Raising children in faith: a marathon, not a sprint

Aurora invited Newcastle parishioner, mother of four and ‘CEO’, Clare Howlett, to reflect on the way she and her husband Brett are raising their family in faith.

Raising children in faith: a marathon, not a sprint

I grew up in a home where grace was said before dinner every night. Prayers before bedtime were standard. The rosary was said occasionally (and not just in October, the month of the rosary) and Mass was the punctuation mark to every week. Religious pictures adorned our walls, Catholic reading matter lay all over the house and conversations about God were the rule, not the exception. I never considered this unusual. It was all very normal to me. Although not standard in all my friends’ homes, this was very much the standard in the homes of my relatives, of whom there were many. Was I fortunate? I guess I was.


As a mother, and now ‘CEO’ of my own family, I suppose I simply assumed the same for my children.  Most families would subscribe to a common purpose or a ‘mission statement’. Whilst not in writing and perhaps not even verbalised, there is usually a driving principle that propels the family unit. For us, it is our faith in God.  That being the case, like any worthwhile pursuit, we need certain tools in the toolkit to help us on our way and keep us on track.


For us — and I stress that it’s not so for everyone — Mass is key. Faith, like life, cannot be sustained in isolation and being part of a faith community is like an insurance policy. I think it’s important for us to see other people who think like us, practising similar rituals, so that we don’t feel ‘alone’. Although my children are part of a large extended family, this family does not live in Newcastle and the Mass community allows us to feel a part of another family in the absence of our own. The Mass sets the tone for us and reminds us of our objective, while Communion gives us the chance to encounter Jesus, personally and regularly.  I don’t for a moment think my children fully understand this right now , but over time I hope they will come to understand the importance of the ritual in sustaining their souls as they travel along the road of life.


What constitutes Mass attire these days with a pre-teenager though, is anyone’s guess. One of my children (and probably not one of the boys) is currently determined to develop a personal ‘dress sense’. Sometimes it’s a fine line between freedom of expression and just plain inappropriate! This is a true test of faith on a parent’s part and whilst I know God ‘meets us where we are’, I just hope sometimes God has a sense of humour!


Prayer life is something we foster too. I ask my children to think of God as their friend and speak to God that way, in the hope that this will then become ‘normal’ going into their future. I want them to see God sitting on their shoulder, travelling the journey with them, not ‘up in the sky’.


Although not seen in many homes these days, we do have a picture of Jesus in a key position in the living area. As much as for anyone, this is for me, when it’s all getting too hard on the home front, to remind me that God is watching what I say. Nothing pulls me up faster than a quick glance at Jesus in the background, mid-argument! It doesn’t hurt the kids either to know that Jesus is part of the picture.


I think a key element of a healthy faith-filled childhood is the observation of a key mentor ‘walking the walk’. Our kids need to see us doing what we say, otherwise it is just hot air. How can we ask them to reach out to strangers if they don’t see us doing it and showing them how? I can’t expect my kids to be ‘good Samaritans’ if my husband and I are not.  Dr Phil says, “The single greatest influence on a child is the parent of the same sex.” What do we want our kids to be? What do we want our kids to see in us? We can’t ask them to be kind, compassionate, generous of spirit, thoughtful, sharing their gifts, if they don’t see that in us. There is no better message sent to our children than the observation of our participation in our own faith community, sharing our individual gifts.


The Majellan magazine was always ‘hanging around’ the house as I grew up, and so it is in my own. Apart from sustaining my husband and myself as we go about the business of daily living, I know one day one of the kids will pick it up and read an article that speaks to them too. So too other faith-filled reading matter, although in the age of e-books, these will be harder to share.


Sure, there are days, weeks even, when we don’t always pull out the tools. Some weeks are too hectic, someone gets sick, life happens. But eventually we come back to the routines and keep our eye on the prize. This is the benefit of a few tools in the toolkit.


Lastly, I would say we ‘Talk, talk, talk!’ Brett and I give the kids our ‘take’ on current affairs. We explain the challenges that we face, both as a general and faith community. We try to teach them how to think about what they see and read.  Give them your opinions, influence their thinking — now while you still can!


We ask them to be fair on the world around them as they experience it. When we see injustice – poor treatment of refugees, the underprivileged and weak in our society – we say, “What would Jesus do? Where is compassion in our current way of life?” We tell our kids what’s good about this way of living, what is it that we want for them. No subject should be taboo (age appropriate of course). Whose view do you want them to get? Yours or Johnny-in-the-schoolyard-Smith’s?  Family experiences are full of teachable moments; make the most of them.


And let’s not forget, this business of parenthood is a marathon, not a sprint. That in itself requires faith!  After all, what is my ‘job’ as a parent?  What do I want for them at the end of the day? Really, isn’t it more important to strive to be an inclusive, kind-hearted friend than to strive to be first at everything? Wouldn’t I rather see them stop and help someone else with their gifts on the race of life, rather than just win? Don’t I really want them to find meaningful lives, whatever their choices? Isn’t the pursuit of the common good better than always chasing the individual’s goal?


My job as a parent is also to guide and steer our children as we navigate the milestones of life. Of course my husband and I want them to do their best, be good sportsmen/women, negotiate friendships, study hard, get a good HSC and juggle busy lives. Somehow, though, I think the glue of a faith-filled childhood will sustain them far beyond any of these.  Whatever happens from here on in, I’ve given it my best shot. The children will grow up, lead their own lives, make their own choices. The rest is really up to God.


You may wish to visit www.majellan.org.au.


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