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Meeting Your Children Where They Are

Raising children to be strong and lasting in the Faith requires teaching, affirming, and disciplining them in ways that suit them best according to their individual characteristics.

As we noted earlier, for instance, the conviction that the Catholic faith will bring happiness must be instilled in children gradually and in an age-appropriate manner. For little children, who are not capable of understanding the kinds of goods that make for true and lasting happiness, we must use language they can understand—the language of “ice cream happiness.”

Once I went to Disneyland with my brother’s family, and after the day was over, my four-year-old niece exclaimed, “That was fun!” So I thought I would test her. I asked, “Is fun the same thing as happiness?” To which she replied, “I think so.” My niece was not a very good philosopher, though she has improved her reasoning skills greatly since that conversation!

Small children are capable of experiencing a very limited range of goods: sensible pleasures. These are the very least among goods, yet nevertheless, these sensible pleasures serve a very important role in leading children to virtue and authentic happiness. Plato once said that the art of educating the young comprises making the good pleasant and the bad painful. So the way to plant the first seeds that will convince your children that the practice of the Faith will make them happy is by way of positive associations with practice of the Faith. 

Here are some concrete suggestions for this that I have witnessed in various devout Catholic families:

1) Make sure that your children have positive experiences with the reception of the sacraments. In one family I know, the father or the mother would personally be involved in preparing their child to make their first confession. On the day of the first confession, they went to church together and after the confession mom or dad would give the child a big hug and tell him how proud they were. And then they would go out for ice cream, just the two of them, and then come home to celebrate with the rest of the family. A similar routine took place for first communion. For confirmation, since the children were older, the parents took it as a starting point to give greater responsibility and freedom for their child. So at every sacrament, the children felt affirmed and supported by their family.

2) Make prayer time family time. Children love to be together with their family. It gives them a sense of security and identity. If you pray together as a family, not only will you be drawing down God’s blessings upon your entire family, you will also be connecting the practice of your faith and the love of your family in the minds and hearts of your children. There is no better way to do this than by means of a family rosary. Other forms of prayer include psalms or short devotional prayers. Such prayers can even be said during breakfast or after dinner.

3) Bedtime is a special time for children. Think upon your own memories of your parents putting you to bed. Each day at bedtime, you can express to your children how much you love them and how grateful you are to God that he gave you such wonderful children as gifts. Every night there should be a time for warm hugs, blessings by dad and mom, and prayers of thanksgiving with each child.

4) Another way to build positive associations with a strong Catholic identity in your children is to follow the rhythm of Catholic liturgy at home. The kids should know the saints being celebrated each day and should be told about their lives in order to foster devotion. On major feast days, make sure there are special events for the family (perhaps a nice meal, or a fun outing). During the penitential seasons, perform a family penance together. Obviously, these penances should be adapted to the age and ability of the children, but everyone should do something significant, not merely a token. This has the effect of building a strong sense of identity, much as athletes or soldiers who make sacrifices together build a strong sense of togetherness.

5) Daily catechesis is also very important. This is especially important for the father. At some regular time each day, read the Gospels with your children, and read about the saint of the day. And it is better if you do not merely lecture. You should also ask your children questions and reward them for correct answers so they feel involved and take personal responsibility for knowing their faith. The angels who announced the resurrection of Jesus always asked questions of the disciples as a way of leading them to better thoughts.

6) Finally, make sure that the family takes at least one meal together, preferably dinner. This family meal strengthens family identity and a sense of belonging. And, of course, no technology at the dinner table: it is a time for human conversation and interactions, not distractions. Without forcing things, try to direct the conversation at mealtime toward topics related to the practice of the Faith. Let the children ask questions and offer their own opinions. If they make mistakes, don’t simply correct them but listen to them and try to indicate what is true in their position and separate it from what is false.

In all of these practices, it is important to communicate your love and affirmation to your children thorough sensible signs that cause them joy. Affirmation is a particularly important gift every parent must give to children. It is telling them through your actions that it is good that they exist. To communicate this effectively to children, parents must have this conviction within themselves that it is good that their children exist, and they must outwardly signify this by sensible gestures of affection, body language, and words.

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