The Art of Forming the Conscience of a Child


Staff member
Author: Rev. John A. Hardon, S.J.
Source: The Truth Series Album, Volume II, Eternal Life

The single most important element in training children is to form their consciences. How can this be done effectively? To form a child's conscience is an art. This subject is immense. We will touch on four areas:
  1. The meaning of art,
  2. The meaning of conscience,
  3. The forming of the conscience of a child,
  4. And most practically, rules and norms for forming the conscience of a human being from infancy on through one's life.

1. The meaning of art.​

Simply defined, art is both the correct knowledge of something and the skill in doing it. Art is both in the mind and in the will. Both the mind and the will understand what needs to be done and how it should be achieved. The essence of an art is to have correct knowledge, correct knowledge in doing something in forming a child's conscience.

Correct knowledge is doing what is conformable to the will of God, in performing good moral actions, actions that are pleasing to God, correct knowledge of how something is to be done. It is also a skill, a certain ability, which is present in nature, but is developed by grace. The art in forming the child's conscience joined with the skill involves the whole personality. It is being able to carry out what the mind knows should be done and how it should be achieved.

2. The meaning of Conscience.​

We believing Christians must be certain we understand and know what conscience is. Conscience is the trained ability of judging between right and wrong in human conduct. It is the trained ability of judging. Conscience is a function of the human mind of judging. Judging between right and wrong, of past actions done, of present actions being done and of future actions to be done.

The Christian conscience for believing Christians is the human mind enlightened by the Christian faith. A conscience supernaturally enlightened by faith, which enables a person to know. It is a faculty of judgment, which enables the mind to see, or grasp, or perceive what is pleasing or displeasing to God. The enlightenment of the conscience by faith is crucial. Without the mind being enlightened by faith we cannot talk about conscience, not conscience as Christianity has understood the term for 2000 years.

At Baptism the young child receives into the mind, what the mind could never by itself achieve. The mind of a baptized person is capable of knowing what God has revealed. And it has that capacity for knowing divinely revealed truth. There is all the difference in the world in forming the conscience of a child in general, and of forming the conscience of a child who has the faith. We are not merely forming a child's human mind, but a human mind which is gifted from the moment of Baptism with the supernatural virtue of faith. The baptized child can know what the un-baptized can never perceive. It can see more. It can see human action as being constantly judged by the mind and will of God. God is constantly at work in forming the conscience of that child in a mysterious way beyond our comprehension. God wants the parents to provide the conditions for which in the child's mind is trained or formed according to the will of God.

It is not only the parents, or adults, who are forming the child's conscience. No, for a child that is baptized it is the Holy Spirit who is forming the conscience of that Child because the Holy Spirit dwells in that child. The Holy Spirit requires that the child be instructed by other human beings, human beings who have the true faith.

Keep in mind that the conscience of a child, with the virtue of the faith, is capable of knowing what could never be known without the faith. Our Christian faith reveals God's will for us about things which, except for God's revealed truth, we would never know as part of God's will. God has revealed mysteries that we who believe can understand, and put into practice. So that we will put those mysteries into practice, those mysteries will penetrate the conscience. All this and much more is infused into the child the moment it is baptized.

3. The Forming of the conscience of a child.​

To form a person's conscience is to teach that person what is God's will for that person in the changing circumstances of each individual's life. There are certain constants, unchangeable, absolute imperatives from the mind and will of God to every human being. Our minds need to be constantly enlightened to know how we are to live up to those unchangeable divine precepts. We are forming a child's conscience, informing the child about what is right and what is wrong. It is by information that the mind is enlightened and the mind is formed. It is of imperative importance of the parents informing their children of what is right and wrong. Parents themselves must know what is right and wrong. What they are informing forms their children's consciences and shapes their eternal destiny.

Parents in good faith can mistakenly inform their children about the moral law. Unless corrected, this bad seed is sown in the Child's mind can destroy the soul even in eternity. The parents' duty is to see to it that nothing should take second place to the forming of their children's consciences. Before God, parents are bound to form the conscience of their children for life here on earth to their heavenly destiny.

Forming a child's conscience, it is the noblest art for the parent to exercise. Nothing is more important than training the minds of their offspring and preparing them for a heavenly destiny.

This art of forming the conscience of a child can be partially learned by the parents, but it is also an infused gift of the Holy Spirit. When the parents married, the Holy Spirit conferred the grace to form the consciences of their children. It is a supernatural art, to be exercised by both parents. By the father one way and by the mother cooperating with the father. Both parents are needed.

