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Christian Parenting—Nurturing Faith in a Secular World
By: Kathy Coffey
The Chapin Mesa Museum in Mesa Verde, Colorado, displays tiny pots. The note beside them explains that mothers taught their daughters the art of making pottery with clay scraps. Girls learned patterns of chiseled black and white—for ladles, water jars and mugs.
Although these ancestral Puebloans left no written records, their art speaks eloquently. The small potters, working beside their moms, give us a new image for this creation scene in Scripture: “When [God] established the heavens, I was there…then I was beside him, like a master worker; and I was daily his delight” (Proverbs 8:27, 30). Just as we are made in God’s image, so do our children model us. If they are to appreciate and then give even a glimmer of God’s unconditional love, they must first experience it coming from their parents.
The ancient whispers of Native Americans prompt the questions: What specifically do Christian parents hand on to their children? Which of our qualities do we most want them to imitate?
If we say we love Jesus and center our lives on God, how do our children know this? What are the concrete signs of our commitment?
During the five years when my daughter and I gave Mother’s Day retreats, we’d raise those perennial issues. Answers varied, but were always rich. One woman who had been trying to heal the psychological scars from her mother’s negativity could still recognize her generosity: “The hoboes must have marked our door. They passed the word that my mother was always good for a bowl of soup!” In the apple-never-falls-far-from-the-tree dynamic, she too works with the poor.
The General Directory for Catechesis (GDC) affirms the parents’ role: “Parents are the primary educators in the faith” (#255). Parents nurture faith by showing their children the richness and beauty of lived faith. “In a certain sense, nothing replaces family catechesis, especially for its positive and receptive environment, for the example of adults, and for its first explicit experience and practice of the faith” (#178).
A child who has been neglected or abused has a hard time trusting others. If Mom or Dad doesn’t respond when an infant wails from hunger, that child gradually abandons hope that anyone will meet his or her need. If the cry is answered consistently, the parent lays the foundation for a life of faith, trust, freedom to express one’s self and the joy of being comforted.
A parent’s tenderness when feeding or diapering a baby, speaking to an infant or playing with a child speaks volumes about God’s loving concern. Initially, humans are unable to understand abstractions. We learn from touch, tone of voice, hugs and the whole repertoire of gestures that parents take for granted. This simple, unspoken language is irreplaceable for the message it conveys: You are valuable. You are cherished.
If parents get nervous that they must convey Catholic doctrine they haven’t studied since eighth grade, they can be reassured with the metaphor of the two-sided coin. On one side is a loving, personal relationship with God and Jesus. On the other is the content of the faith: social teaching, Gospels, the saints, morality, etc. Both sides of the coin are essential, and the first leads naturally to the second. Anyone introduced to a loving (not punitive) God wants to learn more.
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A loving, personal relationship with God is best nourished at home. Ask most adults about their initial memory of faith. They often describe the Christmas crèche or carols, Grandma working in her rose garden near the statue of St. Francis, family prayer before meals or at bedtime, Scripture stories, family traditions during Advent or Lent. Without that early input, later religious education has little basis on which to build.
The institution (parish, school and faith formation program) excels at sharing the content of the faith. Trained homilists, catechists and teachers have the latest strategies and resources for conveying our faith. But they are the first to admit that their job becomes much easier when it’s reinforced in the home.
Parents may convey more by their attitudes than their words. They also know their child better than anyone else does, so they’re in a position to communicate clearly. Does a child see parents sacrificing their leisure time or overtime pay to read a bedtime story and say evening prayers? Do they notice intentional efforts toward kindness and peacemaking in the home? If so, the message is obvious: My parents value me and our faith.
Most parents readily admit that they want their children to succeed academically, socially or athletically. They invest time and money in education, parties or sports. Equally important, but often neglected, is a child’s inner life. At some time, the child will face disappointment: not making the team, failing a class, losing a friend or experiencing a death. He or she will then need to tap resources more nourishing than an A in math or a goal in soccer.
Again, parents can be the models: When they face loss, they turn to Jesus who was certainly not an academic, athletic or social success. He died as an outlaw, a criminal crucified by religious and state authorities. While that’s hardly a parent’s dream for a child, Jesus gave us another definition for success. From his tragic tomb emerged everlasting life. He taught us to value our union with God more than anything the world can offer.
