Most of us who had religious parents have semi-funny and semi-frustrated stories of how our parents made us do religious stuff against our will when we were kids. Remember when we HAD to say the rosary every time we travelled on family holidays, only all the kids had strong motion sickness medicine so everyone would start slurring and fall asleep between the Hail Mary and Holy Mary EVERY TIME? Or five minute family morning prayer before we went to school when everyone would be bad-tempered and half-asleep and mumble through the hymn which we HAD to sing? I still can’t stand some of those hymns.
Some kids have parents who used religion as a punishment- “Kneel down before the altar until you’re willing to get along with your sister!” or as an obligation to be fulfilled, and nothing more. No wonder so many of our contemporaries have less than fond memories of their childhood religion, and either have lost their faith, or do the bare minimum as a way to keep the family satisfied.
But some of us have had childhood experiences that have given us a good reason to be open to this Christian faith, to examine its claims, and to open our hearts and minds to the reality of a personal God who created us, loved us, saved us, and in a mysterious way is able to be found in the midst of our normal lives.
What were some of the things our parents did right? What are some things that YOU can do as a parent to help your child make a free decision to choose Christ in a world that is increasingly hostile to anything except religious syncretism, an impersonal spirituality, agnosticism or atheism?
1. Love God: This sounds dumb and obvious, but I mean something more than ‘do religious things’ and ‘be known as a god-fearing person’. One of the biggest influences of my faith was hearing my mum talk about how God spoke to her in her personal prayer time. She wasn’t preaching at me, but sharing a lived experience, answered prayers, intimate words that Jesus spoke to her through the bible as she read it every day. How can we preach a God of love if we do not know Him? Speak to Him with love, and speak of Him with love. Hearing my mum made me wonder, “Could I know God in that way?”
2. Love people: if we are known for being religious, but not for being loving, kind and helpful, we have a problem. Make place in your life for the poor. My parents used to do ‘slum ministry’ years ago, and I’m sure that planted seeds that led me to become a Catholic volunteer who taught in the same slum 15 years later. Be a good neighbour. Be quick to respond to a need. Try not to speak ill of people. Kids notice everything.
3. Admit your fault and ask forgiveness: No parents are perfect. Most parents have their share of issues inherited from their parents, their blind spots and unhealthy habits. But in our culture, parents will never admit that. The parent is ALWAYS right, no matter what. But the Christian faith demands that we accept that we are all sinners, in need of the mercy of God (and each other). My dad has witnessed this to me in a beautiful way as he has admitted his faults to his own children and asked for their forgiveness with tears in his eyes. How many dads do that? I could see that it was his faith that gave him that humility.
4. Make real changes: ‘Our God is a real God who does real things for real people in the real world’. I have seen over the years my parents not just admit their faults, but also allowing God to bring healing and real change. I can see that this faith is not just a comfortable philosophy, but a relationship with a real God who accepts us as we are, but loves us too much to leave us that way. I think that is where the core of my faith has come from- seeing my family relationships slowly being healed, seeing myself and my family members change and grow as we have allowed Christ deeper in.
Being willing to change can be painful sometimes. It means sitting through conversations and tears when you would rather walk away. It means being willing to listen to the other person’s perspective. It means going to Confession, or spiritual direction or receiving pastoral care. It means going to therapy, it means giving up old ways of relating, blame, accusation, criticism and anger, and choosing to try the new way of holding your tongue, patience and mercy. It means letting go of resentment, and turning the other cheek. SO HARD! It means allowing yourself to be accountable to one another.
5. Make prayer a joyful part of your family’s life: If God is important, it has to show in your family’s priorities. Daily family prayer is hugely important. My one caveat is that family prayer should be made meaningful for children, and not be a boring or gloomy experience. The rosary without any reflection can become just meaningless repetition. I like what my family did- each family member was responsible for leading family prayer one day of the week (there were seven of us). So on my day I could choose a hymn to sing, which bible passage we would read, whether we were going to do thanksgiving prayers, or repentance, or petition. We would usually end with a decade of the Rosary.
