Let the Children Come to Me

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.

By

Elizabeth Hanna is a third year philosophy student at the University of Georgia.

  • “good kid”

    Keep up the great writing Elizabeth! My experience with ccd as a “student” and as an instructor have lead me to similar conclusions as yours. In addition to it’s watered down curriculum boring the “bad kids”, I remember being disappointed by seeing the teachers not find Catholicism as fascinating as the “good kids” and I did. I love this article. I wish we could do away with most of our current fill-in-the-blank workbooks. Meanwhile kids going into high school have never heard of the Catechism.

  • Jennifer J in MN

    So, how do we do this? Our cluster of parishes is struggling to answer this question. HOW. We want families to understand their faith, to live their faith, to pass on their faith, but for the vast majority, it’s not happening. How do you effectivly pass on the faith. It’s not enough to say that CCD is not good and that parents should be answering questions. We need concrete ways to solve this problem. How.

  • Owen Sweeney

    We have found this to be the answer: http://www.montessori-mcci.org/

  • Thank you for this. My 10 year old will often say, “Thank God, “. In the past few days we have told him to say, “Thank goodness,” out of fear he was being blasphemous. He told us that God is better than goodness, God is the ultimate goodness, and God should be thanked for all things. I guess that home-school catechism is paying off. We will never discount his statments again.

  • Tom

    Very good, thank you. From what I can see, part of the problem is also that as lay adults we stop growing, and stop asking how to apply our Faith, yet there is 2000 years of thought, often very profound. At times I wished there was continuous adult religious education that was meaty. This is not readily available. The only things out there is later 20th century shallow material, written by some “new movement” cult of personality “gurus,” designed to keep potential lay paying members in line, with titles like “THE Way”.

  • maura

    I learned this lesson the hard way, as I imagine many parents did. Despite praying at home and taking our children to church on Sunday and in between, my four oldest children all “lost” their faith as they went away to school. With my younger children, I am trying hard to make God a part of their lives. I love the idea above of being open to any and all questions. I also think that the simple pious practices that St. Therese was taught by her mother and sisters, such as making numerous small offerings through the day to please Jesus taught her about the love of God from an early age, and in a way that was appropriate for a child. My own mother used to correct us every time we said, “I’m lucky,” telling us instead to say “God is good.”

  • This is a great article re-identifying the problem within our current Church. The tide is changing, and many young adults get it now, and are parenting in the manner necessary.
    @ Jennifer J: I don’t have the full answers, but have found some things that work. I am a late-40’s catechist with both young adult and little children. I have fascilitated in the Catechesis of th Good Shepherd (Atrium) program for years. While it seemingly was the answer at first in the mid 90’s and was largely responsible for my own reversion, it is not the complete answer. What Atrium does foster is a relationship with God at a very early age. Children are first relational and grow later to be intellectual. The Atrium is best served at age appropriate levels to be complemented with a strong intellectual study of Theology in the middle and teen years. At this time, they thirst for hard core Truth. But the most powerful tools I believe to raise your children in the faith today is continuous discussion of the faith (as the author points out), daily mass attendance and confession as often as possible and consistent, repetitive visits to Adoration, where you can encourage your children to journal to Jesus in His presence. For the younger ones, this may be 5-10 minutes, increased as they get older. It fosters and continues the relationship with Jesus. A daily family (even a decade of the ) rosary brings much grace.
    This all must come from parents who take their own
    failth seriously, again as the author aptly points out. Parents who wish to pass the faith on minimally, solely through other means other than in the home, will give a mixed message, and the culture will win out in their older youth. Thank you for a great post!!

  • Deborah

    The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd is a Montessori based spiritual formation programbegun in Rome over 50 years ago. There are no workbooks, and no fill in the blanks. Children discover the truth by using Montessori type materials. The Bible, its parables, its narratives, the sacraments, are all used to help the child develop his religious potential.
    The CGS is now in 39 countries, and has been adopted by Mother Theresa’s Sisters of Charity for their spiritual formation, and for them to use as they teach.
    Go to CGS-usa.org to learn more. Training courses are available in most states and many countries.

  • My junior and senior years of college, I taught high school religious education at the local parish. There was a textbook series that focused on different topics, and they let me pick which ones to use. The first year I did the book on the Creed and the second year I did the Morality book. I wish I remembered the name of the series!

    There were all kinds of kids in there – ones who were interested, ones whose parents made them come, and ones who were there to see their girlfriend or boyfriend. I’m sure they don’t remember much that I taught them, but when they had questions, we always referred to the catechism. You can talk about the Immaculate Conception or mortal sin, and they’ll forget it, but if you can pound “check the catechism” into them, you’ve had a good impact.

  • addison

    “Let the Children Come to Me”. I believe what was followed was: “the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these”. Yet, again in a like manner: “unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven”. Baptism by a means other than believer’s baptism? Whatever. Infant baptism? Psss.

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