While young children may find that message too abstract, they will quickly learn that busy parents still carve out time for daily prayer or reflection and weekly Mass. They observe when Mom or Dad, becoming angry, anxious or frustrated, takes a few minutes for deep breathing or quiet prayer to fend off an outburst. St. Elizabeth Ann Seton said about her disappointing sons, “What’s a parent to do but pray and dote?”
Furthermore, Christian parents try to make the faith understandable at a child’s level. That might mean reading illustrated Bible stories together, doing crafts that tie in with the liturgical season, serving the poor as a family or spending time outdoors, simply admiring God’s creation.
Imprimatur was granted for this article, “Christian Parenting—Nurturing Faith in a Secular World,” by Kathy Coffey, from the Most Reverend Joseph R. Binzer, Bishop-Elect and Vicar General, Archdiocese of Cincinnati, 5-12-2011.
Kathy Coffey, the author of Hidden Women of the Gospels and Women of Mercy (Orbis Books), gives retreats and workshops nationally and internationally. She lives in Denver, Colorado, and may be contacted at email@example.com.
By: Frank Frost
The Blind Side offers a fine picture of parenting by example and the impact this can have on children. It’s the story of Leigh Anne Tuohy (Sandra Bullock) and her family, who take in a homeless black teenager nicknamed Big Mike (Quinton Aaron) and eventually help him find his calling as an NFL-destined athlete?a story that would defy credibility were it not based on actual people and events.
■ What is your first memory of an experience or person that taught you something about faith in God?
■ What are some signs of your commitment to your faith and your relationship with God? How well do you model your faith for the children in your life?
■ How will you share your faith this week?
There’s no doubt that Leigh Anne’s tough-love approach to parenting has a significant impact on her two children as well as Big Mike. She does the right thing without apology or sentimentality. When she and her husband find Michael wandering on the roadside on a cold, wet November evening, she invites him to their home to sleep. One night leads to more nights and, eventually, his own bedroom. She tries to find Michael’s mother in the projects of Memphis and sees the odds stacked against him. The family adopts him as a son and brother.
Leigh Ann will not be deterred by the opinions of others. She meets regularly with a group of women friends. When they express disapproval of her actions, she simply responds, “Shame on you.” This includes her cheerleader daughter, Collins (Lily Collins), who initially shows distaste for what her mother is doing. Before long, however, even she defies the judgments of her friends to sit with Michael in the library. Leigh Anne’s son, of a more impressionable age, accepts Michael unconditionally and enthusiastically from the beginning, no doubt reading his mother’s attitude.
The values that guide Leigh Anne are visible in her children?compassion, honesty, courage, human dignity and doing the right thing when it’s not popular. Her example makes preaching them unnecessary.
Next time you watch The Blind Side, ASK YOURSELF:
By: Joan McKamey
Through 14 years of marriage, Mike and Annie Nolan have prayed together every day. When children came, they naturally—and intentionally—included them in prayer time. Parents of five (two to 13 years), with a sixth child due this fall, they share and model their faith so that their children may come to know and follow God.
■ Would Leigh Anne’s children have been as open to the values she espoused if they had not seen their mother act on them?
■ List ways that Leigh Anne and her children faced criticism for taking in Michael. When do I fail to act on what I believe is right because of the opinions of others?
Mike, director of music ministry at Sacred Heart Parish and music instructor at Indiana University, both in South Bend, Indiana, says, “When I was growing up, my family said the rosary every day. Our Lady was at the heart of my path toward God and giving my life over to him. This was so important in my own conversion that it’s something I want to pass on to my children.”
The Nolans have created a focal point for family prayer in their home. Annie says, “It’s an old TV table covered with a white cloth. There’s a crucifix, votive candle, picture of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and other icons. It also holds our Bibles. It’s something the children can touch and can see. It gives them a representation of whom they’re talking to in prayer.” Mike adds, “We want to give them a daily opportunity to connect with God, to plant a seed and pray that it grows. The daily rosary is like watering and nurturing the seed.”
