For the Catholic parent, there is no more important task than communicating our faith to our children. That doesn't just mean teaching our kids Catholic prayers and rituals. It means teaching them how to have a meaningful and personal relationship with God. How to think and act morally. How to love rightly and intimately. How to celebrate and live life as the gift that it is meant to be. And, ultimately, how to be saints — living witnesses to a life of grace.
As critical as this mission is, it's understandable that many parents feel overwhelmed about the undertaking. Fortunately recent studies examining how faith is transmitted through family life is taking some of the mystery out of the process. Answer the following questions to see how effectively you are sharing the faith in your home.
1. Do your children experience your faith as the source of your warm, family relationships?
The Christian life is a call to deeper relationship with God and others. It shouldn't come as a surprise, then, that children are much more likely to "own" their faith when they experience it as the source of the warmth of their family relationships. When children of faithful parents experience no difference in the quality of the relationships in their homes relative to the quality of the relationships in their non-Catholic or non-believing friends' homes, they come to see faith as either a hobby they can take or leave or, worse, as a fraud. This is especially true when faith is experienced as a collection of restrictions and rules instead of the source of the family's sense of joy and togetherness. To this end, children raised by faithful parents who adopt an authoritative parenting style marked by clear expectations and loving-guidance approaches to discipline are much more likely to raise faithful kids than are parents who adopt authoritarian (heavy-handed) or permissive (hands-off) parenting styles.
2. Is your children's father taking the lead in faith formation practices and discussions?
Dad's active involvement is critical for effective faith transmission. For instance, one study showed that when fathers faithfully went to church despite being married to an unchurched woman, 44 percent of their children became regular churchgoers as adults, but when mothers faithfully went to church despite being married to an unchurched man, only 2 percent of their children grew up to be faithful church attendees. Dads must take the lead in the spiritual formation of their children if parents want the faith to stick.
3. Are you actively helping your children develop a personally meaningful prayer life?
One recent study by CARA found that only about a quarter of Catholic families pray together. That's bad news because faith isn't just caught. It also needs to be taught. It isn't enough for children to watch their parents pray or to be passive participants in activities (like Mass) that their parents make them attend. Parents need to teach their children how to have a personal prayer life that children experience as relevant and emotionally engaging. This means more than teaching children to "say" their prayers. It means discipling children into an authentic relationship with God. Parents can do this through regular family prayer, having regular conversations about answered prayers and the role God plays in their lives as a family, and by coaching their children how to pray on their own in meaningful ways.
4. Do you have positive, close relationships with other healthy, faithful families?
Children are more likely to "own" their faith as adults when they see other families — whose relationships they respect and admire — living out the faith as well. Kids need to see that the faith is relevant in other places besides their own homes. This is especially true for divorced families, single-parent families, or families where the father is less active in the faith formation of his children. Parents who socialize with other families whose faith is impacting their home-life in positive ways present an important witness to children that their faith really is a source of objectively good guidance for what it takes to have healthy relationships and a satisfying, meaningful life.
5. Do your kids have close relationships with faithful peers?
Children are also more likely to own their faith when they have the opportunity to develop friendships with faithful peers. It can be important to see how young people their own age are living out the faith and using the faith as both a guide for life and a method of coping with the trials of life. Parents do well to create opportunities for their children to relate to other faithful children by enrolling them in Catholic schools and encouraging their involvement in faithful children's ministries and youth groups.
How did you do? Contrary to what many contemporary parents have been led to believe, it is absolutely possible to raise kids who care deeply about their relationship with God and his Church. But it takes more than catechesis. It requires ongoing spiritual formation in a home that views faith as a call to deeper intimacy and a meaningful life.
Dr. Greg Popcak and his wife, Lisa, are speakers at the 2015 World Meeting of Families. To learn more about their books and telephone counseling practice, visit www.CatholicCounselors.com.