In my organization, we also do what we call ‘family-style prayer’, which follows the same format every time- a hymn (or praise and worship song), each person prays a thanksgiving prayer, we read a bible passage, and each person shares a brief reflection, or something that God has been doing in their life, and we end with praying for our own and others’ needs. It’s so simple, and everyone can easily participate. You could even do praise and worship together, or the Scriptural Rosary, We have so many ways to pray!
6. Live the Catholic way of life: Go for Sunday Mass as a family, celebrate feasts, talk about the saints, use holy water, go together for Confession, do a family fast for Lent. I remember my family giving up sweets one Lent, and each time we knew we were missing out on a sweet or chocolate, we could put a piece of paper money into a box. At the end of Lent, my dad counted it replaced the fake money with real money, and we used it to buy something for a poor family. Making Mass a normal part of life helps form good habits, and makes it a little easier to be disciplined about it when we are older. After Mass, you could talk about the homily or ask questions about the readings.
7. Encourage your kids to have a personal prayer time: From the time I was about 12, my parents encouraged me to have a personal prayer time in the morning. I would mostly read stories from the bible, especially the inappropriate ones from the Old Testament :-D, so maybe it would be good to guide them about what they could do during that prayer time. Give them a prayer journal, and a children’s book of bile reflections, things like that.
8. Listen to your children: Passing on the faith is not about taking every opportunity to lecture, or catechize, or moralize, or pontificate, as tempting as that may be. It is also about listening to your children’s concerns, and interests, and stories, and questions… because it is only when your children feel comfortable sharing with you about the little things that they will come to you about the big things. My poor parents had me sharing everything with them through my childhood and youth, and that helped me process a lot of things about the faith too.
9. Allow them to express doubts: Don’t feel threatened when they have questions. Listen calmly, respect their freedom, say a prayer to the Holy Spirit and give them good answers for their questions. How we talk about these issues is as important as what we say. If you don’t know the answer, suggest looking it up together. There are so many resources available today- books, articles, videos, podcasts. Be empathetic. “I know it’s hard to understand why God would allow bad things to happen. I remember feeling the same way when…” “Yes I know Mass can seem boring sometimes. Why don’t we look up why Jesus wants us to go anyway? I think there was a good Fr. Mike Schmitz video about that.”
10. Respect their freedom: While it is true that you can make certain decisions for your children when they are in your care, like the expectation to go to Mass every Sunday, when your kids grow up and become independent, they need to feel free to make their own decisions. Faith isn’t faith if it is forced. Love and encourage them to seek answers, and make sure the door is open. But don’t force it.
11. Encourage your kids to be a part of Christian fellowship groups: Many Indian parents would like to be the sole influence of their children. But especially as they become teenagers, they can’t be. Teenagers need to explore the world, and check their family’s views against the reality of the world out there. When I was 14, my family joined a Catholic covenant community, and I became part of a small group with six or seven young women. I was able to talk to my pastoral leader, a single woman in her 30s about some of my questions, which helped me make some good decisions as a teenager. I know one friend whose experience with the Jesus Youth tremendously influenced her faith. Help your kids find fellowship, and encourage their participation even if it means they spend less time at home or studying.
12. Help your kids learn how to discern: Rather than banning everything that is not explicitly Catholic or Christian, or sheltering your kids from every other influence, or being fearful of ‘the world’, help them learn how to evaluate what is good and why, and what is harmful and why. Watch movies with them and talk about them. Read the same books as they do, and talk about them. Teach them to be confident, to see the good in people and cultures and even religions different from theirs, and yet to hold fast to the things they know are true when their beliefs are challenged or belittled.
13. Pray for your kids every day: I know some parents who pray over their kids every night as they sleep. Pray for them daily, pray for their present concerns and struggles, pray with them when they share a fear or a need, and pray for them when they aren’t looking. God loves your kids even more than you do. Just cooperate with Him, let go of your fears and anxieties, and let Him do His thing!
P.S. Many of these suggestions could be helpful for Sunday School teachers, youth animators, and anyone who has young people in their care.