The forming of a child's conscience is an art that must be cultivated by prayer, cultivated by the parents receiving the sacraments, regularly and frequently, cultivated by practicing meditation, mental prayer and by family cooperation. Forming a child's conscience is a sacred duty. Either the parents form the child's conscience or someone else will.

Conscience can also be misformed. We say shaping the conscience or misshaping the conscience. The world is inundated with persons, and powers, and the media, and political forces, which have as their most dominant purpose the formation of the consciences of the children. The formation of the consciences of children in the United States is one of the main goals of our American system of education. And in so many ways they are forming the consciences of their children contrary to the most fundamental principles of morality and basic Christianity. For this reason parents in the United States have had to resort to home schooling.

4. Some basic practical rules or norms.​

The Church has developed through twenty centuries of her teaching wisdom on how to form the conscience of a child.

Rule: Forming the conscience of a human being is from infancy on through one's life.​

First norm: There is nothing in the mind, which was not first in the senses. This means that all the ideas we have originally came to us from our senses. What we can see with our bodily eyes, or what we have heard with our ears, what we touched with our hands, or tasted with our tongues, these are the seedbeds from which all our ideas come. Please do not forget this.

Parents must make sure, from the age of reason, from the date of birth, from the moment of conception that the images, and sounds and feelings and tastes and touches are those which will provide the foundation for sound moral and spiritual ideas in the mind of the growing Child.

I plead with parents to make sure that their children's sense experiences are compatible with the kind of ideas that the child is to have in having a good God-loving and God-fearing conscience. Teach the child to kneel, to fold its hands, expose them to religious articles, and to have pictures of the Sacred Heart, Sorrowful Mother in the room, and holy water at the door. Teach the child Catholic greetings, "Praised be Jesus Christ". From early childhood these sense impressions should be made and they should become more elevated, more sophisticated as a child grows. But, also protecting the child wisely, prudently from all unnecessary exposure to the demonic media.

Norm Number Two: Example is the most powerful teacher. Parents form the consciences of their children not only by what they say or what they tell the children, but also what the children see, and how the parents behave. One statement must be quoted: "Contraception is deadly for the conscience of a child". Parents, practice selfless love for one another. Parents, practice self-giving love for your children. The children must have examples, they must see their parents living lives of chastity, of charity, of patience, of cheerfulness.

The forming of the conscience of a child is not only a matter of example. Parents are channels of grace to their children. If you want your children to be strongly believing, you must be strongly believing yourselves. If you want your children to be truthful, be absolutely truthful yourself. If you want your children to be charitable and loving, you must practice, if need be, heroic love yourselves. The single, principle channel of grace for children is the parents. If you want to form your children's consciences, be sure that you are absolutely, utterly faithful to God in following your conscience according to His divine will.

Norm Number Three: Expect not to be accepted by everyone. Parents need to believe this and so train the children preparing them for not being accepted by everyone. The Child Jesus had to flee to Egypt because Herod wanted to kill him. Children from their earliest years should be taught that following one's conscience can mean not being liked by everyone. Parents, train your children not to be conformists.

Norm Number Four: Forming the conscience of a child is training that child for happiness. The greatest joy on earth is to be faithful to a well-informed conscience. Parents want their children to be happy. Nothing is more fundamental to ensure your children's happiness than to train them, form them to have a conscience that's conformed to the will of God. This is real joy. Children should be ensured that they will be happy, and not just in heaven in eternity, but happy already here on earth, provided they follow faithfully in doing what their conscience tells them is pleasing to God. Be sure your children understand there is no substitute. How I can be happy? I can be happy by knowing what pleases God, by loving Him and then doing what God wants me to do, out of love for Him.

Train your children to expect to suffer, because their own will, will not always be satisfied. They will always be happy; provided their wills are conformed to the loving will of God.

A Prayer

Lord Jesus, enlighten the parents who believe in you, how to form the consciences of their children. You told us to let the little children come to You. Children, dear Lord, will come to You, in the measure that they know Your will. It is especially, dear Jesus, the grave responsibility of parents to form their children's consciences to conform to Your divine will. This guarantees that the children will come to You. Not only here on earth, to be blessed by You, but they'll come back to You from whom they came when You created their souls. Back to You, to be embraced by You and never leave Your arms for all eternity. Amen.

Ginny D

New Member
I've been musing this week about the question of what happiness is and how to get happiness as I chat with my teenagers. I can tell them where they won't find happiness and talk about the lies our culture tells them about happiness but when it comes to defining what happiness is and pointing them in the right direction... well, um, things get vague and uncertain.
I like what this article says about happiness.
I like the prayer too.


