“Declan had his whole class praying for Colleen,” says their mother, Amy. “He asked me if God always grants what you pray for. We had a discussion about how, during difficult times in our lives, we may have something important to learn. I explained that when we pray but don’t get what we want, it doesn’t mean God isn’t listening; it may instead mean that God is holding our hand during this time of difficulty while we learn something important.”
Just as children learn facts about nutrition from health class but develop eating habits in the home, so too do children learn about and develop their faith. While kids can learn about Catholicism, the Bible, and prayer in religious education classes or Catholic schools, for most children true faith development begins in the home.
Many parents are surprised to hear that they are the first teachers of the faith for their children, and some don’t really believe it—thinking that the “experts” (priests or Sunday school teachers) can do it better.
But in fact, our belief that parents are their child’s first and best teachers of the faith is so central that it’s part of the baptismal ceremony.
“Parents are absolutely the first teachers,” says Franciscan Father Mike Bertram. “We are all products of our upbringing. Whatever happens in my home is what I think of as normal. When children grow up praying before meals, praying before bed, going to Mass—that is what is normal to them.”
Bertram says that parents who have taken a break from their faith should not feel reluctant to return to it when they have children. “Children are an opportunity to venture more into your own faith as an adult. Sometimes a parent will say to me, ‘I haven’t been a good Catholic; I’ve been away.’ But that’s not important. What is important is that the child and the parent can learn about faith together.”
To return to the nutrition example, just as we do not teach kids eating habits only on Thursdays at 4 p.m., faith development cannot be compartmentalized. As Amy discovered, the most teachable moments may come in the midst of a crisis, when everyone’s faith—including yours—is being challenged.
Maria, mother of three children ages 7 to 13, says that her father’s recent death from Alzheimer’s disease brought on questions from her children about life after death.
“One of my kids was in worried desperation that there may be no heaven,” Maria says. “We had lots of questions of, ‘Where has he gone? Where do we go?’ This pushed me directly to the question of faith and being present and thoughtful to feel someone’s spirit around us. When I suggested praying and quietly thinking about God and Grandpa, each of my kids has said that they have felt his spiritual presence.”
Maria says that being able to talk about such an intense subject was the result of a more general approach to parenting that includes discussion of faith and God during regular, non-crisis times.
“I feel like passing on my faith is a daily chore—not in the bad sense of the word. Just in terms of being part of the daily routine,” she says. “I believe encouraging spirituality—being quiet, present, and thoughtful—is just as important as specific religious teachings. In fact, I think it works best when the two go hand in hand.”
—by Annemarie Scobey from the pages of At Home with Our Faith, Claretian Publications’ print newsletter for parents on nurturing spirituality in the home. Winner of the 2012 Best in Class award from the Associated Church Press, as well as a First Place General Excellence award from the Catholic Press Association for the past three years running. Here’s a sample issue.
We offer very low rates for parish use, as well as our free Moms’ Night Out monthly discussion guides.
And don’t miss our popular single-page parish handouts on handing on the faith, helping kids understand the Mass, Lent, and Advent.