“Why doesn’t daddy go to church with us?” “Mom doesn’t go to church. Why do I have to?” “Does God care which church we go to?”
In a society where marriages between people of different faiths are more common than they were a generation or two ago, having nearly doubled by percentage since 1960, more and more children are asking these kinds of questions. Answering them to a child’s satisfaction and understanding, while instilling a sense of faith and belief in God, is becoming an important challenge for many parents.
Donna Couch, director of Faith Formation at St. Edward the Confessor in Dana Point, says that the child’s age and how diligently the parents practice their faith are two of the main considerations when dealing with this task. Because abstract thinking doesn’t really develop until around middle-school age, Couch says that talking to very young children—preschool to about third grade—about God, beliefs and practices should be in very simple and concrete terms. “I advise staying away from confusing explanations,” she says. It is also advisable to focus explanations on points of agreement. “If the parents are both Christian,” she says, “they can talk about how they both share the basic kerygma, that is the teaching of Jesus from the Gospels.”
As to the parents’ practice of their faith, matters can be a bit more complicated if they regularly attend different churches and take their children with them. If so, they will need to discuss why they worship differently and in different places. Again, Couch advises focusing on the positive and staying away from anything divisive. “They can say that they like to practice, worship,” she says, “in different ways, perhaps as they were brought up by their parents.”
Couch says that “faith” is an abstract concept that even many adults wrestle with. “I would rather see parents focus on key elements that comprise all faiths,” she says, “love for God and one another and how these make life meaningful.” She continues, “They can talk about how living a moral life, doing the right thing, and helping others makes us happy and helps us make the world a better place for everyone.”
A child who is surrounded by loving relationships learns much about God and about knowing a personal God through that experience. “I tell parents to stick to concrete experiences when they talk about God,” Couch says. “To know God by experience is a lot more helpful to children than reading about faith or trying to explain theological concepts.”
Perhaps the best last word on this subject comes from Rev. Walter H. Cuenin, author of an article titled “A Catholic Priest’s Perspective on Interfaith Marriage” published in 2002. In that article Fr. Cuenin writes, “It also seems to me that we need to appreciate the good that can come from interfaith marriages. In a strange sort of way, these marriages do remind us that God’s call for the human family transcends all religious boundaries.” He concludes, “While we find great benefit in our own faith traditions and want to see them passed on to future generations, no one tradition has an exclusive hold on God’s attention. When people of radically different yet connected traditions marry, perhaps they are imaging a new way of viewing life. It may seem disconcerting, but could it not also be a call to a greater religious harmony?”