By: Tom Rinkoski
Raising children to have faith happens through relationships—within the family, with God, and with the faith community. Pope John Paul II affirmed this when he said the goal of faith formation is an intimate relationship with Jesus.
Each issue carries an imprimatur
from the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. Reprinting prohibited
Building healthy and faith-filled relationships requires intention and effort. If we want our children to enjoy friendship with Jesus, we need to invest our time, energy, wishes, hopes, and dreams in this effort. Use the following keys to grow healthy and holy family relationships.
1. Use your imagination
Our imaginations are sometimes shackled by routines. For example, our kisses and hugs become mechanical as we send family members out the door. Imagination wants to break free of shackles, yet that doesn’t get the chores done! Preserving space for the gift of imagination is like keeping an empty chair at the table for an unexpected guest.
Imagination nurtures possibilities. By believing in “six impossible things before breakfast,” as the Red Queen in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass insists, we begin to embrace our awesome God with whole hearts, souls, and minds.
Develop imagination through storytelling, nature walks, and applauding questions and curiosity. Foster imagination by encouraging family members to share their wishes, hopes, and dreams on a regular basis. Imagination opens children’s minds and hearts to a God who might whisper as well as shout, be a lamb as well as a lion, and enter their world as a baby. Let their imaginations lead you. Then help them make the faith connections.
2. Rethink holiness
Dorothy Day spoke of practicing the presence of God wherever two or three are gathered. God is with us, she said, “in our kitchens, at our tables with our visitors, and on our farms.” Too often we freeze holiness onto holy cards, painting it with chilly colors and stiff words. Holiness grows bit by bit, flowering incrementally like our daughters and sons, reaching into our real and messy lives.
Holiness can shine through our everyday interactions. Can we see and respond to God’s presence in store clerks, teachers, and beggars on the street? Can we hear God’s voice in the people who answer phones? Remember, Jesus walks with the feet of soldiers and reaches out with the hands of the homeless.
In family life, opportunities to practice virtue and die to self abound in the pains of growing up?fears in the night, being dumped by friends, or losing a job. Holiness isn’t a video game in which we save the day; instead it’s about doing dishes, studying for a test, and fighting and reconciling on the playgrounds of life.
Our task is to help each other be fully alive so as to make God’s presence unmistakable. St. Paul says we’re all called to be saints. We need to get over our fear of the title.
3. Take back your time
School, work, laundry, and those exercises we swore to do squeeze our schedules. Our time doesn’t seem our own. It’s difficult to fit it all in, much less act intentionally.
Name some imaginative and fun rituals that stop time for you. These can take as little as five minutes and be as simple as a blessing at bedtime, a glass of wine once the kids are in bed, or a weekly walk in a park. Rituals create meaningful boundaries in our lives. They make it easier to live in the present instead of always reminiscing about the past or longing for a changed future.
Family rituals aren’t the same as religious ceremonies. One mother transformed diaper changes from a smelly chore into a meaningful moment. Family rituals change as children grow up. Letting go of the treasured traditions of childhood as the kids outgrow them may bring sadness, but we must trust that something new can develop that will capture the imagination. Be open to the possibilities.
4. Play and laugh
Too many folks think of holiness-building as dull and boring, so they rope it off as “church” time. Some parishes reinforce this notion by insisting that worship must be serious and solemn in order to be “holy.” This pushes holiness into a dark corner and dampens the natural inquisitiveness of children. I’m grateful for small children who punctuate the Mass by making a “joyful noise unto the Lord”! Joy, after all, is a characteristic of holiness.
Play and laughter are the most effective ways to keep relationships healthy and resilient. Play refreshes and renews, makes us better at solving problems, increases our optimism, and opens our hearts and minds. Create a litany of thanksgiving from today’s smiles and everyday blessings.
5. Cultivate diversity
There’s no single way to God! Jesus was inclusive of people and realities far afield from the usual boundaries of his time and place. The Bible is a storybook of who we were, guessing who we might become. It’s filled with a weird assortment of characters doing some fairly outlandish things.
Building Christian community involves honoring the rich diversity of God’s family. Exploring other faiths, cultures, music, and traditions with nonjudgmental openness challenges our assumptions and prejudices and gives us an opportunity to focus on what’s special about our own faith and traditions. By cultivating a diverse worldview, we see that God is awesome and wonderful beyond all understanding and imagining.
6. Expand your vocabulary
Ads contrary to Catholic teachings should be reported to our webmaster
. Include ad link.
