Before God blessed my marriage with children, I was well aware of the modern culture war and shifts in attitudes toward moral relativism, indifference to injustices, and increasing agnostic and atheistic principles in education and politics. I grew up in the postmodern 1980s and 1990s, which was an era of “safe sex” and condom distribution, widespread promotion of “sex education” in schools, and an overt laxity toward traditional sexual mores.
I largely credit my parents for the reason I chose Catholicism as my own faith during adolescence, because they inherently adopted a moderate approach to battling the culture wars of my childhood. Instead of shunning us from pop culture, they acknowledged the television shows, music groups and clothing trends of our day without making too much of a fuss. On the other hand, they didn’t permit my brother and me to waywardly follow secular ideologies, especially if they were directly contradictory to our Catholic faith. My parents used hot button issues as topics for discussion during mealtimes and when driving in the car, which helped shape our burgeoning consciences so that we were more solidly rooted in an understanding of our religious beliefs.
Instead of “dos” and “don’ts,” my parents explained why we believed as we did, which always led my young mind to more questions. If my parents weren’t able to answer my questions, they either asked our parish priest or suggested we talk with our pastor directly.
Now I am a mom of two young girls who are growing up in unprecedented times: Planned Parenthood exposure, federal legalization of homosexual marriage, government-funded contraception and abortions, lauded and public “mercy killings”, and so on. Many television shows and popular music for preschoolers honestly appall me, but I don’t want to fall into the trap of denial and take the path of sloth by permitting our girls to just watch and listen to what everyone else does, nor do I want to socially isolate them from their peers by restricting them from everything. What’s the solution, then, to raising spiritually healthy children from toddlerhood on up? Here are some ideas that have helped me along the way.
Preview Movies, Television Shows, Books, And Popular Music Before Exposing Your Kids To Them
This may seem like a no-brainer, but it truly takes intentional effort on my part to carefully sit down and force myself to painfully endure episodes of Dora the Explorer, or even worse, Yo Gabba Gabba! There’s a lot of junk out there, so what may seem benign initially could be sending disastrous spiritual messages to our kids.
For instance, my oldest daughter, Felicity, wanted to watch an episode of My Little Pony. Since I grew up with this 1980s pop culture icon, I shrugged and assumed the storylines would mimic what I recalled from my own childhood (which was unwise). So she and I watched a short vignette together, and I was horrified. Cult magic and superstition abounded! It wasn’t even like a fluffy fairy tale or Christian symbolism. It was overt occultism, which I recognized (thankfully) from my background in studying the harmful effects of the occult and New Age Movement. After that show, we quietly switched to something tried-and-true, like Veggie Tales.
The bottom line is this: Get to know what appeals to modern kids, and then prudently discern with your own spiritual filter what is appropriate and what is not. If you aren’t sure, it always behooves you to ask a trusted priest or consult an orthodox Catholic source to find out more information.
Limit – But Don’t Eliminate – Your Child’s Exposure To The “real World”
It’s tough, but I don’t shelter my kids from what is going on in the world. Even if I were to block them from viewing inappropriate shows, movies, books, etc., they will inevitably encounter something contrary to our Catholic beliefs when they are outside of our home. I am disgusted at the billboards glaring at us when we take road trips, but I don’t freak out. If my girls (likely Felicity) ask me about a scantily clad woman she sees, we privately talk about modesty and why it’s important to respect our bodies.
I was so impressed one day when I took her to our local indoor shopping mall, and she noticed a young girl who was baring her belly and wearing short shorts. Felicity leaned over and whispered, “Mommy, that girl is not dressed modestly.” Pleasantly surprised, I responded, “You’re right, and why is that?” So we talked about covering our bellies and legs, because our bodies are private.
In addition to the modesty issue, my girls are well aware of world and local news. My husband and I openly discuss current affairs when we eat dinner, and Felicity quickly picks up cues from our body language and tonal inflection. She will often ask us questions, which Ben and I feel naturally facilitates open, honest dialogue about what we believe and why.
The main point here is that children are far more receptive to moral teaching than we might assume, particularly if we begin spiritual instruction when they are young. It’s so natural for small kids to simply believe that God exists, as do the angels and saints. My feeling is that we should capitalize on their natural desire for what is eternal when they are still young and fairly untainted by the world’s influence. It’s much easier to build upon a solid Catholic foundation when we begin early.
Be A Role Model Of Holiness
One of the most obvious and powerful teaching tools we have as parents is to live what we believe. Although this is substantiated by clinical research in psychology, I remember thinking to myself in graduate school, Of course children learn more by example than anything else! It’s clear that we need to be cognizant of how we are living, because our kids are mirrors that reflect back to us both the good and the bad.
Despite what we may think, children tend to adopt their parents’ attitudes and lifestyles over a cultural model or even peer trends. If I want my children to be healthy emotionally, physically, and spiritually, then they need to watch me care for myself in these ways. Sometimes this entails a substantial dose of humility on my part, especially when I make a mistake and apologize to the girls for snapping at them or being impatient. But they are always so forgiving, and I usually end up with a giant bear hug and enormous grin from them.
Everyone’s life is hectic and crammed with busyness, but I truly believe we have to be witnesses to our kids of our limitations. Sometimes that means I tell the girls to have some quiet time so I can take a nap, while other times I explain to them that I am overwhelmed and need a break. Later on, this usually feeds into a discussion about our human fallibility and need for dependence upon God alone.
Raising children in this crazy epoch of aversion to religion can be daunting for any parent. I know, because I, too, am in the trenches of early childhood parenting. But I have to believe in two things when all else fails, and I wonder if I got anything right as a mom: One is that parents receive special grace to raise their children and two is that God’s grace compensates for my lack as a parent. All we need is to ask God for the wisdom to guide our children to holiness and to thank Him for filling the gaps where we’ve faltered.