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Kids Know How to Call Your Bluff

Part of what it means to think 'as a little child,' as Jesus tells us, is to call the bluff on the nuanced adult 'thinking' we use to delude ourselves.

Often, when people ask me about why and how I became Catholic, my thoughts go to my children. To be fair, my oldest was only six when we entered full communion, so I don’t mean to suggest that he and his little siblings actively argued with us for the Faith. But my wife and I did find that the mere existence of our children functioned as a kind of bluff-calling on our religious situation.

We were Episcopalians (Anglicans)—and I was an Episcopal priest—of a very high church “Catholic” flavor. I routinely consulted the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and I took seriously the teachings of the Magisterium. It was typical in our circles for people to describe themselves as “Catholic, just not Roman Catholic.” And that all sounds well and good to a person who can handle a great deal of nuance. But try explaining it to a young child.

To speak with charity about my former fellow Anglicans, it may be possible to explain all this in a way that a child can understand. But increasingly I found myself unable to do so, which was a pretty good indication that I did not really believe it myself. I liked the sound of being “Catholic, not Roman,” but for me, that was a label full of contradiction. The “Catholic” way of doing things in Anglicanism was always simply one option among many (from lefty activism to charismatic fundamentalism). The older my children got, the more this inability to explain our position weighed on me. Eventually I knew that I wanted to be Catholic, full stop.

This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the ability of children to lead us into truth and beauty and goodness. I think that part of what it means to think “as a little child,” as Jesus tells us, is to call the bluff on all the nuanced adult “thinking” that we use to delude ourselves.

  1. Kids notice hypocrisy.

It’s amazing how quickly they notice us saying one thing and doing another. It’s almost as fast as my dog notices that the toddler is having a snack (“Treats on the way! Better get in position!”). So I’ll talk about how we need to stop all the screens as we head into dinner time and bedtime, but then my daughter catches me glancing at my phone—come on, dopamine!—and says “Dad, no screens at bedtime!”

It’s embarrassing, but it’s more than that: it provides a bad example that weakens our moral authority as parents.

This is hard, because on some level, there are different standards. I do watch things and read things that are appropriate for me and my wife but not for my younger children. But I think kids are pretty good at seeing through these distinctions. Maybe what we’re snacking on isn’t the same, but they recognize mindless stress-eating when they see it. Maybe we as parents aren’t bursting into tears the moment somebody looks at us the wrong way, but they still see when we respond to one another or to them out of anger or anxiety rather than patience.

We’re not perfect, but more and more I find that, if I’m lecturing my children on some kind of bad behavior, I almost certainly need a dose of my own medicine.

  1. Kids can see our priorities more clearly than we do.

If you’re reading this, chances are good that you understand how skipping church for soccer practice (or whatever) sets a bad example to our young disciples in the faith. A lot of faithful Christian families understand that, at least in principle. But among Catholics one finds a reductive minimalism regarding the Church: as long as we get to mass somewhere and somehow, all is well, which is to say we’ve fulfilled our Sunday obligation. Maybe we don’t just outright skip Mass to do this thing we want to do, but we do rearrange our schedule entirely—we go to the Saturday vigil mass, or to a different parish, or something along those lines.

In itself, none of this is wrong. We all have occasional things that come up, whether important obligations or opportunities for joy like a family vacation. We should be wary, however, of a kind of sacramental minimalism that fulfills the letter of the law and not the spirit. The point of the Sunday obligation isn’t simply to assist at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. It is to take our place as members of Christ’s ecclesial body in all its rich concrete particulars. Families that flit about from church to church, never settling down in a parochial community, shopping for the perfect mass time or CCD, leave their children with a somewhat magical and individualistic impression of the Faith. Rather than Church being home, in a sense, it becomes just another service provider, not very different from the internet company or pizza delivery.

  1. Kids know how to wonder.

One of the great failures in modern Western catechesis is its strange ability to destroy the imagination of children. The current eucharistic revival in the United States is, on one level, an attempt to address this failure, but it can go only so far. The family is the domestic church and the first place of education (even when the children go outside the home for school). It should be a place for the cultivation of wonder and delight, not just one more place bombarding children with information.

I am not suggesting that memorizing prayers or concepts is a bad thing. (I have a great deal of respect for the “classical” approach that is currently trending among Catholic families and often the newer Catholic schools.) But our task as parents isn’t merely to make our children learn information. It is to form them in the grammar and vocabulary of the tradition, which is narrative as much as a it is conceptual.

Had I the choice, I’d prefer to meet a child who knows the stories of the patriarchs and prophets, who’s familiar with the narrative arc of the Gospels, over a child who can simply recite the Act of Contrition and name the seven sacraments. The former is usually more capable of grasping the faith than the latter because he understands it not just as a set of ideas, but as a living history in which he takes part.

In what way is this a “calling the bluff” moment? Again, it’s a question of depth. If we do all the right things in terms of sacramental obligations but neglect the inner life of the imagination, we risk raising our children with the idea of Church as a list of boxes to check rather than a lifelong adventure. Sometimes, when Catholic parents see their children leave the Faith, it’s because the Faith consisted merely of doing a set of practices (good as those practices are) with no clear context.

  1. Kids know how to pray.

My wife and I have learned a lot from the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd. Its first principle is quite simple: baptized children can pray. The Holy Spirit is not limited in his work simply by a lack of concept and vocabulary. Those things come with time. As parents of small disciples, we need to cultivate that spiritual life of our children which is already given in baptism.

Again, this isn’t to say we should not teach children the Church’s prayers. Everyone needs to learn the Our Father and the Hail Mary. Everyone should learn a good Act of Contrition. At the same time, this is just the start—simply part of our work, and maybe, depending on how old our children are, not even the most important part.

Try asking a child to tell God what he’s thankful for. You may be surprised. I know I am. Now, at times, when my five-year-old son, say, asks to say grace at a meal, he presents us with a litany of thanks and praise that seems to wander on and on with no apparent end in sight. (Sometimes he’ll suddenly decide that he’s done and insert something he knows is slightly irreverent—“Thank you God for poopy diapers!”—before saying a big grinning “amen.”)

My point is not that this is some ideal form of prayer that should be imitated in our formal liturgies (though no doubt certain modern professional liturgists would like to try!). It’s that we often need to resist the temptation to “fix” the prayer of children. We can learn from their sincerity of heart and their gratitude. If I could pray the Divine Office every day with the level of intensity that my children say their prayers, I wonder if those prayers might actually transform me and the world around me.

Every opportunity that parents have to form their children in virtue contains a concomitant opportunity for the parents themselves to be formed. As we help our children grow into authentic human maturity, they remind us that growing up should never mean abandoning who we are. We remain children of our Father.

Jesus tells us that we cannot enter his kingdom without a childlike faith. Children are gifts from the Lord in so many ways, but this is probably the greatest: they are capable of pulling us along with them toward heaven.

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