The mere suggestion of teaching religious education in our home sends most of us parents scrambling toward the dog-eared calendar magneted onto the refrigerator. Begrudgingly we look for a slot of time to squeeze in a half hour for a content-oriented session, the thought of which already makes our spirits droop. After lifting up the magnet we finally stick it between soccer car-pooling and sewing three skirts for the ethnic festival which is already a lot closer than it has the right to be. Once having successfully forged a time block for teaching three small children about religion, we promptly forget about it. We will find lots of time, books, incentive eventually, but for right now, even if we did know what to teach and why, we aren't sure we want to.
What is that nagging hesitation, why do we cringe every time someone says anything related to teaching religion? Nine times out of ten it begins with our own feelings toward being preached at; being confronted with textbook Christs, being assaulted by video prophets and false-promisers who stage miracles and solicit money; being besieged with `witnesses' who arrive in pairs at our front door armed with commitment, quotas, and mindless memorizations. Religion has a bad name. So, so much for the formal religion class. We can rationalize it awayfasterthan we can take flight!
The first thing seems to be to face up to this nagging feeling, and get past it. I want to teach my children Christ is with them because He said, "Bring them to me," quite unpleasantly in fact when we tried to keep them away. I want them to pick up and follow him even at their tender ages. I am a Christian. I love my children. I struggle with my own soul with all its trappings of vanity several times a minute. But how do I provide for their spiritual training? How much do I have to do? How do I give them "answers" when I am still fuzzy about the "questions"?
Let's be comfortable with our questions. Every single page of the book of history has been carved with man's need to know: where did I come from, what am I by nature, why am I on this earth, where am I going? As Nietzche says, "if we just have a WHY to live, we can bear with almost any How."
Our time in history provides us with lots of incentive to become more spiritually aware. We're fighting a system of education for our children in this country which is afraid to censor anything except a prayer. Secularism creeps around like carbon monoxide.
The world is casting a spotlight on our spiritually dark corners. We are being forced to think, to take a stand on issues. Our children's need for religious education serves as a catalyst in refining our owr Christian commitment.
Let's look at religious education as the framework for the human puzzle, instead of a piece within it. Christianity is a way of life, a journey along a linear historical path beginning with creation and ending with citizenship in the Kingdom of God. It is a worldview. If we choose to follow Christ, we must allow His gospel to permeate our whole being. Like pregnancy, there is nothing partial about being a Christian. It cannot be a "port" of our life, separate from the decisions we make in all other avenues. We are full fledged members in a confessing and reconciling community which Patriarch Ignatius of Antioch recently described as the "expression of God's will on earth."
It is within this community we are married. It is this community which stands witness to the creation of a new family, of a new "little church." It is in this community that we are crowned king and queen of a new kingdom over which we shall rule and into which we shall welcome and name and nourish our children. It is this community, the Church which teaches us fortitude during the lean years and gratitude during the better ones. As we establish our little family we constantly lean on our bigger family for support, rejuvenation, refinement in the ongoing process of becoming Christian.
Just as we use the family of the Church as a forum to work out the tension of our faith in the world, we, as parents, use the family we've been ordained to establish as the most natural place to teach our children about Christian living. It becomes our priesthood. We are called to be of service. We are the witness-bearers from the time our first tiny baby is entrusted to our care. If we stop to think about it, we realize that we've already been teaching our children religion all along, from the time they asked us where
Grandpa with the false teeth went when he died. We have no dispute with the court system which says we have more influence on our children than any other agency or person around. So, the question changes somewhat, from 'should I teach my child religion' to 'what am I already teaching my child about religion?'
I believe that much of the basis for religious training can be found in good parenting skills, about which much is written. I think the "positive parenting" group has made a good start in asking parents to write down the goals they have for their children. In addition to this exercise, we might write down what our goals are for our children's spiritual life. Altruism is a noble goal, but we want our children to have full cups so we reach for God as the center of their lives. We want them to have good personal relationships in life, but want the best personal relationship to be with the author of life. Circumstances and death are fickle creatures . . . they reach out and change things in our lives at will. But God did not create a great cosmological farce for His viewing fancy. He is the steady one to whom we can appeal, with whom we argue, in whom we can find rest when we are weary. Teaching our children that this attitude toward God is their heritage is largely a matter of sharing your own life with them. But I believe we can actively pursue ways to teach our children about God's unconditional love, His initiative, His will for His children. How?
In the MOTHER'S ALMANAC, the writers suggest the "influences you give your child in the early years will be as much a part of his structure as the bones in your body. The holy Scriptures tell us "train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it" (Prov. 22:6) What are some of the influences we can provide our children?
If we begin in the womb, we could provide the influence of a healthy body surrounding this little bundle of synergy. If we begin in the hospital we could write a Christian name on that blank birth certificate staring us in the face. This Christian name links the child directly to his first hero, the story of whom he will ask you many times. If we begin in the home, we can provide "trust born of care" which establishes our child's fundamental disposition toward a benevolent world. This trust is the rock upon which we build the foundation of our Christian household. Francois D'Arcy writes, "Each of us needs an adult to help us find God." The trust a child has in the presence and caring of his parents is the beginning of later trust in a "Father" who loves him.
If we begin at the Baptism, we provide our child with a family he'll be happy to be related to later on. In Her wisdom, the Church invites our child to full membership during infancy, indicating that Christ is not to be contained by intellectual pursuit. Instead He beckons our children to grow with Him present. The community publicly accepts trusteeship of the baby's faith by renouncing the devil and accepting new life in Christ, for him. The child is chrismated, then receives communion. This, too, is no accident. The child's first awareness of familial love comes as he is offered food when he is hungry. His first awareness of God's love for His family members is again when he is offered 'food,' the food Christ invites us all to share. It is as unnatural to be denied the gifts God so freely and deliberately offers, as it would be to sit down at the family table and be denied a meal.
