ALKING TO OUR CHILDREN about suffering and death is among the most difficult subjects for any parent to address. In the last year, we have lost two beloved family members, and there has been no avoiding the subject. Through this, it is astounding how observant and compassionate even the smallest of children can be.
Very little children can discern profound realities even if they do not verbalize them. They will take note whether we talk to them about these difficult subjects or not, so in time, we must!
My five-year-old daughter doesn’t miss a trick. It is not at all unusual for her to describe in detail some particular event days after the fact. She also asks questions—lots of questions and pertinent ones too. Little children are rarely afraid to ask the questions that adults are afraid to ask.
Recently, my wife bought a children’s book for our daughter about the Stations of the Cross. (reason #2,543 that I married her…) While we have a number of children’s bibles in our house, some better than others, most completely gloss over or simply skip the crucifixion altogether. This is not a judgment, but rather speaks to the difficulty of the subject. What is quite telling is that without the crucifixion, there is also no resurrection in these books! Without suffering and death, the resurrection has no context, even for children. But with our hopeful expectation of eternal life with God, suffering and death can begin to make sense for adults. This is especially true for children, and it is the starting point for talking to them about the pain of loss.
For anyone who teaches children, it is obvious that matters of faith and contemplation—asking the one simple question (usually over and over), “Why?”—are part of their being at the earliest of ages.
Robert Gregory, a graduate student at Boston College’s School of Theology and Ministry teaches seventh and eighth graders at St. Cecilia Parish in Boston. He observes:
“…(Children) pose to us some of the most troubling questions we often would rather not think about but really MUST ponder if we want our faith to grow with any kind of depth. My own CCD kids asked the question, ‘Why the Cross?’…It hit me how little time most of us actually devote to contemplating that and other profound questions that get us nearest to the Christian meaning of such concepts as suffering, sacrifice, and self-offering…kids have a funny little way of asking the questions that are brought front and center in Holy Week.”
So, my daughter has been fascinated with the book about the Stations of the Cross, and she asks us to read it to her a few times a day. While we read, she asks many difficult questions perhaps as her way of processing the challenging realties: “Where are the soldiers taking Jesus? Why are they mean to him? Why are they jealous? Does the cross hurt? What is a tomb?” She notices the image of Jesus on Veronica’s veil and is quite taken by Simon helping Jesus. Her sense of compassion compels her to notice the suffering and to ask more questions. This comes naturally to children, but often not to adults.
(Keep in mind; this is a typical little girl who is obsessed with baby dolls, princesses, and anything pink!)
Quite naturally, as children often do, she wanted to retell the story in her own words. She came over to me and said she wanted to tell me the story. She did this in her own words as she turned the pages: “…The cross hurts…Simon is helping Jesus….They are jealous of Jesus…Jesus’ mommy is crying because she is sad…”
But finally, we can talk to her about the resurrection! The women saw the angel and the empty tomb! Jesus appeared to his friends! Peace be with you! Is all of this important because we are trying to cram knowledge into our children at the earliest age possible? No, what is important is that we are teaching God’s love at every age possible.
*Disclaimer: I’ve never done any of this before. My wife and I are feeling our way through this and most times we feel like we have absolutely no idea what we are doing!
Being a parent brings me back to my own childhood all the time. I had what one might call a rather strict religious upbringing. (No shock there!) My grandparents were immigrants from Italy, and my mother grew up in an Italian parish in Greenwich Village in NYC, Our Lady of Pompeii. I have come to realize that in a way, my religious upbringing in substance was akin to growing up in the hills of Tuscany, yet in practice, surrounded by New York of the 1970’s. (This is a strange mix indeed, but perhaps a typical American story.)
Both of my parents made sure that no stone was left unturned with regards to catechism or any element of Church teaching. For some people with very strict religious backgrounds, they have left the church or abandoned their faith. Again, this is not a judgment, but an observation on human nature.
However, my parents added one essential ingredient to their religious instruction—one that was MOST important. Their love for their faith emanated through everything they taught, and they taught most often by example. This may seem all too obvious a point. However, I grew up with excitement, joy, and warmth attached to our faith. In such an environment, God’s love has opportunity to take strong root within.
Also understand that my parents know of suffering and death all too well with the illness and loss of their first child, my brother Paul. Their faith they hold dear saw them through such suffering; my mother relates all too well to Our Lady of Sorrows.
My mother has always described the Catholic faith as a “jewel” or a “diamond.” She says it affectionately with love, joy, and with heartfelt gratitude to possess such a rich and sacred tradition. My father’s love for our faith is just as intense; he often lead the rosary during long car rides when my sisters and I were children. Their love for each other is equally as passionate and has been a great model and example for their children.
As musicians we can certainly understand the love we feel for the vast treasury of sacred music of the Church. Even non-Catholics recognize it as one of the greatest gems of Western civilization and culture. But that is simply a byproduct of the faith it expresses—the rich tradition we possess and that is ours by the virtue of our baptism.
With love we prepare music. With love we teach our children. I’m sure I am not going to get it right all the time. But remember, children have their eyes on everything. They can spot what is genuine and what is not. They can easily discern true love and charity. My daughter doesn’t miss a trick.
Matthew 18: 1-5: At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” He called a little child to him, and placed the child among them. And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.”
Saint Cecilia Parish, Boston, Massachusetts