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December 13, 2007


There are 2 parts to our conscience.

One is our primary conscience.
This is the conscience that is common to all men and women.
Even without the law, God gave man a basic sense of right and wrong.
It is not instinct, but a preknowledge given by God.

There is also a trainable portion of the conscience called the moral conscience.
It is the learned standards of right and wrong.
While the primary conscience is prestamped by God, the moral conscience needs training.

So let's focus on the trainable portion of man's conscience, the moral conscience.
As I talked about in a previous post, telling your child what is right and wrong without giving the moral reason from God's Word will be inadequate in training your child's heart.

We place principles of moral conduct in our heart. Our heart receives, stores and governs instruction. (Psalm 119:11)
The heart is a type of warehouse. In it you deposit moral knowledge to be used at a later time.
Think of a warehouse that is stacked up high on each aisle. Things are labeled well to make it easily identifiable when it is needed. Same as our heart, we place moral values there to have something to draw from when a situation occurs.

So as parents, in the years when we train our children, we are the ones who stock those moral shelves. We teach our children about God and His ways (Deut. 6:6-9), which includes telling them what He requires of them morally (Micah 6:8). When you help place virtues such as honesty, respect, fairness, wisdom, kindness, self-control, gentleness and patience in his heart, the conscience can begin to do it's work.

But just because the knowledge of morals is there, this does not automatically mean that they will act morally. We have churches filled with 'knowledgeable' children who are going wayward. Instructing your child to what is morally acceptable is the easy part, it's training a child to control his behaviour to conform to these morals that's the harder part. Many children know what is expected of them but will not always do what is right. Once again, if we train the head and not the heart we will have a child that will grow up moral on the outside but not on the inside.

Man's conscience will warn and accuse him if he is about to do wrong and if he doesn't heed this, he will be plagued by guilt. As parents we have to guard against hardening our child's conscience by not addressing sin or not putting values in their heart so they have nothing to draw from.
The conscience also has a positive side that can prompt a man to do right and when he does it confirms him. This is God's pat on the back and there is great satisfaction knowing you have pleased Him.

So our conscience becomes a type of radar that guides us morallly. It encourages us in the right direction or warns us when we are about to do wrong. So when you come up to a new situation your conscience goes to your moral warehouse and searches for a corresponding value. If it finds one, it either prompts or warns. If there is nothing there, the search ends and nothing happens.

Here's an example that happened to me lately. I was at a store. I had bought 4 mats for our entrance. 2 were big and 2 were small. When I got to the checkout the guy counted the mats each mat and came up with 6. So he charged me for 6 small mats. Doing a quick calculation
I soon realized that I was getting a deal. My conscience was alerted and it quickly went to work scanning the shelves for a value. It came up with the value 'You shall not steal'. The prompting mechanism said 'It would be wrong to take advantage of the mistake of this person, someone will lose out', the warning mechanism said, 'It would be stealing if you did not say anything.' If I would not have had this value in my heart the search would have come up empty. But it found and presented this value to me although I still had a choice to make. Was I going to act on this value. I have to be honest and say I was tempted to not mention anything, but after a moment I thought better and told the clerk that he had miscalculated. He then rescanned the mats and I payed the proper amount.

The conscience develops both positively and prohibitively. Positive training includes instruction, encouragement, and reinforcement and takes place mostly in the middle and upper years. Prohibitive training includes warnings, restrictions, punishment, and consequences and is used more commonly in the early years. An overemphasis on either one in unhealthy.

Young children learn to avoid wrongdoing out of fear of punishment, but as they grow older and learn moral values, they should learn to avoid wrongdoing out of love of virtue. It is very important to make this transition from prohibitive training to positive training. It can be tempting to stay with the method that you used to get your children's behavior to reflect God's Word. But it is wrong to stay there. By the age of 3 or 4 years you should be well on your way to providing the moral reasons to your instruction. If you don't move from prohibitive to positive training you will limit your child's capacity to reason morally.

A positive conscience says 'I ought to because it is right' or 'I ought not do it because it is wrong' where the prohibitive conscience says,'I better do it or else I'll be punished.'

A healthy conscience will develop when parents encourage their child to do right rather than always discouraging him from doing wrong. On the contrary an unhealthy conscience is in an ongoing state of guilt. Every thought is centered around disappointing someone, being misunderstood or being rejected. He may do many virtuous acts, not out of love for right, but from fear of potential error.

Be careful not to cultivate a prohibitive conscience in your child by creating a fear of them losing your love or making them feel guilty. This can sometimes be an easy way to get control but it is a wrong way and will backfire later on.

Think about yourself, your upbringing, did you grow up with a healthy or unhealthy conscience. Knowing this will help you understand how and why you approach things in your own life the way you do and also will help you in training your children.

REMEMBER: The properly trained conscience knows wrong even when there is no signpost saying it is wrong.

The ideas expressed here were taken from the parenting course
"ALONG THE VIRTUOUS WAY' by Gary and Anne Marie Ezzo

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