First of all, I think there are two issues that are important to distinguish between when it comes to sin:
1. The impact of sin in the world and in our lives. Jesus took care of this 100% and I always point my children towards Jesus as the only answer to their problem of sin (even though I don’t explain all of that to them too young)
2. The impact of actual sin actions which are damaging to ourselves and others and things that I *can* teach my children how to avoid. I keep my focus on what God gave me to do–introduce them to Him and teach them how to live.
I focus them always on what TO do. I do not talk about their actions as being sin. That leads to shame and is a heavy burden to put on a young child. I talk about what sin is–I start from the beginning with
God tells us to live this way . . . . God says He wants us to . . . God designed our bodies to . . . .
At preschool ages, they ask spontaneously about what happens if they don’t live that way. My initial answer is that God says His children WILL live that way and those who don’t live that way aren’t his children. Everything is relationship focused and we talk about being children of God. Keep in mind, this is going on while teaching both factual sides of things AND making sure that they are, as much as possible, only able to do what is right.
They never have the choice to not do what I say and get punished–they are always going to do what I say and life may come to a screeching halt or go on parallel to them until that happens depending on the child and the issue, but they will do what was stated would be done. There isn’t another option.
I work to avoid the word “sin” in relation to what they are doing and instead focus on “what God wants us to do” and “God says we’re not to do that”, because “sin” is a more mature concept and a word that doesn’t have inherent meaning. In this way, I’m giving them the understanding before I give them a name for it.
I’ve heard many people say they understood that sin is disobeying by the time they were 4, but this isn’t what sin means. This further emphasizes to me the importance of not introducing the word too early or without securely rooting it in a proper definition.
The age of eight is when pre-logic kicks in and it’s the first time that they start to really understand cause and effect in advance. With each child there has been something that was chosen intentionally.
This is obvious because their reaction to being caught reveals extreme guilt and embarrassment that, if I responded wrongly, would become shame and haunt them for the rest of their lives.
Instead of that response, I address it this way.
After praying, each time I have taken them aside and reminded them that we’ve talked about different things not being what God wants us to do, that they aren’t for His children to do.
I explain that what God says He wants in the lives of His children is like a target in front of us. God asks parents to fly their children straight to the target and the target is Jesus.
“Sin” is a word that means “missing the mark”. So Jesus is the target and when you sin you aren’t flying straight.
I then explain to them that what they are feeling right now is guilt and embarrassment–and that feels bad, but it’s a good thing. It is what God gave them to help them know if they aren’t flying straight–if they are sinning. The only way to feel better is to acknowledge that what you’ve done goes against what God says to do, apologize to God and thank Him that He has already forgiven you and loves you, and then make amends to whoever you have wronged AND not do it anymore.
I explain that sin makes your heart feel dark and dirty and like you’ve covered Jesus’ light–but repentance (or turning around and flying straight to the target again) cleans up your heart and lets the light of Jesus shine bright again.
I then encourage them to pray and apologize to God, and thank Him for having already done so (because I believe that was 100% accomplished at the cross) and then we talk about everyone they wronged with their actions–me and/or daddy, whoever else was involved, etc.
Then we practice the script for how to go and apologize (a skill we’ve been working on since infancy but we practice how to apologize for this specific thing) and then I go with them while they make their own amends. For the first time, I’m not going to help them do it if they get embarrassed or stuck. They take full responsibility for what they did.
This has been a HUGE turning point in each of my older children’s lives and understanding. It’s impacted them in such a deep and meaningful and non-shame based way. I believe they develop a healthy understanding of how sin works, what happens when we give in to our lusts of the flesh, the importance of flying straight and doing what God says His children will do–and because it’s for our own good, not some legalistic idea of being worthy or earning God.
My oldest is now 13 and my second oldest is right behind him at 11 and they are reflecting a very mature understanding of the importance of flying straight, making choices that are Godly, and living lives today that will take them on the path to where they want to be tomorrow.
I am confident that approaching the problem of sin this way has set them up for success and served to fly them straight—and created an opportunity to dialogue with them should they begin to veer off the path.