By Eric Hanna, S.J.
One problem we encounter in college is that students who are no longer made to go to church stop going. I think the problem is not that we've failed to enforce the value of church: the problem is that we've failed to give our children the power of choice. One of the best things to teach about church is that it is an option we are all free to accept or reject. "No" is a real option. And it is better that children encounter it sooner rather than later.
Consider the case of Mary and Martin, ordinary kids. Mary's family goes to church. Martin's does not. Would you let your children play with another kid their age who said that church was silly and that their family doesn't do that sort of thing? Too many parents think of such scenarios as a choice between forbidding the interaction on the one hand and merely ignoring it on the other. There is a third way.
Ask Mary, "is Martin right? Is church silly? What do you think? Why do we go to church? Is it something you want to do or is it something you want to stop?" What other questions might you ask her? How do you enable a young person to thoughtfully develop her own opinions?
This could be a great pathway to dialogue with Mary about what church is and how she feels about it. It is good for a child to realize that she has a voice about what church is and why it is a part of her life. Eventually, church has to be important to Mary for reasons other than that it is important to her parents. Why is it important? What do the Scripture stories speak of? What is significant about the people coming together? You can help answer these questions: but the answers must eventually be hers, not yours.
Pope Francis encourages us to open our doors, go out from them, and encounter the world. Church is about encounter: love of God is in symbiosis with love of neighbour. What does church do for Mary the six days she's not there? How does she live out its values of love of neighbour? How does it help her to charitably accept Martin's different opinion without losing her own perspective?
Good parenting involves enabling our children to use the perspective of faith to engage in a loving (though not uncritical) exploration of the world and its points of view. As an early teen, I enjoyed reading the atheistic Isaac Asimov and considering his arguments. Anti-church media loses its forbidden-fruit appeal if it can be part of normal dinner conversation; if it doesn't make us panic and shut our ears. What we're interested in is not whether an idea is in or out, acceptable or off-limits, our team or theirs. We're interested in whether it's true or false; and to what extent it helps us understand our neighbours.
This attitude is healthy broad-mindedness... but it is also the attitude that Christ presented to the world when he walked on earth. When he approached the sick, those in need, even his opponents in debate, he always asked, "what do you want me to do for you?"
This is the choice that Christ puts before every human child. He does not command... rather Jesus asks the person to choose, to express desires in relationship. Rather than demand that the other listen, Jesus first listens.
If we teach our children to choose, to express themselves, to form their own desires and explore the world... then we teach them to encounter Christ. This is because Christ, full of love, truly values their choices.