If you’re anything like me, the journey into parenthood was rough. Beautiful, humbling, overwhelming, and rough. In the midst of sleep deprivation and struggling to assemble various baby contraptions, it can be difficult to remember the “why” behind parenting. It took me a while, but I remember realizing one day that I’d gotten so caught up in the minute details of daily caretaking that I had forgotten to attend to what I believe is most important: leading my kids to Jesus. I let the many tasks involved in parenting “my” kids overshadow the fact that, although God has given these beautiful little ones to me, they are not truly mine. I have the grand privilege of being invited into his work, to participate alongside him as he shapes them into what they will one day be.
Naturally, I panicked. I thought myself so behind. [Insert eye roll from current self here.] As a teacher, I had specific ideas about how this process should look, and I was failing. Where were the daily devotions? Why did my daughter not know the component pieces and overarching story of salvation history? Why had I not done more already? These preoccupations are neither healthy nor realistic. My daughter is three and my son has just mastered babbling. Sure, we could be doing more, but I am not “behind” in a catastrophic way. The reality is that my daughter doesn’t need to recite the rosary or memorize the Sermon on the Mount at this point in her development. The lessons I am accustomed to teaching in the classroom are not appropriate for her at this point in her development, anyway.
That doesn’t mean that she isn’t learning about Jesus. Children have absorbent minds. Really, we all do. Our brains are wired for learning. We take in our environment, observe patterns, and organize information without any conscious consideration. With young children, leading them to Jesus is not about creating the right catechetical framework; it’s about cultivating an environment that makes it easier for the seeds the Father is planting to grow. So what are the important elements of this environment? Here are 10 of the ways our family seeks to cultivate devotion right now.
- Books. Kids love to read. Parents, we know this. As soon as we finish reading them a favorite bedtime story, they will say, “Again!” For kids, books are one of the greatest windows into life outside of what they experience in their daily lives. Yes, religious reading materials tend to be more costly than secular books, but because wonderful secular children’s books are available through the local library, it is worth the extra investment to curate a home library with Bible stories, saint books, and books about the Sacraments. This allows kids to become immersed in the beauty of our Catholic faith, to look up to heroes who model holiness, and to steep their imaginations in the world of faith. For a list of our favorite Mass books, check out this post.
- Music. St. Augustine says, “He who sings, prays twice.” Music is a beautiful way to immerse ourselves and our children in prayer. Devotional music is available in almost every genre of music. Whatever you find beautiful and moving will enhance the atmosphere of your home and become part of your children’s memory of their childhood. We love the music of Audrey Assad for its beauty and prayerfulness. There are also many options of music designed specifically with children in mind, which can serve to familiarize children with biblical stories and have catechetical components. A favorite from my childhood is The Donut Man. I love watching my daughter stomp around to Goliath and listening to her spontaneously break out a chorus of “My body is a temple of the Holy Spirit!” Our favorite albums are King of Kings and Wonderfully Made.
- Toys. Children do not need a lot toys, and in fact benefit by having very few. Having fewer toys means having greater access to gratitude. Still, part of the joy of parenthood is re-experiencing the magic of childhood, and toys can be a part of that. We are the gatekeepers of our home. We send messages to our children about what is important and what they should value through what we make available to them. Imagination is an important component of prayer, and play is practice for life. Offering toys that invite our kids into imaginative play with Jesus and the saints harnesses their budding capacity to imagine themselves both in communion with these holy men and women, and as imitators of the truly virtuous.
- Beauty. Through the arts, we are united with our Creator, both as participants in his ongoing process of creation, and when we are drawn out of ourselves in the experience of beauty. We can increase our capacity to appreciate and enter into God’s gift of beauty, in the things we surround ourselves with and the ways in which we choose to spend our time. We can fill our domestic churches with things we find beautiful. My daughter often chats with Mamma Mary at our living room prayer table. We can spend time developing our artistic talents. We can attend performances, visit museums, and spend time in wonder at the natural world.
- Traditions. Children paradoxically love both routine and excitement. Traditions joyfully marry these two and create lasting memories. Some of the best memories from my childhood are the traditions my family practiced at home and with our church community, especially during Advent and Lent. I have loved incorporating those and other, more explicitly Catholic traditions into our lives, and watching my daughter delight in them. Two of our favorite resources for liturgical living are The Catholic Home by Meredith Gould and Catholic All Year by Kendra Tierney.
- Conversation. There is no substitute for talking with our own kids. We can learn so much about what is on their minds through simple conversation. Talking with them allows us to model a faithful approach to experiencing life. Whatever the subject, we can always invite them to ask Jesus about it or what they think he has to say. It is not as important that we explain everything to them as it is that they learn to encounter him.
- The Sacraments. Jesus gave us the sacraments as the primary way to encounter his grace. So, encounter him together! Bring kids to Mass. Teach them about what Jesus intended when he created the sacraments. Design a life that makes frequent experiences of God’s grace in the Sacraments a possibility.
- Prayer. There is no love without relationship, and there is no relationship without spending time together. Pray with your kids. Model how to pray. Expect that they can pray. If they can talk to you, they can talk to Jesus. I’ve been surprised and humbled listening to my daughter’s bedtime conversations with Jesus, Mamma Mary, and, most recently, St. Therese. It’s such a privilege to observe her growing intimacy with Jesus, and hear echoes of my own prayers in hers.
- Your Community. Kids need models of faith in their everyday lives, especially in the teen years, when the natural stage is to assert independence (teens are much like toddlers in this way, except far less cuddly). We have the gift of being surrounded by a community of loving, faith-filled people. I am so grateful that our children will grow up seeing joy in the life of faith, lived out differently but beautifully, by people who truly love them. Of course, community includes more than our family and circle and friends. It means building relationship with those unlike us and those with whom our paths or our preference might not mesh perfectly. We can do this by becoming rooted in our parish community, and through service and outreach to the marginalized in our communities.
- Your example. Our children watch us and imitate what we do. At times, this can be an unflattering mirror, but it is also a beautiful gift. I am called to holiness not only for my own sake, but now for theirs as well. It is my life of faith they will see, my prayers they will hear, my love for Jesus they will observe. It is a humbling examination of conscience. What do my choices communicate to my children about my values? Do I wish the same for my children? My greatest asset in teaching my children to love Jesus is growing in my own holiness, my own capacity to love them as Christ loves them.