on being raised vs. raising kids catholic

Catholic school, as vicious as Roman rule, I got my knuckles bruised by a lady in black. I held my tongue as she told me, son, fear is the heart of love. So I never went back.

“I Will Follow You Into The Dark,” Death Cab for Cutie

Our culture is full of ideas and images of what it means to be raised Catholic. Past-tense.

But a picture of raising kids Catholic today? A hazy blur, at best.

People often look puzzled when I tell them we go to church. Sometimes I get the condescending smile that suggests “well, isn’t that quaint and unenlightened.” Sometimes I get the blank stare that betrays utter ignorance of anyone still darkening a church’s doorstep these days.

And quite often I get a knowing roll of the eyes, followed by, “Well, I was raised Catholic, but…”

Most of my friends don’t go to church. I have more ex-Catholics in my life than practicing church-goers. And they’re in good company: 1 out of 10 Americans is a former Catholic.

So when I search for support in raising my kids Catholic, I sometimes feel like a pioneer wandering in the wilderness, despite the fact that parents have been doing this work for centuries.

My parish, like too many, has few resources for young families. Most of my friends with kids enjoy Sunday mornings at home rather than at church. And even with a degree in theology, I find myself casting about for ideas and inspiration on how to weave faith into the fabric of our family life.

So my question for those of you raising kids in the Catholic Church is: What does it look in your family? How is your life together colored by being Catholic? What difference does it make in your week, your routine, your house or your activities?

In our house, at this season in our lives, it looks like this: Mass on the weekends. Grace before meals. Simple hymns sung along with nursery rhymes. Books about God read with books by Dr. Seuss. Learning prayers as we learn ABCs. Saying I’m sorry for lost tempers. Saying thank you for people we love.

Some days I worry we’re not doing enough. (The boys are little, but still.) Some days I blush that we’re doing too much. (Like last week when my son declared to the babysitter that “you don’t have to be scared of the shadows in your room when you nap because Jesus is always there.”)

But almost every day I find myself wishing I had more ideas and inspiration for how to lead my kids down a path that fewer and fewer people are taking these days. The road feels lonely, and not well-lit.

We all know what it looks like to have been raised Catholic. But what does it mean to do the raising ourselves?

15 thoughts on “on being raised vs. raising kids catholic

  1. Great questions. Our household seems very similar to yours, and I have similar concerns. I hope there will be lots of comments, because I’m looking forward to hearing other suggestions and approaches.

    1. Thanks, Claire. As I thought about this again today, I realized that two new things I’ve recently started trying are: 1) simply talking about God more (“God loves us/made us/takes care of us”) so that I can start to foster a sense of wonder and imagination about God; and 2) asking my son what he wants to thank God for, to empower him as a pray-er. But what I’m struggling with is knowing what’s developmentally appropriate for his age. I have tons of books, websites and resources to tell me where he should be at in all other areas of development, but not spiritually. I’ve had Sofia Cavalletti’s “The Religious Potential of the Child” on my bookshelf for ages – maybe it’s time to crack the cover…

      1. I actually do ask my son about what he wants to thank God for (and I model it for him by thanking God, at prayer time, for the positive things that have happened during the day). But I need to be better at doing this spontaneously throughout the day, both in my personal prayer life and with my son. I also need to be better, on both ends, about asking God for help as challenges arise during the day. I never think of it until after the fact, and I know that my relationship with God would be better if I were more mindful of this, and it would set a better example for my son.

        The thing I struggle with the most is explaining God to my son. Things like the trinity: he’ll ask if Jesus is God, if God is everywhere, etc. Of course I say yes, but I have a hard time explaining why God is a spirit, yet Jesus was a man and is also God, and Jesus went to Heaven to be with God, yet God is everywhere. It’s hard enough for me to understand these paradoxes, let alone explain them to a four year old. We do pray the Rosary together several times/week (except for the sorrowful mysteries, which I think he’s too young for), and this is helping. The downside is that it gets him thinking about death, and there’s a part of me that would prefer to preserve his innocence fora little bit longer. It’s so hard.

    2. Such good questions your son asks, Claire! Children really are natural theologians, wondering aloud about God. There aren’t any simple answers to give him, but talking about them and sharing your own questions with him are great ways to start him on a lifelong path of wrestling with the big questions about God and us.
      I like your idea about openly asking God for help as challenges arise during the day. I think that will be something I need to remember to do as my kids get older, to model for them what it looks like to stop, step back, and seek God’s help in the moments that are the most difficult.

  2. My house sounds much like yours! I have a 3 year old and an almost 11 month old. Now that my son is 3, he is much more interested in learning the faith, so I’ve tried to do a little more- but like you I feel a bit overwhelmed.

    Before bed he used to just pray a prayer that I taught him: “Dear God, Thank you for this day. Thank you for my family and friends. Please help me be a good little boy who listens and follows the rules. Please keep me safe while I sleep. Amen.” Now, we’ve added the Our Father, Hail Mary, and Glory Be (he repeats them after me).

