Photo by Jay Cuasay, July 2015 Photos by Jay Cuasay, July 2015. All Rights Reserved.

There were two articles I read recently that got me thinking. One had to do with sacramental preparation for Communion and Confirmation. (See Slap them Sooner: Confirmation & First Communion, Together). The other was an article on that had to do with parenting and supporting children’s learning and acquisition of new skills. (See 6 Secrets to Unlocking Your Child's Talent). The two different articles come together for me because in my parish work I often ask parents to take the lead on the faith formation of their children, particularly during “the sacramental preparation years.”

Sacraments of Initiation/Am I fully Catholic yet?
There are some bishops who are looking at restoring the order of the sacraments of initiation. That is, they are looking to celebrate Confirmation sometime after Baptism but before First Communion. This, after all, is how it is done in the RCIA (Confirmation immediately after Baptism followed by Communion at the same Mass celebration) and has traditionally been the order of sacraments in the Church’s history. This identification of Communion with Grade 2/Age 7+ and Confirmation with Grade 8+/Youth is an after-effect of changes that only go back to 1910. Yet they leave us with many sidetracks and blind alleys, theologically, pastorally, and as families of faith.

Religious educators usually try to rectify this by developing new programs and rationales. Publishers are all too happy to respond. More activist-oriented or perhaps merely theologically-insightful critics have their ways of opining and contemplating whether our church models are effective or if this or that historical issue would have been better. The conclusion is often that Confirmation is a “sacrament in search of a theology.”

Some of the other comments and discussions on this subject brought up more practical concerns. The theology and history is all well and good, but the average lay person doesn't care as much about those issues. If we lament (as Pope Francis does) that Confirmation is the "sacrament of goodbye" as in, after Confirmation, we never see these youth again, then lowering the age will just mean we say goodbye earlier, whether it is before or after First Communion.

Others talked about how important it is to "come of age" and that it is worth being older to understand more about your faith. Sacraments, after all, aren’t a magic object that you go and get and then POOF all is revealed. In the end, isn’t the hope that we have more believers, active members of the Church, and disciples on mission? Or at least, if sacraments of initiation are ordered to point to the Eucharist, then the great mystery of Christ’s real presence is something that we can yearn for and deepen and conform ourselves to over a lifetime of participation in the holy sacrifice of the Mass (whether it is before or after Confirmation isn't so much the sticking point).

Do we succeed in all of this? The answer seems to be NO.
And then there is plenty of finger pointing that follows.

Insights from elsewhere

The second article describes how to bring out the best talents in children. In his best-seller The Talent Code, Daniel Coyle applies observation and neuropsychology to his travels around the world to document the surprising similarities of coaching and mentoring styles in “hotbeds” of talent. In all these cases, skill and talent isn’t so much something that we are born with so much as something that can be nurtured.

The basics of the article could be summarized as:

  • Pay attention to what catches your child's interest.
  • Don't judge by results but encourage genuine efforts.

I know home schooling parents and just about any parent who has paid some amount of attention to educating their child or has tried to persuade them to share parental values has encountered this same wisdom. We are aware that context matters for these maxims. A child may be enamored by the TV for hours on end, but that in itself is not necessarily a good thing to be left unmonitored or encouraged. Likewise, there has been push back on a lack of parental judgment or over permissiveness. Scores do matter sometimes. Winning is real in real life and not always a bad thing. In fact, losing, or not getting something perfect (and who does on the first try?) and how we deal with that is part of whether we excel at learning or not. And finally there is the issue of helicopter parenting. Are we, even with all our good intentions, just getting in the way?

Bearing all that in mind, it is true that when a child discovers something and is intrigued by it, not getting it to work perfectly isn't a hurdle blocking the way to the goal. It is what provides stimulus to encourage the child to learn how to make it work, better, faster, more consistently. And in turn, this learning, from a psycho-biological point of view, lays down better, faster, more consistent neural pathways so that these lessons can be made more permanent. Anyone who has watched a child struggle to figure out a video game has witnessed the admixture of pleasure and pain, frustration and fun in unlocking the next level. Watching children struggle in sports, or music, or even just reading is similar—even if the child may not think so!

