What is the one thing we as parents can do to pass our faith and values to our children?
As a Christian parent, my greatest desire is to share my faith with my two daughters. My wife and I want them to believe what we believe, value what we value. At times we wish there were an opening in the tops of their heads into which we could pour our love for God and all we consider important and sacred in life. No such opening exists. Success in this endeavor is beyond our control. As our children have grown, it has become clear that we cannot make them believe anything, not even what is most dear to us.
All we can do is model a life of faith for them--be the kind of faith- and spirit-filled people we want them to become. There is nothing more that parents can do without damaging their children's spiritual and emotional growth; and producing the opposite effect, rejection of faith and its corollary values.
Modeling faith must take different forms as children progress through their early years and on toward graduation from high school. In this space, let's limit our discussion to the celebration of weekend liturgy. From their earliest years, we rejected the obvious tricks to induce "good behavior" in church--playing with toys, scribbling on the Sunday bulletin. Instead, we provided religious theme coloring books, such as, liturgical scenes and pictures of Mary, Joseph, and other saints. This gave us something to talk about related to what Mom and Dad were doing. From there we graduated to simplified, pictorial Sunday missals, helping them follow the liturgy: "See, this is what the priest is doing now."
We never spoke of "having to go to church," even as our children grew into their elementary and middle school years. Our mantra was, "This is what our family does. It's who we are." We observed teens in other families dropping church attendance, but our girls accepted this family tradition with only an occasional grunt and groan. Even so, their physical presence sometimes left us with doubts about where their minds were, especially during sermons/homilies and quiet times of the liturgy.
Did we take advantage of parish liturgical programs for children and families? We did, carrying candles during the Advent gospel procession and marching with eight-foot fronds on Palm Sunday. Did we encourage participation in youth catechetical, social and liturgical programs? We did, but viewed them only as supportive of our own faith commitment and efforts over the years.
By design, we have not walked this walk alone. We've shared it with others who have modeled the Christian life for our children. Our girls have been known by name to every priest, deacon and lay associate who has served our parish. They count among their good friends our sacristans and many other parishioners, young and old. As a result, our daughters feel valued as part of the parish community. Being real people in the parish has countered the deadening anonymity most young people experience, especially in large urban and suburban parishes. This community element is often missing in any discussion of children's active and willing participation in liturgy.
Our daughters now stand on the brink of adulthood. Have we succeeded in "giving" them our faith? At times we think so. At other times, we seem to have had little impact. Only the future will reveal to what extent they have internalized our Catholic faith and value system.
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Alfred J. Garrotto is Pastoral Associate at Christ the King Church, Pleasant Hill, CA. He is a freelance writer and novelist (A Love Forbidden and Finding Isabella). Hilliard & Harris Publishers will release his third novel, Circles of Stone, in the summer of 2003. Al lives in Martinez, CA with his wife Esther and their daughters Monica and Cristina.
Copyright © 2002 by Alfred J. Garrotto First North American rights granted to Oregon Catholic Press.