    We read from his children’s bible, say prayers before meals, and talk about God and Jesus throughout the day. We sing songs about God and Jesus and Mary.

    I’ve tried to incorporate some stories and activities about the saints. I started with coloring pages about St. Patrick and St. Joseph. I hope to do more with the saints, too. And we’ve talked about his guardian angel.

    At Mass, he is more receptive to what is going on around him and he will pray with me if I whisper for him to do so while at Mass. I’m thinking about starting to pray the Rosary with him, one decade at a time.

    I’d love to hear other suggestions! When I find myself perusing other blogs, I feel vastly inferior to other Catholic moms out there!

    Also, though I was “raised” Catholic and attended Catholic school K-12, I do not believe I was given a great deal of formation. I feel clueless and I want my children to know that there real, true Catholic education and identity came from home! Big and scary and overwhelming task!

    1. Great examples, Leanne! I’d love to do more around the saints, so you’ve got me thinking. You also made me remember a few ideas we’ve found to be helpful at Mass that I meant to share here…thanks for the inspiration for another post this morning! And yes, after 20 (!!) years of Catholic education (yikes, that’s a lot of tuition bills!), you would think I’d have a ton of easy answers for my questions of how to raise a child of faith, but I struggle all the time.

  3. My oldest is eight and I still feel like I’m figuring this Catholic parenting thing as I go along. Back when he was two, we went to Mass and sometimes read a book together about God. That was about it. My three and one year olds now have the benefit of much more, mostly because I’m able to do more. I think it’s very important to remember that we don’t have to do everything all the time. We have to adjust our expectations and plans to our family’s season. A new baby forces us to slow down and focus on the physical needs alone for a while. Or at least, I do when I have a new baby. I like to add things a little at a time. I have a dream that one day, one day, we will say the Rosary as a family. But that day isn’t today. Every once in a while, I try to start saying a mystery of the Rosary each day with my kids. When it dissolves into tears and chaos, I set it aside. One thing you could add (I think) easily enough is a “formal” prayer time with your little ones. We light a candle at night and sing a litany of our name saints. Then we each say a short prayer or sing a song – whatever they like. Our youngest sings the Hail Mary every single night. Something as easy as “Jesus Loves Me” would be appropriate. Then they take turns (fighting often, sigh) blowing out the candle. My 8 year old and I say a morning offering every morning, but I don’t make the others come to the “prayer area” then.

    I haven’t read Sofia’s book, though I have it. My children go to Catechesis and I’m training to be a teacher. That begins at age 3. Before that, there’s nothing formal. A few other books that might be useful (and, frankly, easier to read if you’re short of time or focus) are “Guiding Your Catholic Preschooler” by Pierce and Rowland and “Parenting in the Pews” by Castleman. Pierce’s book is pretty basic, but it might have some good ideas for your little ones. Castleman isn’t Catholic, but she has some good ideas for bringing the Mass to life (she wouldn’t say Mass, of course) for young children. She still says those under four can be a nursery, though, so you have some adapting to do. You may also find useful ideas, if you like craft type things, in the Catholic Icing ABC book / preschool program. (Just search for her blog.) I haven’t read it, but I have a friend who’s working through it and it certainly has lots of ideas for things to do with preschoolers.

    I can’t help feeling that the most important thing with the littlest ones is to show God’s love for them through our love for them. I don’t think you need to “do” a lot…just love them, read to them, pray to God with them a little and…relax. If we’re so stressed out “doing” religious things with them, they’ll miss the Love…and that’s the basis for their own love of God that will develop over time. Not that there’s anything wrong with doing more, just that it isn’t necessary and it shouldn’t be at the expense of a mama focused on loving her children for who they are where they are.

    Sorry for writing so much!

    1. Thank you, Kansas Mom! I love your idea of adding an evening prayer as a family. We do prayers right before bed (Our Father, Hail Mary, Glory Be, a list of “God bless ___” for all our extended family, and a song). But I think this simple idea of lighting a candle and saying another short prayer together to end the day would be a great addition to our wind-down routine before bed (which lately has digressed into jumping off couches before someone wrestles the monkeys into the bath). And I couldn’t agree with you more that the most important thing we do at this stage – and maybe at every stage – is simply live God’s love for our kids. So much of our early image of God is based on our parents (often a terrifying thought), so I remind myself often that simply trying to show them unconditional love, even when I want to pull my hair out, is laying a foundation for them to understand a God who is infinitely more loving than the best parent could ever be. Thanks for the book recommendations, too!

  4. Great suggestions everyone! L- another phenomenal post. While I don’t have children, I do wonder if I do have kids what my parenting style will look like. How will i functionally integrate my faith into a tangible life for my little ones? Thanks for keeping me in my head and heart! <3

  5. I only have a 5-month old, so can’t comment on what we’re doing, but I have vivid memories of what my parents did. They weren’t raising us Catholic, but much of this still applies.