Toward the end of the PBS article, the the author lists 6 strategies to "unlock" talent:

  • Watch for tiny, powerful moments of ignition
  • Understand that all practice is not created equal
  • Recognize that slow practice is productive practice
  • Praise effort, not natural ability
  • Encourage mimicry
  • Stand back

It is worth reading the short article to get the nuance of what each of these strategies entails. But a quick glance at them will probably trigger some level of familiarity in the average parent who has paid attention to their child or been involved in his or her growth at school or in sports or the arts. It is probably true too that the average Catechist sees this at work in his or her time with children in Religious Education.

I would also hazard a guess that the initial 1:1 correspondence of the effectiveness of these strategies is probably more obvious in younger children and more challenging in older ones. Certainly from a Religious Education perspective, we tend to struggle more and give up more easily in the task of faith formation somewhere around the middle-school to high-school age. Parents don’t want to be that hands-on with their children; youth want to rightly assert more independence away from adults and more toward peers. But this is right around the time that a more serious level of religious appropriation and growth is also expected to occur. And yet, we may just want to shy away from these difficulties, or leave it up to the “expert” or the “youth minister,” or up to the youth to “decide for themselves.”

So I was watching TV...

I've watched a lot of cooking shows on cable TV, as much for relaxation as for inspiration. Many of these shows have come and gone or changed dramatically from their original premise. But the basics of these shows best exemplified by Chopped or Worst Cooks in America offer us a high-energy atmosphere where under timed circumstances veteran chefs or ordinary people compete to be the last chef standing.

Many, if not all of the strategies listed above come into play. This is particular true in the mentoring relationship that comes from the Judge's Table or Chef's Teams. Well-established cooks and critics judge the food. But their critique is not just about a thumbs up or down, but a more holistic view of the dish, its conception, execution and presentation, as well as how it connects with the personality and conviction of the person.

As the competition thins out the herd, we often hear contestants moving forward promising to do better and not to disappoint. Departing contestants speak words of gratitude for all that they had learned from the critique or from the direct mentoring. In a show like Food Network Star, each contestant is trying to garner a spot on the Food Network. They are being critiqued by current Food Network Stars in order to become the next Food Network Star.

Catholic Mimicry

During the RCIA process or other sacramental preparation situations, I often tell this joke to the group. After spending time explaining the history behind a sacrament, its theology, the symbols used in the rituals, and a walk through and examination of the Rites, I often relieve the tension in the air by saying something like, "And if you forget what you're supposed to be doing or what's going on, do what all good Catholics do and just do what the other people around you are doing."

But to be serious about sacraments and about faith formation, I was struck by what the PBS article had to say about the tiny, powerful moments of ignition and mimicry. Describing the strategies, the author writes: "When a child's identity becomes intertwined with a goal, the trigger fires..." And later citing a study used by Coyle: "young musicians who foresaw themselves as adult musicians learned 400 percent faster than kids who did not."

Many times on the Food Network shows you hear contestants talk about who their inspirations are in their lives, how they became cooks, what emerging from this challenge would mean to them. Yes, there is editing and this is made to be rather dramatic in 30 minutes or less, or over one network season. But the take home message to me was: In our encounters with children, youth and adults during faith formation, do we have that same relationship and powerful effect?

Do other people look at us and say, I want to be like you?
Do we inspire them to become "400% faster" the Christian that I am? Do they look upon us and say "I want to believe as you do..." "You can go to Communion, you are already Confirmed...I want that too because I see what that means and is accomplished in you?" And even if they walk away, is it really a good-bye? Or is it like so many other contestants on the Food Network who say, "I am better. I am stronger. You haven't seen the last of me."

Closing Reflections:

For me, as I look at the start of another Religious Education Year, another cohort of 100+ Confirmandi, a number of First Communicants, various people en route to becoming Catholic through the RCIA, and then all those in the "other" children's RE Programs, those 6 strategies and in particular those two I highlighted play a huge role.

We have to pay attention to understanding what makes a person more themselves--what are the triggers that drive them to become more as God wishes? What are the worthwhile struggles that come their way? How does one best nurture authentic growth as well as offer self, parish, church, faith in the world, as the best examples for them to continue to struggle, learn, and want to become more and more who God calls them to be?

When are you most yourself and most with God?
Can you share that experience?
How long did it take? What did you do?

Copyright © 2015 Jay Cuasay
Photography, Are You Hungry (6-photo collage), Jay Cuasay, July 2015
. All Rights Reserved.