Our attitudes toward our young children shape their attitudes toward God. If we are able to love them unconditionally, they will know that God never withdraws his love. If we make our children "earn" our love, they will suspect God only loves little boys and girls if they don't sin. This latter idea is foreign to Christian growth. We love the sinner, but hate the sin. The story of the prodigal son shows our children that God actually 'runs' toward us with arms outstretched to welcome us back. Is this a model asserting parental power? Is this a model of love withdrawal? As parents we have the right and the responsibility to integrate the gospel message, to make it our own. As we do that, ways to interact in the family will become clearer and clearer to us.
Little boys and girls need their feelings, their new mastery of themselves, their discoveries of the world explained to them. We have the benefit of experiences our child lacks. We can explain a child's feelings to him (Johnny, you are angry that I am preventing you from running in the street to get your ball); explain the consequences of the actions these feelings generate (The street is for cars which are bigger and faster than you are. Running after your ball could cause an accident); we can tell him clearly what is expected of him and why (When your ball goes in the street, tell Mommy and I will get it for you when it is safe. It is my job to protect you. I can get another ball, but I can't get another you. It is because I love you that I am protecting you.) By beginning this inductive reasoning in an early, elementary level, we help our children see how choices are made. We establish a firm discipline which thwarts willful license, but establishes a respect which seeks what is best for the person. Within limits, and by offering only alternatives we can live with, we can begin giving our children choices suitable to their age, so they can begin to see the consequences of their actions. This leads from government in the family to a self-governing adult.
How we approach the Church conditions our children's later membership. Attitudes are learned. Children mimic their parents. If we pray, they will seek
an active relationship with God for themselves. If we take the family to church during feasts and fasts, the child will believe it is important to be a part of this larger family in celebrations and in preparations. If we receive sacraments as valuable gifts, our child will value God even more as he steps up to receive his gifts from God. If we welcome the priest, the bishop, monks and nuns into our home as respected friends, the children will see God, the final authority, as approachable and friendly, and non-threatening. The child's religious temperament is moderated by all our actions and attitudes, values and prohibitions. As a parenting unit, it is a good idea to come to some attitudinal agreements about values early on, especially if there is any measurable tension.
Making the name of Christ a comfortable instead of a cuss word in our homes takes some active effort on our parts. Verbally we can draw the connections between God and our every-day events. We begin by being comfortable with God ourselves. As ourchildren come to us with questions, as they seek to know what we think, how we feel, where our ideas came from, we can discuss being a Christian. This sharing can't be underestimated. Children need to know we care about God's world, and why. They should be told the story of the agreements between God and man as early as possible, so that they have a framework to fill in. We can share with them our reasons for taking good care of the earth God created. We can share with them the Christian idea of neighbour when we care for each other in our homes, for the shut-in down the street, for the Palestinian refugees in another country. Whatever our moral approach, our social concerns, our political associations, we should help our children see that our decisions are based on a Christian perspective.
Children need models of reconciliation before they can fully participate in a confessing community. When we forgive our children, when we refuse to keep convicting them of the same crime by holding a grudge, when we have faith they will aspire to good behaviour, we teach them forgiveness. A rule of thumb for any family is not to let the sun go down on our anger. Disputes should be directed to the source and resolved as soon as possible so that we can get on with the joy of living together. If we have been teaching them to confront their feelings, they won't be frightened by them. They need to know that feelings are normal, controllable, and need not result in actions which are destructive. If we have been giving each child "equal time" they won't compete with each other for our attention. Another rule of thumb is to give our total attention to each child 20 minutes per day. Rest, good food, lots of activity, a balanced routine all contribute to a better atmosphere for co-operation and reconciliation.
Competence is the sister of confidence. The more our children learn to confront both limitations and talents, the sooner they'll learn their self-worth does not depend on their limitations. We need to teach our children to experience their talents, then to use those talents at home and in service to the community. We want children who reach out to take all the riches God provides, and who give back just as abundantly. By complimenting our children on their abilities (Billy, you are very patient with younger children and you have such good ideas of ways to amuse them; Angela, you are kind to animals; Kathy, you have a lovely singing voice) and by encouraging them to increase their gifts through practice, our children will grow.
As our children arrive at the turbulent teen years we hope we have already impressed upon them that they are worthwhile. We should never allow our children to feel they are evil. If we confirm their fears that they are bad news, they will be. Our children need our affirmation. They will gravitate toward the adults who have faith in them. They will be changed by those who love them rather than by those who monitor them. They will be influenced by our example. Albert Schweitzer makes the point more strongly when he says, "Example is not the main way to influence others. It is the only way."
These are the talking years. We have to keep talking even when the well seems bone dry. These are the listening years. The years when our children will pour put their attempts to define themselves, when they have a new capacity for tenderness and don't know what to do with it. These are the years when we have to make them proud of their sexuality, protective of their bodies, and aware of the consequences of their passions. These are the years we encourage them to have private conversations with God. During these growing, testing, questioning, doubting, groping, examining times God can be our children's ally . . . especially if they've had positive experiences of God during their childhood.
I think that this is also a time for closeness between parent and child. Emotionally, intellectually, spiritually, we are involved in some of the same struggles. It is a time when we can share the difficulty we have as adults making conscious choices to do what is good, what is moral, what is God's will. It's a time when we can stumble and help raise each other up. I think teens need to know they are not unique, and that decisionmaking is lonely at the best of times. It's a time for honestly talking about the child and the teen in us, and the adult in our children.
Finally, these years are times when both parent and child can agree that being Christian is difficult enough on the good days, and much harderthe rest of the time! But at least we have answered the "why" in our lives, and the family is our support group in which we work out the `way'.