Among the many time-tested ways of motivating one’s children to behave well is to tell them, when they fail to do so, that Jesus (or God, or Our Lady) is disappointed with their behavior.  “Time-tested,” I say; how well this strategy passes the test is, like so many things, a matter of debate.  Much of that debate seems to result from different understandings of what the statement implies—to the adults who use it, and to the children who hear it.

On the one hand, the idea of disappointing Jesus echoes the old Baltimore Catechism definition of sin (once memorized by all children preparing for first Confession and Communion) as “an offense against God.”  God is offended; God is disappointed—the second idea is easily derived from the first.

On the other hand, telling some children (and some adults) that “God is offended by what you did” is bad strategy.  Broadly speaking, the remark could provoke three possible reactions: (a) contrition, involving an appropriate degree of guilt and a resolution to offend no more; (b) guilt in an excessive or unhealthy degree, perhaps leading the culprit to despair of being good; and (c) anger or resentment at the messenger or (worse) at God himself.

If all these reactions are possible—and experience testifies as much—why is that?  And how do we know when to expect result (a) versus (b) or (c)?  In other words—how do we know when it is good to bring the idea of divine dissatisfaction to bear?

The key both to answering the theoretical puzzle and resolving the practical quandary seems to be context.  And (as Aristotle might suggest), the key to determining the correct context is to begin by observing common behavior, induce to theory, and then bring the theory down to the practical level.

First, it may be commonly observed that good Christian parents—parents whose children generally grow up to be happy, healthy, pleasant, and law-abiding—have a particular way of explaining sin to their children.  Though they may use lines such as “Sin is an offense against God” or “Jesus is disappointed in you,” they do so within a context of a broader ethical education in which those lines have a specific resonance.  Children who grow up comfortable using those lines on their own children generally feel that it was good to have heard them—good, perhaps, in the way that cough syrup is good, but good nonetheless.  Healthy rather than harmful, however unpleasant at the time.

But this sort of reaction only makes psychological sense given a specific understanding of the Divine.  Take a human analogy, in which a child learns that their baseball coach or math teacher is “disappointed” or “offended” by their behavior.  The child’s reaction will depend chiefly upon how strong their relationship to the coach or teacher is.  If the child sees Coach as someone who is admirable, interesting, and worth imitating, someone who wants the best for the child and has the child’s best interests at heart, and if the child sees also that the coach is inclined to give second chances, then learning that Coach is disappointed is likely to provoke positive change.  Wanting to please, the child is likely to step up to the plate (literally and metaphorically) trying his best to do better; and there is a decent chance that, in fact, he will do better.  But what if the coach is just mean (or perceived as being mean)?  What if the coach always seems to be angry?  What if the coach seems like a wimp whom the child can’t respect anyway?  What if the coach’s demands always seem impossible to fulfill?  In any of those scenarios, the child is likely to hear “Coach is disappointed in you” as the death-knell of organized baseball.  If measuring up to the coach’s standards is impossible or undesirable, then there’s no reason to try.

From this a theory may be deduced: Statements regarding the judgments of an authority are effective in direct proportion to the degree of regard in which the authority is held.

The application to religion should be obvious; but, to spell it out … If a child is raised to imagine Jesus as the greatest of heroes, who wants more than anything for the child to be like Him and to achieve sanctity on earth and beatitude in heaven (and if sanctity and beatitude are themselves explained in a way that enables the child to appreciate their worth), and if Jesus is simultaneously presented as infinitely merciful and loving, always ready to give sinners another chance and desirous of assisting them in any way possible (as surely a sound contemplation of the Passion and Redemption would indicate) … if those conditions are met, then learning that “Jesus is disappointed when you do X” is, as in the case of the Good Coach, likely to provoke positive change.  But if Jesus is presented as angry or dour or a milquetoast, why would a child try to please such a figure?  In the first context, the statement (however painful it may be to hear) implies love; in the second, it has no such subtext.  As with ailments of the body, the who and the how, the patient and the dose, matter as much as the what of the medicine.

A final note: There is also, perhaps, some difference between saying “Jesus is disappointed in you” and saying “Jesus is disappointed when you do X.”  This is semantics, but not mere semantics; nor do I think young children are oblivious to such distinctions.  To be disappointed in a person can suggest a lack of future confidence in them.  To be disappointed in another person’s action, because the semantics distinguishes the action from the person, may encourage the person to make the same distinction, and to separate themselves from their misdeed.  (Thus, incidentally, the real psychological helpfulness of “Hate the sin and love the sinner”—when the two are distinguished clearly, the sinner is helped to see himself apart from his sin, and is one step closer to sinning no more.)

Obviously, this can be taken too far: it is possible to separate an action so much from the doer that no blame is attached even to a person who deserves blame.  Still, on the whole, human beings being what we are, rebukes are generally best delivered in the way least likely to cause offense.  As St. Francis de Sales supposedly observed, “You will catch more flies with a spoonful of honey than with a barrelful of vinegar.”