The relationship between parents and their children can be complicated, and that is no less true in matters of Christian faith. Parents with a strong Christian faith want their children to have a strong Christian faith too, but children, as they get older, want to be independent. That desire for independence means that they want to find their own faith. Sometimes that is a Christian faith like their parents, sometimes that is a Christian faith that is different from their parents, and sometimes it is not a Christian faith at all. The sharing or not sharing of a Christian faith between parents and children can be challenging.
When children are small, they have only limited ability to choose what is good for themselves; they don’t know enough to choose wisely. Yet most small children try to choose anyway. Almost all parents have experienced times where their toddlers will not go to bed, or eat nutritious food, or behave in ways that are best for them. Parents need to insist on what is right for their small children, for the child’s own good, even if this means going against what they want. Yet even then, parents should find places where their children can exercise legitimate choices from options that are not bad for them. When it comes to Christian faith and practice, Christian parents know that it is very much a matter of what is good, and legitimately insist on doing what is right for their young children. Yet here too, room needs to be made for preferences and choices. Parents need to consider whether their Christian practice can be made alive for their children, lest it seem to them meaningless rituals done only because Mummy and Daddy insist. If more than one parish option is available, Parents should pick what works best for their children over what they would prefer for themselves.
As children get older, their ability increases to pick what is good. At the same time, their willingness to go along with what their parents have chosen for them diminishes. Children of Christian parents will, at certain times in their lives, have to face the question for themselves of what sort of Christian faith they will embrace. When parents stick to a “do it because I say so” attitude, their children may not embrace the Christian faith at all, seeing it as something forced upon them against their will. Yet there is an opposite risk too: “do whatever you want”, which pretends that the Christian faith is not important and that any sort of faith attitude is equally fine. Christian faith is very important, it is the most important thing of all. Rejecting it is neither good nor safe. Here is where time and space need to be made for explanations, for honest questions and honest answers, for patience, tolerance, and good will. Time and space are also needed for Christian witness, parents to children and children to parents: who is Jesus and what does he mean to me? Authenticity is key: children can easily sniff out pretense and fakeness, which poisons everything it touches. Parents, don’t force it. Know it is Jesus, not so much you, who is extending to your children an invitation to follow him.
But this is perhaps the crux of the problem: it is an invitation. The problem with invitations is that they can be accepted, or they can be declined. What happens when some in a family accept the invitation and others decline? The result is painful conflict inside the family. Is this something expected?
Surprisingly, yes. Jesus knows very well that his invitation sometimes brings painful division to families. He says in the Gospel, “I have come not to bring peace, but a sword”:
For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. [Matthew 10:34-38]
This “taking up of the cross” that Jesus talks about is not merely a reference to following Jesus, it literally means to pick up the means of your execution. At the time of the Gospels, a cross was the state’s way of executing, slowly and painfully, the worst criminals. Jesus experienced this execution himself, dying painfully on a cross on trumped-up charges because he stood up for the truth when powerful and influential people did not want it heard. Yet he calls his followers to follow him in standing up for the truth, even to suffering and death.
I know this does not sound particularly comforting. Jesus, instead of talking of peace and reconciliation, is talking about conflict, suffering and death. But death is not the end of the story. Jesus was raised to new life (this is what Easter is all about), and he promises the same to those who follow him.
That Christianity is about life after death is a challenging thing. Because it is literally a “matter of life and death”, the Christian faith is important: in fact, it is the most important thing of all. But because it involves accepting suffering and death, is not an easy choice to make. It is a very difficult one. The fact is, suffering and death are unavoidable anyway, but we would often rather deny that, or ignore it, or do our best to avoid it; anything but embrace it. Because of this, when it comes to choosing the Christian faith, some say Yes and others No. When those different choices are in the same family, there is conflict within the family: a “sword”, as Jesus puts it. Swords cut, swords divide, swords wound. Sometimes parents choose Yes to Jesus, but children choose No. Sometimes children choose Yes but parents choose No, or some children choose Yes, and others choose No. Sometimes one parent chooses Yes and the other No. I will not mince words here: this conflict within families is heartbreaking. But when some in a family choose differently than others, it cannot be avoided. Christianity is not a soft, warm, sit-by-the-fireplace faith, it is a challenging life-altering faith, one that would be completely impossible but for Jesus’ help, but one with a reward at the end that is second to none: life eternal. Around the family hearth, Christianity can be a contentious thing, because the stakes are high, and it asks for everything.
So, then, what to do about this challenging faith? Parents, the “do it because I said so” approach is not going to work for very long. Do you really think it is realistic to assume that your children will follow a difficult path, carrying their cross, solely on your say-so? Maybe at first, but it won’t last. Instead, you need to explain why, often, clearly and calmly, and don’t force things except where safety requires it. But “choose whatever you want” isn’t going to work either. The cross isn’t pleasant, there are more attractive-looking choices, but in the end, those other choices don’t lead to life. You would not put some yummy-looking poison and some challenging-looking but nutritious food together on your dining table and invite your kids to pick whatever they want. You can offer more guidance than that! Instead, learn everything about Jesus that you can learn, so that you can teach your children what you know. Show authenticity in your life so that they can see that you are not just mouthing words to try to assert control, but that there is a reality here that you are sharing for your children’s good. If your children don’t accept Jesus the way you do, don’t catastrophize. Just because they don’t practice faith in the particular way you do doesn’t mean that they have none. Also, keep in mind that Jesus doesn’t just invite once, he keeps inviting, and he wants your children’s good even more than you do. Be patient, listen much, speak wisely when you do speak, and respect your children as unique and special people who belong ultimately to God, not to you.
Children, look for Jesus yourself. Do not just take your parent’s word about him, make him your own. Learn everything you can about him. Read the Gospels yourself and pay attention to what Jesus says and does. Then reach out to him personally in prayer. Jesus is not just a nice historical idea; he is a real person who loves you. You will need Jesus’ help to live a life worth living, but he offers that help if you seek him out. Look also to connect with people who love Jesus enough to change their lives because of him. Look to your parents: if they are authentic, you will see it. If you see love there, trust that love. Do not expect Christian practice to be entertainment. The main point of Christian practice is to keep in mind things that are vitally true and important but that we would otherwise not keep at the forefront of our minds. It is also to connect with other Christians, and especially to connect with Jesus. Connecting can be work, but if you put in the work, it is rewarding in often unexpected ways. So is Christian practice. Keep in mind that your Christian parents have been putting in the work for many years. When you seek independence from them, do it wisely and selectively. You may feel that doing what your parents ask you means that you are being controlled by them. But note that rejecting what they ask you just because they asked is also being controlled: you are still reacting blindly to the fact that they asked you, but you’ve merely defaulted to saying No instead of Yes. Instead, stop and consider instead the thing itself, putting aside for the moment that you were asked. Yes, do your research, but remember that the Internet and social media are just messaging, they are not the source of all wisdom. Sometimes the Internet communicates truth, sometimes confusion and misunderstanding, sometimes lies and propaganda, and often a mix of these things. Ask questions, don’t believe everything you read and see on the Internet, and be patient.
Both parents and children, remember that living in families is hard, especially in the modern world. Don’t mistake things said in frustration for hatred. No, an angry word in a moment of frustration is not “what they really think”, it’s quite the opposite, it’s just what they’re feeling in a moment of strong emotion. Pray for each other constantly. And love each other always, remembering that Jesus loves each of you. Don’t think that Jesus loves only you, he loves those around you too. Do not fail to love those he loves, especially those whom he has entrusted to you, such as your child, or your parent. Do not disrespect Jesus: listen to him, learn from him, follow him, and he will get you through.