If we want children to be able to talk about the part Jesus plays in their lives, we need to give them the words to use. This effort begins with, but reaches beyond, Bible stories. It’s broader than just learning the names of things at church. It’s an ability to pray, not just with memorized words, but also with open hearts and minds.
Many families find mealtimes to be their best moments for practicing prayer. My wife and I listened to our children pray about lima beans (and their wished-for transformation), the pressures of school days, and the pangs of growing up. Even laments can be poetic prayers! Create your own collection of family psalms from the many emotions of life!
A child can grow up pronouncing the names of God as a normal part of his or her daily life. Yet many parents find this more difficult to model than talking about sex with their kids. Remember, the language of prayer isn’t so much a matter of mastering a specialized vocabulary. In fact, we want to avoid that since it can limit our relationship with God. The language of prayer is how we use words, the attitude we bring.
7. Model healthy relationships
If we wish to nurture the growth of friendship with Jesus, our children need to see what healthy, successful, human relationships look like. This doesn’t mean perfect relationships! However, it does mean showing our children our commitment to work at building and sustaining holy relationships.
Practicing forgiveness at home with words and gestures is one way to show the power of healthy relationships. Children should also clearly see commitment in the parents’ relationship with each other, with friends, and with organizations and institutions.
The Search Institute cites research that indicates every child needs at least three significant relationships with adults other than parents to grow up healthy in the world. Who are the key adults in your child’s life? What role do your child’s godparents play? How present are you to your own godchildren?
8. Serve others
By his own example, Jesus made it clear that service must be part of every Christian’s life. Begin introducing this early in your children’s lives by turning family “chores” into “acts of service,” helping them see chores as serving the common good of the family. Service expands to school, parish, and community as children grow. Thanks to places like Catholic Worker houses, my wife and I introduced our children to people in need so they didn’t carry the fears I had growing up about “those” people. Service also includes caring for the earth by recycling and composting.
Gather all those “give money” letters that clutter your mailbox and turn them into mission education. Call a semiannual family meeting, divide the appeals among family members, then “debate” which charity should receive your family’s funds (perhaps saved from a weekly soup night). Lead family members in approaching this task with a prayerful and discerning spirit.
9. Tell and listen to stories
God created us as storytellers. Honor language, listening, and storytelling wherever it’s found—the park ranger, show-and-tell at school, or library story time. Stories tell us about the important things in life in sometimes puzzling, often entertaining, ways. Once on a family drive, my dad pulled the car to a halt and drove backward to point out a sign that read “Oink Joint Road.” He bellowed that we had to learn the story behind that!
Developing sacramental imagination begins at home. On the anniversary of each child’s Baptism, retell the story, occasionally calling in additional color and memories from godparents and others who were present. Share the Bible as a library of stories, introducing children to characters and plot twists long before opening the book. Purchase books without words so that the pictures invite storytelling. Foster early childhood interest in Scripture and its message for today.
My wife’s annual family reunions encouraged the sharing of stories. Storytelling was a real way of catching up on relatives’ lives. Turn reading the Bible into another way of “catching up” on our spiritual family story.
It’s time for you to start
No one can give you and your family a foolproof plan for building intimate relationships with Jesus and each other. Don’t get hung up on whether you know enough about your faith to share it. Begin with “Hello!” and take steps to enter into relationships of faith. It may feel awkward at first but will become more natural over time. Take a walk with Jesus and ask him a few questions. Surrender the potential outcomes and listen. Then see where it goes.
Listen to new ideas. Become agile and adaptive. Go with the flow (where the Spirit leads).
Enlist the children in their upbringing; plan, succeed, and fail as a group. Travel the journey of life together as a family—from the moment of conception to death.
Attend to the core
Listen with new ears to your family story as retold by you and the kids. Take note of the core dreams and beliefs. Let these set your course instead of allowing the small stuff to dictate your direction.
Take time to celebrate the things that go right, the people who bless your path, and the joys that enter your story. Focus more on what you do right than your mistakes and errors.
Tithe your first energies to parenting
Let parenting be your primary investment. Don’t relegate parenting to the in-between times when you’re not sleeping or before and after work.
Tom Rinkoski has served parishes and dioceses in religious education and marriage and family ministries. He currently teaches family caregivers. Tom has been married for 36 years and has three adult children and six grandchildren.
NEXT: The Healing Work of Vatican II (by Kenneth R. Overberg, SJ)