I remember seriously questioning the existence of God when I was eleven years old. I don’t think I was that unusual; like most children, I wondered about things, and God seemed to be the biggest thing I could wonder about. Unfortunately, very few adults besides my parents engaged me about the Faith — and if they did, it was in a simplistic, cutesy sort of way. This is understandable, as we often see children as happier, simpler versions of ourselves who don’t require in-depth spiritual attention. After all, God uses their innocence as the paradigm of closeness to Him, so what more can we offer?
But a child’s fragile innocence is precisely the reason he needs more spiritual attention, not less. If we cast aside children’s questions as silly or immature, we run the risk of breaking that innocence. When they ask about God, it shouldn’t be seen as something quaint or endearing; it’s a serious matter that should be taken seriously.
As a community, we are failing to properly teach our children about God. Parents have the most influence over their children’s soul, but too many don’t devote the necessary time or energy to theological discussions with their kids, young or old.
To fill that gap, we turn to CCD, vacation Bible school, and countless other instructors outside the home. Unfortunately, while created in good faith, these programs often aren’t doing the trick: I have taught some of these classes, and observed others teaching them, and I watched as the kids quickly tuned us all out. Many children find their “religious education” classes a joke. These aren’t bad kids, and yet you see in their eyes that, somewhere along the way, God became boring. But children don’t find God boring when they first discover him — and, if presented correctly, none need ever find Him so.
So what’s the problem? We think children find theology dull and difficult because deep down we think it is dull and difficult. That’s why we give children a watered-down curriculum that reduces the richness of Catholicism to coloring books and word searches. CCD teachers spend the hour trying to get students to focus long enough to fill out workbook pages or answer questions that insult their intelligence. Thus, to them, God may become less believable than Santa Claus — and perhaps less worthy of belief.
Patronizing children is not the answer. Even when they question God, they question because they know that the subject is serious, and they care about it. We shouldn’t be afraid to talk openly about God with them, for they encounter Him constantly, perhaps more than we do.
If we are concerned that exposing the realities and complexities of Catholicism to a child will cause him to question it, we shouldn’t be, for honest questioning must inevitably lead to answers. Besides, he’s probably already done some questioning anyway. And if we’re worried that he won’t value God above all else, then we must not truly value Him highly, either. For if what we are offering is the Truth, the only reasons for not accepting it are misunderstanding (often through the misrepresentation of a teacher) or stubbornness on the part of the student.
Whom can we trust with our children more than God? So why are nine year olds not receiving the Truth in its entirety? Maybe we’ll need to simplify some of the vocabulary, but God isn’t a topic restricted to adults.
The only successful CCD class I ever taught was one in which I threw out the curriculum for a day and told the kids to ask me whatever they wanted to know about God. Every child was interested, even the “bad kids” (who ended up having the most interesting questions anyway). We don’t need to be afraid that we won’t have every answer, so long as we’re honest enough not to pretend that we do. If we lie or take the easy way out, kids will see our deception and question the rest of what we say.
When I doubted God for the first time, I went to my dad for answers. He drew a diagram of Pascal’s wager and gave me the Summa Theologica to read. I was no genius, but it made sense to me, because God makes sense — perhaps even more so to the child. My father didn’t brush aside my question with an “Oh honey, don’t worry; God exists.” He took me seriously, and so I in turn took God seriously.
Jesus said, “Let the children come to me.” That’s a serious command, and one that is not fulfilled with coloring books.