I began a one-woman abortion clinic protest in 2006 in Germantown, MD, but I wasn’t alone. I had four children at the time, ages 3, 5, 7, and 9, and they came along, too. Every Friday morning we stood at the clinic’s parking lot entrance praying the Rosary and holding a few signs offering women help. Naturally my kids had some questions. Why are we here? What were you talking to that lady about? Why did that man point at us that way? (He was flipping us the bird.) Kids’ questions deserve answers, and it’s not always easy coming up with something appropriate. But the alternative – sheltering them from every situation that might result in a difficult question – is neither desirable nor, these days, possible.
Of course, since Obergefell it’s not abortion that’s going to bring up the hardest questions. Our entire society is being compelled to assent to the normalization of same sex attraction (SSA) – and children aren’t exempt. Whether you’re at the grocery store, a family reunion, or a baseball game, your family will be confronted with this issue. And since “Thou Shalt Celebrate the Rainbow” has become the 11th commandment, no one is going to avoid the topic in deference to the presence of your kids.
Even when the topic is being discussed by people who understand the truth, for instance in a priest’s homily, your kids are going to hear things that need explaining. This very scenario is what led me to address overtly the topic of SSA with some of my children when they still seemed rather young. One Friday we were at daily Mass when Fr. Marcel Guarnizo preached about it; this was a few months before he became a hero in the fight for the truth about SSA. So after Mass I sat the older kids down and helped them understand what they’d heard. Whether I was “ready” to address the issue with them or not, I couldn’t wait any longer.
Teaching children about what marriage truly is will be the first step in preparing them for fighting the defining battle of our age when they are adults. As soon as a child is capable of the simplest kinds of understanding and memory, we parents should begin communicating the truth and beauty of true marriage. In addition, we must be prepared to answer the questions that will arise as a result of our culture’s utter confusion.
Only a parent knows when her child is ready to hear difficult truths and the best way to phrase delicate information for her child (reason #2,851 not to put your children in government schools). So what I’d like to offer are general principles that may help you figure out what’s best in your home. This is all predicated of course on 1.) Living a sacramental, mortified, and prayerful life as a family, and 2.) Carefully monitoring what your children read and watch. If their second grade teacher is reading Heather Has Two Mommies at storytime, all bets are off (reason #2,852…).
I’m focusing here on children age 12 and younger. After that age you are dealing with teens who should be well-formed enough to have direct, intelligent conversations. I know! It’s a refreshing break from the Internet.
1. Kids should be hearing the truth about marriage from toddlerhood onward – that marriage is lifelong and life-giving. It should be an underlying assumption of every conversation you have in your family touching on marriage that children are its natural fruit. Just because our culture has forgotten that married love results in – wait for it – CHILDREN (in fact, because it’s been forgotten) don’t let it go unsaid in your family.
Parents are rightly hesitant to come too close to the topic of sexuality with their young children. But when we present truth to them in a developmentally appropriate way, we are inoculating them against the untruths the culture will be spewing at them every chance it gets. In the early years “God makes the baby in the mommy’s belly” is a start. I move from there to “Mommy and Daddy love each other in a special way, and then God can make a baby,” and a little later, “When the mommy and daddy come together in a special loving way, God can make a baby.” Developing your child’s understanding of marital love is an important aspect of teaching them about true marriage.
2. Children should hear about the beauty of marriage. Even toddlers can learn about the creation of the world and Adam and Eve. We all tend to get focused on the Fall (my 3-year-old calls the creation story “the one with the snake!”). So make sure you spend time too on the beauty of how God created our first parents. If you’re a little fuzzy on just how glorious they were before the Fall, read/re-read Paradise Lost.
Praise the healthy, lifelong marriages that are part of your family’s life; celebrate new marriages faithfully undertaken. In our home we make a point of looking at our wedding pictures and celebrating our “family founding” on our wedding anniversary. Make a family tree and talk about your ancestors, showing how marriage after marriage has at long last brought into being the family that is the child’s home.
3. Answer children’s questions as they arise, remembering that quiet children often do not voice their questions. “Why are those two men holding hands?” Be sure that what you say is true. “I guess they’re good friends” doesn’t do anyone any favors. “You know that God made marriage so that a grownup boy and a grownup girl can promise to love each other for life, and have children. But some people are confused about that. They believe that a man can marry a man. They can’t though, because for God to make children there must be a mommy and a daddy, right?” The emphasis here is on what marriage really is.
So, Uncle Ronny and his same sex partner adopt a child. What now? Since the innocent victims in this societal mess are children, empathy may help your child understand what’s wrong with this scenario. My 6-year-old adores Mommy but that doesn’t mean she’d like two mommies and no Daddy. “One way God takes care of children is by giving them a mom and a dad. He made sure Jesus had both a mom and a dad when he came to Earth, even though his true Father was in heaven, right? God knows what’s best for us. But sometimes people don’t listen to God – in small ways, like when we’re a sore loser at a board game, and in big ways. Uncle Ronny has decided to ignore God’s plan for marriage. He thinks he can be married, so he thinks he can be a daddy too. But that little girl won’t have a mommy now and that’s sad. I pray for uncle Ronny every day and you can too, and you can pray for the little girl.”
4. Teach chastity. How do you do this with a 4-year-old? Let me count the ways! Since chastity is intricately linked to both authentic love and self-reign, teach and discipline toward those two virtues. Daily life is full of opportunities for this. And it’s full of opportunities for modeling it. The next time you hold your tongue after stepping barefoot on tiny legos, pat yourself on the back for giving an example of self-discipline.
5. As children enter puberty we’re presented with a great opportunity to develop an understanding of the nuptial meaning of the body. Some parents use secular resources to help address “your changing body” issues, but these reduce the mystery of sexuality to its mechanics, even when written in a way that seems “tasteful” or inoffensive to Catholics. What you communicate to your 11-year-old about her changing body should always be intimately linked to God’s plan for her vocation and the gift that the body is in vocation.
Most parents will admit that at the bottom of much of their familial anxiety lurks the fear that their children will fall away from the Faith. We recognize that the culture is fighting for their very souls. But we have 18 years to train them up, sharing the doctrine, the prayer, and the morality of Catholicism. Yes, we’re going to be confronted with things we wish we didn’t have to explain. Who wants to talk about abortion, divorce, or same sex “marriage” to a child? But be thankful for those times when life throws them in your face – they can be a means for raising up saints in a pagan land.