Staff member
You may want to read what St. Thomas Aquinas has to say about happiness, what is required and how to attain it. Beware though, it is heavy reading:

Alternatively, you can check the Catechism of the Summa Theologica of Saint Thomas Aquinas, which is much easier for the average person to read. Here's an excerpt on happiness to whet your appetite (page 57):

Man then necessarily desires to he happy?

Yes, of necessity man desires to be happy.

Is it absolutely impossible to find a man who desires to be unhappy?

Yes, it is quite impossible to find a man who desires to be unhappy (V. 8).

Can man deceive himself as to the object of his happiness?

Yes, man can thus deceive himself, because since he can seek his welfare among so many and divers good things, he can deceive himself as to the object of his true happiness (I. 7).

What happens if man deceives himself as to the object of his true happiness?

If man deceives himself as to the object of his true happiness, it follows that instead of finding happiness at the end of his life, he finds nought but the worst evil.

It is then supremely important for man not to deceive himself as to the object of his happiness?

There is nothing of greater import for man than that he deceive not himself as to the object of his happiness.


What is the object of the happiness of man?

The object of the happiness of man is a good higher than himself and in which he can find his perfection (II. 1-8).

Are riches the object of this happiness of man?

No, it is not riches, for these are beneath man; nor are they sufficient to guarantee his entire welfare and his perfection (II. 1).

Are honours?

No, not honours; because honours do not bring perfection, but rather presuppose it, that is when they are not false honours; and if they be false they avail nothing (II. 2).

Is it glory or renown?

No, for these are of no worth unless they be merited; moreover among men these things are often foolish and ill-judged (II. 3).

Is it power?

No, because power is for the good of others, and is subject to their whims and disobedience (II. 4).

Is it health or bodily beauty?

No, because these good things are too unstable; furthermore they belong only to the external perfection of man and not to his internal perfection or that of his soul (II. 5).

Does it consist in pleasures of the body?

No, it does not consist in pleasures of the body, since these are of small account in comparison with the higher pleasures of the mind which are proper to the soul (II. 6).

Does the happiness of man consist in something which is a good of the soul?

Yes, the happiness of man consists in some good of the soul (II. 7).

What is this good of the soul in which the happiness of man consists?

The good of the soul in which the happiness of man consists is God, the Supreme Good, Sovereign and Infinite (II. 8).



Ginny D

New Member
After reading a little from the Catechism it appears the pursuit of happiness in this life is a waste of time as happiness is reserved for heaven and for those who through merit earn the reward of the vision of God, which IS happiness.
I can't wait to tell my teenagers this...


Staff member
After reading a little from the Catechism it appears the pursuit of happiness in this life is a waste of time as happiness is reserved for heaven..

Given the correct understanding of happiness, I think the statement should be that: anything but the pursuit of happiness in this life is a waste of time, even though perfect happiness is reserved for heaven.

Since "the good of the soul in which the happiness of man consists is God", the closer one gets to this good of the soul, i.e. God, the happier one will be. We will only be perfectly happy once we get perfectly close to God, which is the beatific vision and which can only be attained in heaven. But before we get to heaven, moreover, in other to get to heaven, we can and must get closer to God while still on earth. In other words, we must pursue earthly happiness (true happiness that is, not a false happiness) in order to attain heavenly happiness.

Anything that does not bring us closer to God is a complete waste of time, since it does not make us happier here on earth, and it does not help us in attaining perfect happiness in heaven. Or as St. Thomas a Kempis puts it in The Imitation of Christ:

"Vanity of vanities! and all is vanity," except only the love of God, and an entire devotedness to His service.


Staff member
One other important thing to note is that St. Thomas Aquinas states that "man.. can deceive himself as to the object of his true happiness", which can lead him to feel happy, but since such feeling is based on a lie, he won't be happy.

Hence, Fr. Hardon stressed the point that parents have a grave duty to properly form the conscience of their children so that they seek happiness in truth (to be happy) and not in lies (to feel happy).

Ginny D

New Member
Yes thank you. Personal experience confirms what you say. My throbbing conscience drove me to convert - trying to deal with the unhappiness which I knew was a result of sin. Seeking happiness means seeking a resting conscience and to find the quietness of being forgiven, and the help needed in times of temptation I turn to God. So to seek happiness (a quiet conscience) I seek God - His forgiveness and Grace. BEING happy and FEELING happy are certainly two different things.