Some Considerations for Parents
In the last issue, Jim Beckman described how youth ministers can operate with a mindset which respects and empowers parents to be the primary catechists of their teenagers. Jim concludes this two-part series by writing to parents concerning the fundamentals for leading one’s own children to a life in Christ.
Discipleship is spelled T-I-M-E
If we intend to lead our own children closer to Christ, first and foremost we must spend time with them. Of course, setting aside time is uniquely challenging in today’s culture. But it is not impossible. With a little creativity, and some sacrifice, time is frequently found in our weekly schedules for things we prioritize—even if originally we might not have believed finding additional time was possible. Spending time with our children needs to be one of those priorities.
And please don’t buy into the farce that it’s all about “quality” time, not quantity. I have found it to be just the opposite, both in my work over the years with teenagers, and now with my own kids. Young people don’t really trust someone who won’t “waste time” with them. I know that sounds counter-intuitive, but it’s true. When we are willing to spend time with another person, with no real agenda, no task to accomplish, nothing productive to get done, it shows that the person is important to us. In my experience, when I have invested myself in this way, it has earned me the right to be heard. Not only as a youth minister but also as a parent, I don’t assume that they will want to listen to what I share with them. I know I have to earn that.
That principle as a youth minister has translated well for me as a parent. I know I can’t be a friend to my own children in the same way I have been with young people to whom I have ministered; but I can have a relationship with them that clearly demonstrates their importance to me and my love for them. In fact, I’m hoping I have a stronger relationship with my own kids than with any teen I have ever served. This requires a realignment of my priorities. I have to be creative and make time for them in my life. Discipleship requires lots of time, lots of conversations, and the firm foundation of a relational context for it to be effective. Parents already have an edge over any other adult. By virtue of their unique relationship, they exercise significant influence over their children’s life decisions. Imagine the power of that edge being combined with a parent’s gift of time and presence.
Live a Faith Worthy of Imitation
The best way parents can begin discipling their own children is by modeling a lived faith. Studies measuring the influence of parents on a child’s faith have all been conclusive: young people tend to mimic their parents’ faith as they come into their adult years.[i] If that’s the case, then as parents we need to make sure we are living out our faith in a way worthy of emulation. We can already see the results of poor faith—or worse, no faith—being mimicked. Contemporary society is saturated with young adults who have completely detached from faith. They’re just doing what was modeled for them by their own parents, so we shouldn't be surprised.
Giving witness to a life of faith requires that we live our faith “out loud,” even being more externally expressive than we might sometimes be comfortable with. It shouldn’t be forced or awkward. In fact, the more natural our faith is in daily life, the more instinctively it will come up in conversations with our kids. We can share how faith is important to us, how God has been present to us, or some way he has blessed us. The point is, in order to have an influence on our children’s faith, they actually have to see us practicing it. I have met many parents who say their faith is something private to them, and they don’t like talking about it with others, even within their own family. All I can say is we have to get over it. We are losing a staggering percentage of young people from the Church these days. Many are leaving in their teenage years, and even more in their young adult years. Most who leave talk about the shallow, empty experience they had of the Church and of faith. They experienced adults, especially their parents, as hypocritical, judgmental, and wishy-washy in their own beliefs. We can do better than this for our children.
Living faith “out loud” means pushing through rolled eyes, and sighs of exasperation when we suggest saying a prayer or reading Scripture together. It means being vulnerable with our children and sharing what we believe God is saying to us in our own prayer (which inherently means that WE are praying regularly). It means sharing about spiritual experiences we have had, and even connecting those to our children’s lives when we can. It means constantly opening ourselves to the subtle promptings of the Holy Spirit to share on this level with our kids.
I can’t tell you how many times I have discipled my own children through casual conversations that just come up because I have 1) made time for them in my day-to-day life, and 2) have been willing to share what is going on in my own faith journey. Discipleship is not complicated, but it does require diligence and consistency. By living our faith out in front of our children, we let them see and hear what we believe, how we express our love for God and the charity in our hearts for others, and how we see God working in our lives. Everything we share will impact our children. These are the foundation stones for children becoming authentic disciples.
And finally, PRAY
If our intention is to make disciples of our children, then we have to start regularly praying FOR them and WITH them.
We need to pray FOR our kids every day, and we need to let them know that we are doing it. Instead of saying that we’re going to pray for them later, we should stop what we are doing and pray for them immediately and aloud so they can hear what we are saying. This kind of modeling of prayer is an amazing way to teach our kids how to pray. As my kids get older, I realize more and more how little control I actually have over their lives. This realization has driven me to pray more for them. I find myself on my knees a lot, sometimes in their rooms in the middle of the night while they’re sleeping. As parents we have to recognize the spiritual battle going on for the souls of our children. We must engage in this battle through prayer and spiritual warfare.
Also, we shouldn’t only pray with our children when they need something. We ought to take time to pray with them while THEY are praying. In this way, we can help them navigate prayer time, fruitfully read Scripture, and even ask them what they are hearing as the Lord speaks to them. This may be unfamiliar terrain for parents. That only makes a stronger case for our own need to grow as disciples ourselves. These types of experiences in prayer are regular fare for a disciple. If we are pursuing our own faith and steadily growing, it will translate over time into deeper and deeper faith for our children.
John Paul II once put it this way: “Only by praying together with their children can a father and mother, exercising their royal priesthood, penetrate the innermost depths of their children's hearts and leave an impression that the future events in their lives will not be able to efface.”[ii] When we pray WITH our children, they begin to see that WE believe, that we have faith, and that we can approach our loving God in the context of a relationship. They witness things in us during these times that are deep and intimate, and these experiences leave a lasting impression on them. That impression will sustain them through many struggles and trials in their own lives, long after they have moved beyond our parenting.
In today’s cultural situation, discipling our own children is an urgent challenge for parents. Whether we are in an intact family or living as a single parent, every parent is called to love and form their children, and ultimately help them become a true disciple of Christ. These practical ideas are a starting point to that end: we must make more time for our kids, model a lived faith that they can imitate, and make more time for prayer FOR and WITH them in day-to-day life. As John Paul II so powerfully explained, “the family finds in the plan of God the Creator and Redeemer not only its identity, what it is, but also its mission . . . Each family finds within itself a summons that cannot be ignored, and that specifies both its dignity and its responsibility: family, become what you are!”[iii]
[i] The National Study on Youth and Religion by Christian Smith was most conclusive, published under the title Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, Oxford, University Press, 2005. Also his follow up study, Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults, Oxford University Press, 2009.
[ii] John Paul II, Familiaris Consortio, art. 60.
[iii] Ibid., art. 17.
Jim Beckman is currently the Executive Director for the Secretariat of Evangelization & Catechesis for the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City. He had served as Lecturer of Leadership and Catechetics, as well as Director of Youth Leadership and Evangelization at the Augustine Institute. He has been a regular speaker at Steubenville Conferences. Jim is also the author and founder of YDisciple, a series of teen discipleship and leadership formation resources.
This article was originally on pages 34-35 of the printed edition.