The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.

John Milton, Paradise Lost

If you are over 40 or come from a religious family, you may have been told when you were young that if you weren’t good, you would go to hell. The idea of hell has been used for millennia to keep people in line. During the last five decades or so, it’s become unfashionable to use the threat of hell to scare children into behaving. We’re told that this is essentially a form of child abuse, and that those people who did it for all of those centuries were just mean, nasty people.

While I agree that scaring children is not good, I think it’s important to cut folks a break regarding this — there is a real conundrum when raising children, because they need to be taught that there are real consequences for their actions. I’ve known of circumstances (unfortunately) where young people have grown up cocooned from the natural consequences of their actions, only to find out — in a major way — that sometimes the things you do can not be un-done, and that there can be dire consequences. The first consequence they experienced might be jail time or an early death.

Consider the value of being afraid of going to hell eternally if you die with a mortal sin on your soul. The tricky part of this is if you can get to confession before you die, you can be absolved. But, can you get there in time? What if you get hit by a bus crossing the street to the church? This puts you in a state of fear for some period of time. But, then, you can let go of it by going to confession, doing your penance, and starting with a clean slate.

It’s very hard to teach children to think of the consequences of their actions, because they have a very limited capacity to think into the future. Obviously, this usually develops as they age, and so they can eventually be taught to look at consequences on a longer time frame than just right now. But, if they have not developed — at an early age — the habit of resisting their urges, they may never develop the ability. So, later on in life, even if they are able to foresee the consequences of their actions, they may not have the self control to stop themselves. This can lead to a lifetime of chaos, and constant angst about “getting caught.”

Obviously, the other side of the “stick” is the “carrot.” We can reward children for good behavior, which is essentially the purpose of Santa Claus. However, this can have the undesired consequence of developing attitudes of expectation of reward for simply not doing something bad. “I didn’t steal the candy bar, so I think I should be rewarded by getting a candy bar.”

Rewarding children for good behavior does not instill a conscience in them.

So, although I am not advocating imbuing children with nightmares about hell, I think we should keep in mind that the traditions of doing this are not (necessarily) based on evil intent. This is a real problem and, as such, does not have an easy answer.

TAKE AWAY: Raising children is hard. Don’t dismiss traditional approaches out of hand.