or siblings can be damaged by the way we behave to each other. It’s more than just saying sorry: the thing that’s between us needs to be acknowledged and dealt with. If we don’t deal with it, then it disconnects us.

With older children, you can reflect on what you see in the TV or social media when relationships aren’t fixed, how that leads to disconnection, and how shame and guilt impact our lives.

Normalise conversations about sin, guilt and shame so you can talk about them when they aren’t an issue, for example in the car or out on a walk: what’s it feel like when you know you’ve sinned, what you do, what it feels like, what God does. It can be helpful to work out how you would explain sin in a simple sentence: for example, sin is when I choose to not do it God’s way, or sin is when love isn’t at the centre of my heart.

Give them a theological foundation

We can only really understand sin, guilt and shame in the context of the whole story of the Bible, which can be adapted for all ages. Ordinary language to talk about sin, rather than analogies, is simpler for children to grasp. Read more about sharing the whole story of the Bible with children. When they understand the big picture you can go deeper.

Coach them in the cycle of sin, guilt, shame and forgiveness

Again, how you do this will vary according to a child’s age and temperament. Conversations such as ‘I can see that you feel bad about this … when I feel like that this is what I do – do you want to do that?’ give children their next steps and the opportunity to understand the process of reconciliation as they discover their own patterns of doing that.

Check out the Parenting for Faith course for more helpful ideas.


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