Jessica Ptomey addresses two errors that get in parents' and catechists' way when we consider our role in our children's faith formation.
When approaching the project of passing on the faith to our children, whether we be parents or catechists, we often wrongly conceptualize the teacher-student relationship. Our mindset has been influenced by decades of various educational systems that approach pedagogy from the perspective that teachers deposit information into the brains of children (a very modernist and anti-Catholic understanding of knowledge and the human person, by the way; but I won’t unpack that idea here). This perspective wrongly assumes, among many things, that the transmission of knowledge is moving in one direction—from teacher to student; and operating from that starting point, what other incorrect assumptions might we make? I can think of two problematic ones that we need to root out.
Mistake #1: There is little that children will teach me.
To be honest, I don’t expect that many adults would come out and say this; but I do see plenty of evidence from our teaching methods, our posture, and our tone that we interiorly hold this expectation. We don’t behave as if we expect children to teach us about God. But why not? We can’t have read much of the Gospels if we believe that to be true. Jesus says:
“Let the children come to me and do not prevent them; for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Amen, I say to you, whoever does not accept the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it. (Luke 18:16-17)
Jesus is saying that we have everything to learn from children. We have to actually become like them to be part of His kingdom. I would say that he intends us to gain much knowledge of Himself and how we are to love Him through our interactions with children. This ought to be a fundamental starting point for our posture as parents or catechists who want our children to know and love God. Moreover, it seems that it is in those interactions of passing on the faith to them that we learn with them and from them what loving God looks like.
Mistake #2: I am forming the children.
Many adults have come to believe that the parents and teachers are the “molders” of children, taking them in their ignorant state and transforming them into enlightened human beings. But if this is our mindset, then we have forgotten who is the true Potter (Jeremiah 18:6). It is not our hands on the clay, but our Lord’s hands. It is not our spirit and mind being transferred or duplicated in them, but rather the Holy Spirit giving them the mind of Christ. Our role is important, but we are not the molders; we are simply faithful tools in the Potter’s hands. Children are born whole persons, created in the image of God, and as such they are able to hear the voice of the Holy Spirit and respond directly. It is He who is forming the children.
By being responsive to the Holy Spirit ourselves, we can correct these wrong assumptions and see our role as parents and teachers with fresh eyes. If we have a great deal to learn from and with children, and if we see ourselves at the service of the Holy Spirit, then how should we describe our role in the formation process?
British education reformer, Charlotte Mason (1842-1923), offers us her teacher’s motto of “guide, philosopher, and friend,” which I find to be just as applicable to religious education as it is in any classroom (A Philosophy of Education, p. 32). In passing down our faith we can be guides, because we have navigated the road of faith before them. We have valuable experiences to share. We are philosophers because we should be introducing to them the fundamental questions, directing them to the fundamental truths that are discoverable about God. (This question and answer model is, after all, the format that the child’s Catechism takes.)
Finally, we are friends with the children. And the use of the word “friend” should not mistakenly convey any lack of authority on the teacher’s part; quite the contrary, we have been deputized with authority by Christ to follow His example of friendship with children (Parents and Children, p. 14).
Let us prayerfully consider what a difference can be made in our reimagining of our role in passing on the faith to the children in our midst. It is a privileged position indeed; and I am convinced that it is one that will return the greatest blessings to ourselves. For through this relationship with children we will better know our Father.
About the Author
Jessica Ptomey is a Catholic convert, author, speaker, Communications scholar, home educator, and Director of Religious Education at Sacred Heart Church in Bowie, MD. She blogs at JessicaPtomey.com. She is the author of Home in the Church: Living an Embodied Catholic Faith, and her research in inter-faith dialogue has been published in the Journal of Communication and Religion (JCR). She is also the co-host with her husband Mike of The Catholic Reading Challenge podcast.