Their prayer time has changed to accommodate their growing family and changing needs and schedules. When all the children were preschoolers, the family prayed every morning. They now pray together every evening. Mike says, “I used to be more directive when it came to family prayer. I’ve learned that I need to invite the children to prayer. Annie and I are the steadfast anchors with the family rosary. We continue to do it, but we let the kids be kids. We let them play and invite them to lead a portion of a decade or a full decade.
“As a kid, I never knew how long it would take to say the rosary. Our kids know how long it will take and what they’re committing to. We still have great days and terrible days, but we try to focus, struggle through it and stay faithful,” says Mike.
Why do the Nolans choose the rosary for their family prayer? “The rosary is doable. It’s easy. There are plenty of opportunities to get back on track if you get distracted. The rosary is first a prayer to Jesus. You reflect on the life of Jesus,” says Mike.
“It’s scary to think about children growing up in the world with the culture of death and the secularization of society. If we’re feeding them pop culture every day, we have to offer something to counteract that.”
Annie adds, “Every good parent wants to provide everything they can for their children—and the gifts of faith and prayer are so important. If I hadn’t had it in my life growing up, I wouldn’t have known where to turn when things got bad. Giving that to my children is a blessing.”
By: Jeanne Hunt
Gretchen sits on the porch holding baby Henry and thinking about her “big” Catholic family: three boys and two girls. Keeping up with laundry, meals and housework leaves little time for much else. She worries that she and Bart are letting their children’s faith formation fall through the cracks.
Just then, Father Ted and Molly, the pastoral associate from St. Anne’s, walk up with a pie for the new parents. As Henry sleeps, Gretchen shares her worries about raising Catholic children. Molly tells her about a book on celebrating rituals with children. It suggests hundreds of hands-on projects that teach Catholicism through fun activities. Molly promises to get Gretchen a copy.
Catholicism is steeped in ritual. We love the breaking of bread, splash of water, blazing Easter fire and smell of the oil of chrism. Every sacrament has “outward signs” because the Church understands that these signs and rituals teach faith in a way that words cannot. The Holy Spirit takes ordinary things and gives them power and sacred meaning.
When we introduce children to sacred signs, something wonderful happens: They embrace the action and sense the grace imparted without any explanation. When a child watches the Easter fire at the Vigil, the wonder and power of that holy night remain for a lifetime. When we bury our beloved old dog with a tender prayer and a good cry, the good-bye becomes sacred and comforting.
Parents are the guideposts of faith. A fun way to guide our children into this mystery is by celebrating the seasons, saints and liturgical year at home. There are excellent resources available to enhance a Catholic family’s faith formation with rituals and prayers that help immerse children in Catholic tradition. Whether it’s ethnic devotions, a May altar or a simple prayer before a Little League game, the real message is that our family walks daily with God.
Gretchen and Bart love the book! Each week, they choose something that works with their schedules. The first week they celebrated Mary’s birthday with a big blue birthday cake. This week everyone received crosses to wear as they learned about the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. Bart and Gretchen have a big surprise for the October 4th feast of St. Francis of Assisi: a new puppy! Only one name will do: Francis!
By: Jeanne Hunt
Preparation: Place a picture or statue of Jesus on a prayer table. Invite each child to bring a favorite stuffed animal and place it on or near the table.
“Jesus Loves Me” (or similar song)
Jesus is right here. We cannot see him, yet he wants you to know that he is happy to be here. He is smiling because he is pleased that you want to be near him. Let’s all say, “Hello, Jesus.”
Response: Hello, Jesus.
Mark 10:13-16 (or a children’s story based on this Scripture)
Sometimes when you need a hug, it’s good to have a favorite stuffed animal like the ones you brought here today. Would you like to get your animal and tell us its name?
(Children share, then sit down.)
Now imagine that you are sitting in Jesus’ lap, and he is holding you just like you are holding your animal. Let’s be very quiet for a moment and try to imagine his warm arms around us.
Jesus wants to bless both you and your animal. He is saying, “May you always know that I love you. May your days be filled with happy times. May your furry friend bring you comfort in the night when you are afraid. And may you always know in your heart that you are never alone because I am with you.”