by Father George A. Kelly, The Catholic Family Handbook
A mother once asked her pastor when she should begin teaching her five-year-old about God. The pastor replied that she was already five years late. What he meant, of course, was that your child’s religious training should begin almost as soon as he is born. As Sister Mary de Lourdes states so beautifully in her guide for mothers, “Baby Grows in Age and Grace,” the child held in the arms of a confident and competent mother and who is surrounded by the happiness of a good Christian family has a natural start for the spiritual life.
At seven to ten months, a baby begins to listen to sounds intently. He does not know what words mean, but he gets an impression from the tone of your voice, your facial expressions, and your gestures. It is not too soon to begin teaching him a prayer. Such a prayer should be as simple as possible, and preferably repetitive–with the same sounds repeated over and over. Sister de Lourdes cites this one:
Thank you, God, for Jimmy,
Thank you for Jimmy’s bread,
Thank you for Jimmy’s smile,
Bless Jimmy in his bed.
As soon as your child can speak in syllables, you can teach him simple prayers. For example, carry him to a painting or statue depicting the Baby Jesus in His Blessed Mother’s arms, and point out to him that the Infant Savior also had a mother who loved Him. Before he reaches his first year, he may be able to enunciate the name of Jesus. He can be encouraged to say good night to the Savior of the painting or statue.
When the family eats together, the baby in his high chair will observe that grace is said before and after meals. He will join in the prayers automatically as soon as he is able.
Pictures have a powerful appeal for the one-year-old and two-year-old.
You can encourage his interest in religion by showing him paintings of great events in the life of Our Lord. You will find him an interested viewer and listener if you show him pictures of Baby Jesus, and the Holy Family, and of Biblical incidents. He will also be a rapt listener as you narrate the stories which the pictures illustrate. At Christmas time especially, you can impress upon him that this great feast commemorates the birth of the Infant Savior: your telling of the Christmas story can begin to implant a reverence for this great feast that will last throughout his life.
In his third year, your child will probably be ready to learn about the creation by God of the world and everything in it. You will have opportunities to teach him as a matter of course that God made the flowers, the trees, the dog whose back he pats, and every other thing that he sees about him. Express your own appreciation for God’s many gifts–the beautiful flowers, the lovely sunset, the water you drink, the food you eat. In this way, he too will recognize that God is a loving Father to Whom we owe gratitude for all things.
By the time he is three, he should be sufficiently advanced mentally to begin practicing simple acts of self-denial. If he is given a piece of candy before dinner, he will probably understand if he is told that he must not eat it until after his meal. This is his first realization that satisfaction of present desires must often be deferred for our own good.
At the age of four, he should be ready to take a more active part in family prayers. In some families, father, mother and children pray together in the evening before the first child goes to bed. His attendance at night prayers will impress the importance of this devotion upon him and enable him to learn the words sooner than he perhaps would ordinarily. Four-year-olds usually do not have a long attention span, however, and the average child may become distracted after a few minutes. The night prayers in which he joins may be kept short at first and gradually lengthened as he grows older.
At this time, your child is old enough to understand certain moral principles: that he must obey his parents because God wishes him to do so; and that lying, stealing and disobedience are not in accordance with God’s will. You can teach these principles by giving him the image of God as his Eternal Father. If he has a loving trust in his own father, he will not find it difficult to visualize God as the loving Father of all mankind. He is also ready to learn of his Guardian Angel; many childish fears can be removed if he knows that his Guardian Angel always watches over him, and he will feel secure in new experiences when he knows that he has a protector.
From ages four to six, you can intensify in many different ways the moral training you began earlier. Through family prayer and other devotions, when you read to him, and through little talks when you perform his daily routines with him, you can inculcate the great truths of our religion. In particular, do not overlook opportunities to instill high ideals through reading. Many excellent books recount Bible stories in attractive pictures and text and they stress vividly the importance of practicing virtue in our lives. For example, the story of Adam and Eve can be a means of teaching him why he must obey God and his earthly parents. The story of Abraham may teach him that we must be ready to sacrifice all we possess if God requires it. From the parable told by Jesus of the widow’s mite, he can learn that we must always show our gratitude to God; from the parable of the talents, that we must always do our best for His glory.
Many devotions and religious observances can now be made an intimate part of your child’s daily life. In Chapter 16, devoted to religious observances in the home, you will find many suggestions to help you make the love of God the greatest fact in your child s existence.
Our Lord taught that the love of God is the first and greatest commandment, but He also said that a second commandment was like it–the commandment that we must love our neighbor as ourself. You probably can best teach this commandment by example. More powerful than your words will be your courteous attitude toward those who visit your home; toward peoples of other races and creeds; toward those less privileged in a spiritual or material sense than yourself. Christ’s teaching that all men are brothers under the Fatherhood of God will have greater meaning for your child if he notices that you always treat others with respect.
Before your child is seven, you will probably notice the formation of his conscience. He may show by expressions of guilt or shame when he has done wrong. This development of conscience indicates that you now can appeal to him more and more on the grounds of reason, rather than on the weight of your authority. The seven-year-old normally is sufficiently developed to take responsibility before God for his actions. By the orderly and constructive training you have provided, he should be able to recite his morning and night prayers; he should know the important laws of God and Church–the necessity to attend Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation and of abstaining from meat on Friday, for example; and he should be ready to begin preparations for his First Communion.
Obviously, your child’s moral training at home does not stop when he enters parochial school. Rather, it continues throughout his lifetime.