Monday 31 March 2014

Children and Choices: A Free "No" is Better than a Forced "Yes"

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.


  1. Thanks for the thoughtful post. What age range are you considering "children"?

    1. Thanks for your comment. You raise an interesting point, Kids are ready for different things at different stages. And some are mature in different areas than others. But the concept of choice is pretty basic, as is talking about what church means, so I imagine even toddlers could have these sort of interactions. If the children are older or teens, the conversation may take into account the sorts of values and interests the person already has.

  2. I think that many parents may fear that by giving their children choice in matters relating to God, they put their children's eternal salvation at risk. Also, it can really be quite painful for a parent to witness their child reject God. If there is an emphasis placed on the importance of church and the importance of God in our lives then I think the risk of a child not choosing God decreases substantially.

    I'd also be interested in hearing your thoughts on what age range the term "children" should be applied to.

    1. I greatly appreciate your insight: these discussions are not easy or free of pain. We want our children to have eternal salvation: which is the fruit of intimacy with Christ. Intimacy that is born not from fear but from love lived out.

      I find it greatly helps to ask children, or people expressing doubts about the church, to listen. Usually, they are objecting not to Christ's love or to salvation but to some particular practice that seems hollow or forced. Specificity is good: what values is the child seeking out? When do they feel the most free and truly joyful? Salvation may be more easily understood through personal prayer, through art and music, through GK Chesterton and CS Lewis, through friends and family, through service work with the poor, or even in sports and fun. If the person can see and name her/his own experience of intimacy with God, I think they will more easily discover that intimacy in the beauty of the Liturgy and the help of the Sacraments. We should emphasize church as the source and summit of this spiritual life that does not call us to sacrifice our uniqueness but calls us to live out what we most value, our deepest joy and peace.

      I apologize for my late reply to the question about age-groups. Find my reply above. Thank you for reading.