Parenting a toddler involves allowing them to transport you into their world of adventure and imagination. Passing along faith to our toddler has involved introducing our child to a Catholic imagination for the world around us.
Like a growing gallery wall, each year my wife and I add new traditions and practices to our family spirituality. Here are four ways we have passed on our Catholic faith to our toddler.
1) Create a spiritual calendar
Our daughter has never been a good sleeper. This required very early on that we maintain consistent schedules and routines to help her cue into bedtime.
In a similar way, the church gives us the Liturgy of the Hours and a liturgical calendar to form spiritual rhythms in our day and year. Families too can develop a spiritual calendar. Our calendar includes special anniversaries, family saint days, liturgical seasons and baptism anniversaries.
On a daily basis our best family prayer time is at night. Our bedtime routine includes thanking God for what happened during the day and praying for friends, family members and anything else that pops into the mind of a 2-year-old.
One simple structure to family prayer is to use these common relationship phrases as prompts: “Jesus, I love you. Thank you for … I’m sorry for… and please help … .” As we lay our daughter in her crib we sing a hymn and add in classics like “Salve Regina,” “Amazing Grace” or simple chants from the Taize community.
2) Sit up front
Sunday Mass can be a particularly meaningful yet exasperating time to parent a toddler. We have been successful at focusing during Mass by sitting close enough to the front for our daughter to see the action taking place on the altar.
She enjoys following along the parts of the Mass in a children’s Mass book, and I regularly whisper in her ear describing the action that is taking place during Mass (“Now the priest is reading a story about Jesus” or “The sign of peace is coming up.”).
I knew our participation at Mass was bearing fruit when she turned to me during the psalm and asked, “Is it the alleluia time now Daddy?” She may be too young to understand the meaning of the Sunday liturgy but she is beginning to learn the rhythm of liturgical prayer that will bear fruit in years to come.
3) Find God in all things
While initiating specific spiritual practices is an essential way we pass along faith to our children, it is important to recall that “nothing is far from God” as St. Monica said, or in the words of St. Thomas Aquinas, that “grace builds on nature.”
Whenever we practice being kind, patient or saying “I’m sorry,” we are passing on faith to our children. Sometimes a sense of fervor or a limited imagination leads us to think that the only way we share our faith is by spending time in religious buildings or talking about religious things. It’s important to remember that everything that is good, true and beautiful directs the heart toward God.
Unfortunately our religious iconography rarely reminds us of this. Too often we see saccharine images of the child Jesus that rarely reflect our reality. I would love to see an image of Our Lady of Potty Training or St. Mary of the Meltdown.
While not discouraging us from a living and explicit practice of faith, finding God in all things encourages us to remember that the messy and ordinary work of family life — dishes, walks, laughter and story time — are privileged moments of grace that allow us to participate in God’s goodness.
4) Lead by example
As I genuflected and walked into the pew one Sunday holding my daughter’s hand, I felt her pull instead of quickly following me in. I looked back to find her also genuflecting, something I had not yet taught her to do.
As parents of a toddler we learned very quickly just how spongelike our daughter was. In his historic study on youth and religion, sociologist Christian Smith notes that when it comes to passing on faith to children, parents tend to “get what you are,” that is, young people are most likely to stay engaged with religious practice if their parents do also.
The most important thing that we can do to pass along our Catholic faith is the same, whether we are parenting toddlers or teenagers: recommit to our own relationship with Jesus Christ and his church.
This also means showing our children how we are practicing our faith by stopping into the adoration chapel, listening to a morning meditation together and committing to going to Mass each Sunday. For toddlers, more than any prayer we teach, the example we lead helps build a lasting moral imagination.
As a parent of a toddler and newborn, our family’s practice of faith includes different rhythms and calendars that shape a Catholic imagination. Like the monks of a monastery, our family also gets up at all hours of day and night to call on God’s help. Our chapel is our home, our pews are rocking chairs, our breviaries are children’s books.
Each messy or mundane act of parenting can become a doorway into spiritual practice, for us and our children, living each moment of family life intentionally as an offering instead of an obligation.
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(Jonathan Lewis has worked in parish and diocesan ministry for over 15 years and currently lives in Washington with his wife and two children.)