Growing A Catholic The Old-fashioned Way:
By Trial and Error
How high on a five-year-old child’s list of favorite things do you think
sitting quietly and listening for an hour rates?
Exactly. When you have a short person in the house just beginning to catch
onto the whole concept of Catholicism, you can’t rely on the ceremony of
church to awe them into believing.
At least that’s what we’ve found in our home. By the time Cassie hit her
fifth birthday, we could see that she was starting to catch onto Catholicism.
One clue was when she tried to require all her little party-going
friends--from as-yet-unrevealed religious backgrounds--to pray before we cut
into her "Little Mermaid" birthday cake.
She is quite the little messenger of God (with a little Disney thrown in).
How she came to have this strong foundation of belief is still somewhat of a
pleasant mystery to us. We did immerse Cassie in Christian messages from when
she was very wee.
Some of it probably even helped: Things like giving her a toddler’s Bible
with pictures and easy-to-read stories, and letting that be one of the books
she could get down herself to look at, sleep with, take on car trips,
wrinkle, set up doll beds on, whatever. We thought of that little Bible the
same way we think about religion: Live with it, don’t just pull it off the
shelf once in a while.
If I had to make a list of the things we did right--in that grand old
tradition of parenting by trial and error--I’d pick:
Lest you think my husband and I are naturals at this parenting gig, we also
took a few side roads that I don’t think helped Cassie at all and may have,
in fact, waylaid her a little on her trek into Catholicism.
- Teaching her a short grace to say before dinner. This has become a mixed
blessing, so to speak. Cassie’s philosophy is: If it’s dinner time, it’s
prayer time. No exemptions for other people’s homes or restaurants and no
excuses. No funny prayers, either. Daddy tries sometimes and she is NOT
- Telling Cassie that, even when she’s bad, Jesus loves her.
- Encouraging her to pray for friends and family before bed. This has led to
some of the most heartwarming experiences--the kind that make me feel like my
heart grows about three times its normal size. (Think of the protagonist at
the end of that famous Grinchy tale.) For example, a wonderful friend of mine
had breast cancer. I couldn’t even tell if Cassie understood why she had lost
her hair and how scary her sickness was until one night before bed Cassie
said she wanted to pray for my buddy. Of course, the thrust of Cassie’s
request was that God help my friend grow her hair back!
- Stressing the REAL Christmas and Easter stories. Plus weaving God’s
presence into all types of tale--combination storytelling and subliminal
parental advertising (in only the best sense).
- Taking her to church with us, of course. But also teaching her that she can
talk to God anytime she wants and doesn’t have to go to his house for him to
hear her. I know she took that lesson to heart because one morning I went to
once again into the kitchen to prod my pokey turtle into finishing up her
cereal before school. She jerked her head up quickly, caught in the act of
not eating, and defended herself with: "I was just praying to God!"
- Enlisting the help of grandparents and friends to reinforce our messages.
At one point, Cassie told me that Grandma and Grandpa love Jesus, too.
Somehow this cross-generational buy-in really made the message stick.
For example, I remember trying to make Cassie sit still in church and listen
when she was three years old. Talk about doing penance! Getting in trouble
every Sunday morning didn’t exactly make church Cassie’s favorite place to
Here are a few other boffs (the ones I will admit to):
I guess the good news is that most of what we did right took. Cassie loves
God, Jesus, the Virgin Mary and even knows a lot of "begats" by heart. She
prays, she insists on going to church and her most recent crusade is to teach
her friends about guardian angels.
- Sent her on down to Sunday school when she would have rather stayed with
us. Sunday school is wonderful for keeping the Word simple and weaving
activities and messages together. Most of the time Cassie loves to go with
the other kids. But when she’d rather stay with Mom and Dad at mass, we
should have let her.
- Attempted to explain too much. The world seems so big and complicated when
you’re little anyway. At times we tried to be too exacting in sharing our
theologically sound but toddler-baffling interpretations of famous Bible
stories like Noah’s Ark and Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. I still
remember watching little eyes glaze over as my husband tried to explain
- Made God the great enforcer in the sky. Just think: You’re five years old.
You’re in kindergarten. You have Mom, Dad, teachers, daycare providers,
grandparents, friends, basically anyone who is bigger than you telling you
what to do and what not to do. Do you really need to think His watchful eye
is only waiting to catch you in the act of yet another time-out offense? I
remember invoking the name of the Almighty more than once after we had run
out of our own arguments. The message of His all-encompassing love is so much
more important for kids to learn first.
- Stopped her during dinner grace to correct "Holly Spidit" and "from my
county." We caught on pretty quickly, though, and still love hearing how she
massacres some traditional prayers.
Better yet, we’ve got a second chance. Our second daughter, Jenny, is just
seven months old. Who knows what kind of little missionary of God we’ll make
out of her if we do it all right this time around?
by Gwen Kopetzky
E-mail comments to the author at: firstname.lastname@example.org
This article is © Copyright 1999 by Gwen Kopetzky
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