    Every night my parents came to each of our beds together. We each prayed out loud to thank God for the day and to pray for concerns. Then we’d sing a song (“I am Jesus little lamb”, “Jesus loves me”, etc). During the day as worries came up they’d often ask, “Do you want to pray about it?” and then we’d pray together over the concern. We had lots of books and music around that were Christian. Some of my fond memories: comic book lives of the saints, the Picture Bible, Dad reading us the Narnia stories and talking about them. We went to church on Sunday morning and Wednesday night. We also visited lots of different church denominations, including Catholic. While our home church was Lutheran, it was wonderful to have a sense that the denomination didn’t matter as long as the people in the church were focused on Jesus.

    1. Love your mention of the Narnia stories! It goes along with what I was thinking and writing about yesterday – that all the stories we share with children, not just the overtly religious ones, teach them important truths about the world. A imagination that loves stories is fertile soil for stories about God.
      And I like your description of visiting other churches as a child. I feel strongly about raising my kids to have an ecumenical heart – to know our family’s tradition solildly but to be open to relationship and learning with people of many different denominations and faiths. I’m mentally bookmarking this idea for a few years down the road!

  6. I think about this a lot too! I keep coming back to the fact that I grew up in a nominally Catholic family (they were so until I went to college), and yet I had a very strong desire to follow God as a child. Although that being said, sometimes I worry that as humans we crave what we don’t have and that the opposite will be true for my kids. I must remind myself that God is the one who calls each of us by name, and that He gives us the grace we need to be faithful. We try to pray every day for our kids future vocation, for their future spouse (if they will marry), for their chastity, and for their safety. That pretty much sums up their life, I think?! 🙂

    I do love Catechesis of the Good Shepherd for young children (and old as well), and would highly recommend reading Sofia’s book. I believe the work is truly a work of the Holy Spirit, and is one of the best foundations of faith we can give our young people. Sofia used to describe the work of a catechist as a matchmaker who gets to set up God and the child on a date, but does not have the privilege of going.:) I think our role as parents is very similar. We can plant the seeds of faith and then must trust the Holy Spirit to bring them to full maturation.

    One thing I know that I need to work on is living the words I preach to my kids, especially regarding the virtues of patience, temperance and gentleness. Those are so tough for me (and my kids)! I guess I must trust that God can call my kids despite my bad example. 🙂 I guess this is why forgiveness is so important in a family. It also seems to be merciful of God to give me a close-up look at my own faults and ample opportunities to change them. My kids are my path to holiness as well!
    Thanks for this discussion!

    1. Love the idea of praying for our kids’ vocations – you would think I would have thought of that in the midst of all this work I do! 😉 Sometimes F and I talk about it, in terms of wondering whether they will be single or married or called to the priesthood, and what we can do to provide good role models for them of all those different paths. But I don’t think we every pray about it! Leave it to a godmother to remind us of that importance! 🙂
      What a wonderful description from Sofia of catechesis as matchmaking. God is always present; we just have to show our children how to be open and responsive to that presence.
      And believe me, I think your parenting style is much like mine…in that I provide plenty of (daily) opportunities to teach my children what it means to ask for forgiveness. Sigh…you at least bring a wonderful perspective of it being merciful (and not a cruel joke!) of God to give you the chance to work on what you struggle with. I’ve never thought of it that way.

  7. A topic near and dear to my heart! I had many of the same worries when my children were young, and now that they’re nearly grown, I have some perspective on what “worked.” Our oldest is 20, away at college, and attends church even! (though the new missal troubles him, he loves the liturgy). I recommend Gertrud Mueller Nelson’s To Dance with God as a resource for living the liturgical year in the home. That book was hugely influential for us; it helped connect daily life and church life. Regular Sunday mass was significant too, and as the kids got older, we made sure they got involved in some ministry — from running the sound board for the choir to passing collection baskets to singing in the choir to helping with children’s liturgy of the word, as well as service activities too. Our parish does not have a school, so all kids are on equal footing. The adults our kids encountered through their ministry activities have been friends and mentors. The most important thing, though, has been participating in the Triduum, including the Easter Vigil, from a young age. Our youngest, now 16, has attended since he was 6 (back then we brought a blanket and snacks). The power of that ritual captures the essence of the faith in a way that is beyond words or explanation. It’s a major family tradition for us now. Looking back, I needn’t have worried so much about doing it “right.” If parents are committed to their faith life and invite their children’s participation, it gets conveyed.

    1. Thanks for the book recommendation, Peg! I will have to check that out. Love the description of your children’s involvement in the parish – such a hand-on way to grow into maturity in a community. And the description of your little one curled up in the pew for the Triduum gives me goosebumps. A few years down the road and I pray we can do that, too…powerful liturgies indeed. I remember going to Easter Vigil with my dad as a little girl and I thought the opening of the Mass in darkness as we clutched our candles was The Coolest Thing Ever. (I still do!)

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