Something that’s been brought front and center within the last year is a real need to nurture life of the domestic church within our homes. We can’t control what our Church leadership does, but we can control the decision to bring Christ into our home life.
Despite the importance of this, family prayer with little ones can be extremely difficult. They aren’t capable of much focus yet, and some days they’re just having a bad day and nothing is going to happen how it’s meant to. It’s a good thing to want to pray the Rosary every night as a family, but it can be hard to remember why you’re doing this when chaos reigns every time you try.
Not only is this process difficult because of the nature of small children, but the stakes are high in how we go about introducing Christ to our children. I attended college with many people from “good Catholic families” who grew up praying the Rosary every night, homeschooled, and used orthodox curricula who are now agnostic or atheist. Almost all of them had bitter memories associated with the practice of their faith; rather than occasions of grace or family togetherness, these times were occasions of tedium, humiliation, or fear. Devotion was forced rather than encouraged, and as a consequence the foundations of their faith were eroded rather than strengthened.
In order to be able to pass on the faith to our children, we need to be able to base our transmission of the faith on love and affection rather than mere behavioral expectation. This doesn’t mean that we can’t expect a reasonable standard of behavior, but it does mean that we need to be realistic for what these standards ought to be and we need to choose devotions and traditions based on what our children are able to receive rather than on a preconceived picture of what holy family life looks like.
Here are six ways my family has chosen to go about presenting the riches of the Church in a way that our children can receive while still preserving their integrity.
- Keep in mind that Church teaching, rather than individual custom, is what most matters.
In the words of Mary Reed Newland, a writer and home liturgist who wrote in the 1950s, “It is not the customs that are universal, but the liturgy.”
So long as the traditions in your home reflect the liturgical life of the Church as a whole, the individual customs you adopt are up to you. If, for example, your children are so rowdy or uncoordinated that lit candles on an Advent wreath carry a significant risk of property damage or a trip to the ER, perhaps make a paper wreath together on a poster. You’d still be observing a devotion that reflects the larger life of the Church, even though the custom you use to do so would be different.
- It’s ok to only do part of a longer prayer or devotion.
To use an example from earlier, it may be that the entire 20 minutes of praying the Rosary is too much. There may be a season or two where the most you can handle peacefully and productively is a single decade a night. This is ok. You’re still introducing the Rosary to your children.
We’re actually in a season where we’re having to do this. We’ve found that doing a single decade a night, making up an entire rosary over the course of five days, has given us time to talk about each individual mystery with our children. As a result, their understanding of each mystery has grown, and they often want to talk about the “story” of each one as part of our prayer time. We’re not doing as much, but what we are doing is going deeper.
- Engage your children’s senses. Making things tactile will help them remember what you’re trying to teach and draw connections later.
The Catholic philosopher Joseph Pieper argued that experiential knowledge of a thing teaches far more than pedantic lecturing or mere “book” knowledge. I’ve found this to be abundantly true in the education of my own children.
The things they remember are the things that engaged their senses in some way and that they’ve enjoyed. We’ve read illustrated books as part of our prayers, done simple crafts, and told stories. Adding candles or recordings of sacred music to prayer time has also helped.
A quick note- if money is tight, this need not hold you back. I’ve been pleasantly surprised to find that many beautiful books on holy people and things have been available at local public libraries (it helps to have a list of authors to search for). YouTube has several high quality recordings of Gregorian chant and common daily prayers. Dollar stores carry craft supplies, and you can do amazing things with cereal boxes and egg cartons. There’s no need to purchase materials or curriculums specifically made for this in order to do it well.
- Be detached from your plans.
If only part of your activity or devotion worked out, that’s ok. If none of it worked out, that’s ok too. The important thing is to enter into it with a spirit of affection for your children and to value (and be willing to adapt) the journey of learning about God together. If it’s impossible for your family to do an activity while maintaining affection, or without you turning into a frustrated mess, it’s better not to do it at all. Better even than that is to be willing to do it imperfectly, changing or letting go of what doesn’t work and finding something that does.
Family life is our primary vocation, and sometimes responding to it is what’s needed. Your children can’t learn if they’re sick or if there’s some other crisis going on. Focus on the day’s calling, even if it’s not what you thought it would be.
- Don’t be afraid of difficult questions or struggles with sin.
Another trait my atheist or agnostic friends have is that their questions or struggles weren’t properly addressed. I heard stories of sincere questions being met with dinner being poured down the sink by a frustrated mother unable to answer them, struggles with sexuality being repressed instead of addressed and grappled with, and perceived pressure to make parents and the community believe that they didn’t have any questions or struggles at all, even if they did.
Part of living in a fallen world is that our children are going to come into contact with arguments and have struggles that can seem to come totally out of left field, even if you’ve done your best to form them in the faith and protect them up to this point.
If they come up with a question or an argument that you can’t answer, it’s ok to tell them so. Model how to research and find an answer for it. Similarly, if your children encounter a struggle that you weren’t expecting, particularly one dealing with chastity, being able to enable them to fight the battle is important. You can acknowledge the severity of it without resorting to shame or sweeping it under the rug. Your children need to know that you love them no matter what, and that you’ll walk alongside them in this rather than reject them. It is possible to do this without enabling immorality, and it’s breathtakingly important.
Even if your children are still young, thinking about how to respond to these situations ahead of time with love is probably a good idea.
(It’s beyond the scope of this piece to go into how to do this, but other orthodox authors have. Matt Fradd’s writing is a good place to start).
- Remember that your job is to introduce your children to God, so that they can form a relationship with Him.
At the end of the day, our children are going to have to choose whether or not they want to have a relationship with Christ. Our job is not to force this relationship to happen, but to provide opportunities for our children to form it on their own. It’s having a relationship with God that will enable faith to endure tribulation, not adherence to a moral system for its own sake.
We’re blessed with a firm foundation of tradition that helps us to do this, but we must remember that the Person these traditions point to is the ultimate goal. Love motivates far better than duty, and introducing our children to Love Himself through modeling love ought to be our most important goal.
Your family is unique, created by God to live and love Him in this particular place and time. If done correctly, your domestic Church, how you as a family love and honor God, will be unique as well.
Emily Hess studied philosophy at a small Catholic liberal arts college and has been published at Catholic Lane, CatholicMom.com, and FemCatholic. A survivor of abuse in the Church, she is motivated to pass on the heart of the true faith to her children, and help others to do the same.