The Problem Of Teaching A Child The Faith


It’s got to be tough to be the kid who has two musical parents who are extremely involved in their church. He has a set of gifts that are his birthright—a great ear, the ability to pick out tunes in multiple keys and sometimes even harmonize them, plus a blossoming skill on the piano and the ability to sing. But when he hits a certain age, singing becomes uncomfortable.

And as for the rest, well, when your parents are the poster children for liturgical music, is it any wonder you want to stay as far away from that particular brand of involvement as humanly possible? Everyone expects it. What if you aren’t that good at it? And anyway, why should you HAVE to do something just because you CAN and your parents DO?


What preteen wouldn’t be proud to be the child of these two? Chomping at the bit to be JUST LIKE THEM? (Don’t answer that.)

I can sympathize.

The problem is, none of that changes the fact that our primary responsibility as parents is to raise holy and happy individuals, and I know by my own experience that the best chance of that is through helping him develop an authentic, real-world faith. But an authentic, real-world faith requires sustenance that comes through community worship. And you only “get out of” community worship what you put into it. In other words, you’ve got to participate.

So when I see my child standing in church, somewhat glazed-eyed, his lips moving, but barely, I get twisted into knots. It’s my job to help him find his way into a mature, healthy faith. But I’ve seen myself how pushing too hard can cause a child to push back and reject what he most needs. On the other hand, if we don’t take a proactive role, he’ll fall away anyway, because people don’t just fall into a mature, healthy faith by accident. They need guidance. Mentoring. Others can and will provide those to him in the years to come, but the fact is the primary responsibility is ours; it’s one we took on when we had him baptized.

I just don’t know how to do it right. Punitive measures are clearly ill-advised. What kid is going to respond to “You may not have the XBox unless I can hear you sing at church” with a healthy faith? Um, nobody.

On the other hand, smiling & cajoling doesn’t work, and anyway, it turns into nagging almost instantly.

I think I need to have a heart to heart with him, involve him in the process, and attempt to awaken the sense of the Other inside him, the “there is, in fact, something bigger than me out there.” But I’m not sure of the right way to do that.

I would like to hear from older parents—those with grown kids who have stuck with the faith and made it their own. What wisdom can you offer to those of us in the trenches?

13 thoughts on “The Problem Of Teaching A Child The Faith

  1. Tamara

    Speaking from personal experience – leave him alone. Whether he continues to develop in faith is no longer up to you. He will continue to go to church and continue to go to Catholic school and continue to see your example week after week. You have to LET GO and have faith that these mechanisms will do their work. He has his own mind and if you force the issue in any way you most certainly WILL push him away. Just be there to support him and guide him as he figures out his own mind. He is not your mini-me.

    • Your experience is at the front of my mind, for sure–and one of the primary reasons I’m wrestling with this. But at the same time, I don’t think age eleven (or twelve, or thirteen, for that matter) is the time at which a child graduates from parental influence. I’m sure you are still overtly teaching your son lessons about the world–you are still teaching him your values, even if they aren’t based in an organized religion. It’s our job to form our children, and the process of letting go is a gradual one.

  2. virginiagirlchoir

    Our daughter is now 37, still active in her church with her music and, now other leadership roles. She had two liturgical music parents; When she was a baby I would hold her up before Mass and ask, “Who wants to hold Katy today?”

    She started playing the flute in about 3rd grade, I think. By the time she was in 4th grade she was regularly playing with our ensemble on Sundays. She went to a Catholic high school that encouraged her to sing and play for Masses and assemblies. I am convinced that she stayed with the church through college because her music gave her an entrée into the community at the Catholic student center.

    I saw a similar trajectory with my nephew and his clarinet.

    I didn’t have to deal with a kid who didn’t want to be involved. She enjoyed, as a kid, having a “grown-up” role. It wasn’t until she was 15 or 16 that I started hearing the teen-aged “I don’t want to go to church” and she just didn’t get the option to stay home so she’d rather play than sit in the pew. I guess we were lucky.

