It is of the utmost importance in the Catholic household that Catholic children have good Catholic friends.
A likely reason for the increasing laxity in the practice of Catholic evangelization, and normal Catholic behavior in general, is the fact that many Catholic children find themselves in schools that are either a mix of religions or only loosely Catholic. You don’t need a study to know that the effect of friends on a child in early life are quite large. You act like the people you hang out with. That is why it is important to be in a good Catholic culture.
The importance of friends
This problem of getting one’s children good Catholic friends will not be solved by giving them no friends. Lack of friends will likely have a bad effect on a child’s natural growth, especially if the child has a weak spiritual life. In short, one should not cut off one’s children from all friends, but rather should seek to protect his children from those bad friends who may cause trouble.
The myth of ecumenism
It is not uncommon that families seeking a good education for their children put those children in an ecumenical “Christian” school such as a classical school. There is a danger here, and it primarily arises from the myth of ecumenism — in other words, the belief that Protestants and Catholics, and the Eastern Orthodox, can get along just fine. While it is true that one can develop good relationships with people outside the Faith, hopefully eventually leading these people to the Faith, it is not preferable to have your best friend be non-Catholic, much less your child’s best friend. That can happen when the people one hangs around with are primarily non-Catholics. The danger here is that when one mixes constantly with other religions, unless he has a strong Faith to start with — and even then, it can be painful — it can tone down his own religion, something no good Catholic wants.1
Added to this is the problem of pressure children may have in an ecumenical environment. An example is participation on secular sports teams, which, especially in the upper grade levels, can include kids who have hardly a concept of decency. If you’re a good Catholic in a Protestant world, you’re an outcast, you feel different, and you’re pressured to change. You see others doing things you’re not supposed to do, and it makes you want to do those things, too. When one gets in the habit of hanging around kids who have no respect for God, or don’t believe what one believes, then it really tones down what he believes. These people seem nice. How could they possibly be heretics?
This is not something you want for your children in early life. The curriculum in some of these schools might be called okay. I myself go to an online “Christian” academy, and I can find some consolation in knowing there are other Catholics in the school. However, while I’m definitely not the most model Catholic, I have been blessed with a good Catholic upbringing. What would have happened to me if I had been put into an ecumenical school at, say, age twelve, presents possibilities that providentially never materialized. And even in the school I’m in now, I still feel that I have to watch myself. Whenever philosophy or religion comes up, it’s a reminder that these people believe different things from what I believe, and I don’t want to undermine my Faith by agreeing with them. This is not to say I don’t enjoy school, but an actual Catholic environment, where I can trust my teachers, would be healthier.
The importance of good Catholic friends and role models cannot be stressed enough. It is important that children spend the majority of their time around good role models, such as orthodox Catholic teachers and or friends. A child spends a lot of time at school, usually around seven hours, so pretty near half or more of a child’s waking hours are spent in whatever environment his school constitutes.
The conclusion I have to make from my own experience and observations is this: it is highly important that a child be exposed to a good Catholic culture. If a child has a wonderful orthodox Catholic family and a wonderful parish with a reverent, beautiful liturgy but spends seven hours a day, five days a week at a school that preaches relativism, Protestantism, or paganism, or hangs out all Saturday2 with the neighborhood leftist children, it can wreak havoc on his life. While the child may survive, it can damage him significantly in proportion to his own mental strengths and weaknesses. The more a child hangs around with a certain type of person, the more like that person they become.
I am no educational expert. I am simple high school student, working from my own observations. However, I think we can all agree that the importance of Catholic friends who care about their faith is important. We should always try to help those in error to the truth, but that is a job best left to well formed adults. Sending a child into such an environment may lead to significant damage to his faith.
1 I am not saying that one single ball game where a child plays head to head against an atheist, is going to turn a child into an atheist. I am simply saying that if a child, especially a young child, spends a lot of time around secular people, he may start to act more secular in proportion to certain factors. This is why it is important to ensure that the majority of a child’s time is spent with good role models in a good Catholic culture, which shows Catholicism for what it is.
2 I have had personal experience with this. While I wasn’t hanging around with radical leftist children, I was hanging around with the local public school kids quite a few days out of the week after their school let out, or on weekends. This led to multiple bad experiences and harm to my spiritual life.