The Greatest Gifts We Can Give Our Teens
We all love a good checklist, don’t we?
“Five things you must do this fall!”
“Ten ways to tell your kids you love them!”
“Three things every parent must do!”
Where, pray tell, is the checklist for how to raise young adults who love Jesus and never stray from their faith?
I’d argue that we’ve put the emphasis on the wrong thing. We’re so focused on the end, the successful completion of faith formation, that we’ve forgotten to prioritize the journey. And not only that, but we’ve forgotten that change happens through encounter.
As I listen to younger moms fret over the contents of an Easter basket, the ways in which they celebrate the Advent season or how to live liturgically (all good things!), I want to hug them long and hard and then whisper this: focus on the journey and the relationship with Christ, and less on the little stuff.
The little stuff is good, holy even. It can add joy and love to a particular season and in many ways, it gives us purpose as new moms. Let us not forget, though, that as parents we only build the foundation for our children. They must build the house.
Social media has fed us the lie that if we “do all the things” we can insulate our family and our children from the big scary thing called free will. Conversely, if we somehow forget to do all the things, send them to the wrong summer camp, educate them in public schools or feed them non-organic food, then our children are destined to make mistakes.
Please Jesus, let them make mistakes, I want to yell. By “helicoptering” faith formation and mowing down all obstacles, we are preventing our children from the (often painful) experience of growing up and owning their own faith. The two greatest things we can give our children is the space to fail and a community to love them through it.
During a particularly excruciating season of motherhood in which one of our children was making every bad choice, I found myself on my knees in my closet, crying out to God to fix the damn thing. I called a wise friend, a few years down the road in mothering experience. She listened to me lament and cry and wonder if I was cut out for this motherhood gig. “Surely,” I told her, “I missed teaching a lesson somewhere along the way.”
She sighed gently and whispered, “Every family has a prodigal, Kathryn. Keep loving your kid.” She also reminded me that I was doing parenthood, imperfectly but with great love. We sometimes focus on the perfection part, instead of the love part. In scripture, Jesus tells us that faith, hope, and love are the foundation, but that the greatest is love. Praise the Lord he didn’t add perfection to that list.
That experienced mom’s words and encouragement gave me a glimpse into how Jesus must’ve felt as he stood atop the Mount of Olives, looking out and weeping over Jerusalem. If only our love could immediately fix the things, right? But it’s our uncompromising, never-ending, faithful love that changes the world. Ask Mary, Saint Monica, Saint Joan of Arc, or Servant of God Thea Bowman about fierce love and what it can do.1 Do not give up hope, mamas.
I have often been inspired by the book Breakthrough by Fr. Rob Galea, a Maltese priest now living and ministering in Australia.2 During his teen years, he found himself in a dark place, addicted to drugs, and running from a dangerous situation. As he wept in his room and feared for his life, his mother (unbeknownst to him) was on her knees praying just outside his door.
The words of my wise friend and the example of Fr. Rob’s own mother have given me clarity and purpose as we prepare for our young adult children to find their way in the world. We need not be perfect, only faithful. While their free will is clearly out of my control, I can do two things: love and keep building the foundation.
How do we build a foundation? Years and years of loving our children. We keep them close to the sacraments so they may always know Christ is a safe space. We pray for holy friend groups so that their influences outside of our home direct them toward Jesus. We invite them into uncomfortable discussions at our kitchen table (poverty, immigration, politics, scandal in the church) so we can understand what they’re wrestling with, help them see the world from a church view, and then be inspired to act. We let the action dictate the consequence when they make them. We apologize when we get it wrong because it’s important for our kids to see that even in our 40s, we are still making mistakes and working to repair them. We invite them to things like retreats and youth group Six Flags trips and Vacation Bible School, because joyful Christianity is a real thing. We encourage them to walk into spaces where they are the only Christian, and be comfortable, because we are called to make friends, be friends, and bring friends to Christ.
Our job as parents isn’t to create perfect Christians. It’s to show them that when they fall and make mistakes, our Father is merciful, and nothing can separate them from His love. Or yours.
- Mary (Mother of Jesus), Saint Monica, Saint Joan of Arc, and Servant of God Thea Bowman
- Breakthrough: A Journey from Desperation to Hope by Fr Rob Galea
Kathryn Whitaker is the author of Live Big, Love Bigger, an award-winning book about living an intentional, hell yes, kind of life. She’s a sixth-generation Texan who was raised as an evangelical Protestant and then converted to Catholicism on the eve of her wedding. On social media and her blog, Kathryn shares her honest take on family life and living the Gospel, all while drinking Dr Pepper and cheering on the Texas Aggies. She has appeared in USA Today, EWTN, radio and TV stations around the country and is a frequent guest/sometimes host on The Catholic Channel on SiriusXM. Kathryn and her husband, Scott, live with their six children in Austin, Texas.
This week’s sponsor of Mothering Spirit is Be A Heart Design, a modern Christian lifestyle brand that creates beautiful products to help both adults and children grow in faith. Be sure to check out their fun new punch needle kits and beautiful new book Living the Seasons releasing this fall!