    So, my only advice would be to see if you can make a place for your son where he has his own role and responsibility, where he’s recognized for and contribute with his own gifts. But, I know, if he just doesn’t want it, this isn’t much help!

  3. mbmom7

    If he is a child that responds well to heart to heart chats, you could try that. Not every child does. If he truly does not want to participate, even if he has musical gifts, forcing him would lead to much resentment. Perhaps he might be happier joining a group or going to Mass where you and your husband are not present or in charge? If not all the time, maybe on certain occasions. He might feel more relaxed and ready to join in.

  4. Don’t have any answers for you. My son looks like he is off in space at Mass but he’d never think of missing it. My college girl says she goes sometimes, but I definitely get the impression she doesn’t go more than she does. I insist she goes if she is home-I won’t let her set a bad example–but I don’t think nagging her about it will help and she’s had enough religious ed to know why she should go.

    Is he altar server age? Would he be more comfortable doing that? I do think involvement in the parish is a something that can keep a teen/young adult in the church that involvment doesn’t have to mean being on stage. Does he like to perfom musically in other venues?

    • He was serving every chance he got for a while, but then he cooled off on it, partly b/c he said he had trouble paying attention. I do think he’s paying attention, he’s just not participating with much enthusiasm. And he does like to perform, but doesn’t want to do it at church.

      On Tue, Nov 1, 2016 at 12:01 AM, Kathleen M. Basi wrote:


  5. I know what you are talking about. In my experience so far, I have just left it alone at the middle school age and trusted our parish programs (which are second to none!) and simply made sure that my children makenit to Mass every week and to Confession regularly. Oh and required participation in our parish Catechesis programs (something called Edge for middle school and our parish’s wonderful Life Teen program in high school.

    So far I think it is workingvto at least keep some engagement, even if it isn’t the devout, openly engaged that would prefer. Sarah is even considered the “Jesus person” among her friends and was asked to lead the volleyball program in prayer before the meal at the banquet the other night because she is “Catholic af” (teen term that I will leave unexplained)

    Pray for your children, set your awesome example and let God find them…..thatbis gownit has to go anyway and forcingbthe issue on our time only leads to anxiety (in my limited experience).

  6. Mary Therese

    Don’t know that I have any advice for you, but can share a bit of my own tale. I have 4 sons, and as teens never could really hear them singing…until the last two learned a capella music (courtesy of Ambassadors of Harmony/Acappellooza Summer/Dr. Jim Henry.) Now they seem to try to outdo each other in trying to harmonize even at Mass. I know each child is different, and motivated differently. My #2 son started accompanying cantors on piano for Mass when he was 16, but wouldn’t sing. Until the Sunday of a snowstorm, when there were only about 12 people at Sunday Mass, and Father said “we have no music” and I said, oh yes we do, he’s out shoveling your walk. Let me go get him. He already had experience playing for a congregation, I just told him he had to lead the rest of us (all 11). He did fine, and now sings regularly when he plays. I do feel for your son, I’d probably be the same way. Prayers you can find the right way/time to guide him along. I bet he’ll come around!

    As for a more personal faith experience, if you can get him to StL for Kenrick-Glennon Days next summer, I would highly recommend that! (although I suppose since you’re not this diocese…but maybe your diocese has something similar?) It’s an opportunity for boys to spend time with other boys their age in a faith and fun-filled environment. That really seemed to spur my boys on.

  7. I think the best thing you can do is encourage him to be involved in events / camps / youth groups with kids his age where he can find his christian identity separate from his parents. I don’t think many teenage boys sing in church. I definately don’t it is an issue I would want to bring up with my son… if he was on a cell phone or talking too much then I would. But be glad he is in church I say! I personally find it hard to get into worship as I’m more intellectual and not musically wired at all … was late teens before I could even clap in time!

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