Spring 1984, Vol. 36, No. 1, pp. 24-33.

Lynn M. Parent Neil A. Parent:
      Parents: First Preachers of the Word

Parents have many opportunities to break God's word for their children in four areas of catechesis: the gospel message, community life, worship, and service.

Neil Parent is the representative for adult education, United States Catholic Conference, in Washington, D.C. Lynn Parent is an official with the Northern Virginia Cooperative Preschool Association. They are parents of Elena, age seven and Denise, age four.

IN the Second Vatican Council's Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, the bishops of the world cite parents as the "first preachers of the faith to their children" (no. 11). This is true not only in terms of their words but in terms of their example as well. Essentially, this pronouncement by the Second Vatican Council echoes numerous other statements about the responsibility of parents to raise their children in the faith. Provincial councils in the Middle Ages down to recent documents, including those of Pope Pius XI, Pope Pius XII, and Pope John Paul II, have recognized and stressed this parental responsibility. In our own country, the American bishops in the 1972 pastoral statement To Teach As Jesus Did, and in their more extensive National Catechetical Directory, Sharing the Light of Faith, also emphasize the essential role that parents play in the faith formation of their children.

The fact that so much emphasis has been placed on parental involvement with the catechesis of children stems, not simply from lofty theological concepts, but also from solid research and experience. In the 1978 study The Unchurched American, by the Princeton Religion Research Center, a clear difference emerged between those adults who still attended church and those who no longer attended. The churched cited "instruction by your parents at home" considerably more often than did the unchurched.(1) In another study commissioned by the National Catholic Education Association, researcher Andrew D. Thompson writes that the "findings indicated that the level of parent-youth communication about religious/moral matters was the strongest predictor of youths' accepting traditional religious beliefs and behavior."(2)

Over the years since the Second Vatican Council, religious educators and catechists have found it difficult, if not virtually impossible, to have success with children when parents were not supportive of their efforts through cooperative means at home. Parish religious education is no substitute for the implicit and explicit faith instruction that comes from parents, beginning with a child's earliest days. This is why Pope John Paul II, in his Apostolic Exhortation on Catechesis, emphasized that "family catechesis . . . precedes, accompanies and enriches all other forms of catechesis" (no. 68).

Like it or not, parents are religious educators, catechists of their children. Whether they ever speak an explicit word about God or not, they continually communicate religious and moral values in what they say and do. So the question then becomes, not whether parents should be involved in their child's faith formation, but how effective they will be in that role.

In this article, we would like to highlight some of the ways in which parents can become more effective proclaimers of God's word to their children. We have chosen to structure our remarks around the four components, or elements, of catechesis that are identified in the National Catechetical Directory, namely, the message of catechesis, the community dimension of catechesis, the worship aspects of catechesis, and the service implications of catechesis. Since the role of parents with reference to service will be treated elsewhere in this issue, we will not comment at length on that topic. Essentially, we will limit our remarks regarding service to a few brief comments dealing with the catechetical task of communicating and explaining faith.

The comments and observations that we make about the fourfold task of catechizing children at home must be adapted to the various age levels of children and to the unique circumstances of each home. The older children become, the more explicit parents need to be with religious instruction. When children are much younger, a more implicit approach that gradually socializes them into the faith is often more effective.

Since this article is entitled "Parents: First Preachers of the Word," our comments will be directed primarily to those parents who have younger children. It is they who are in the truest sense first preachers, since other catechetical exposure has not yet begun.


The message of catechesis here is the content of the faith. It is communicated in a variety of ways, but most essentially through personal witness. This personal witness can make a profound impact on small children. Writing in his Apostolic Exhortation on Catechesis, Pope John Paul II said that "education in the faith by parents, which should begin from the children's tenderest ages, is already being given through the witness of their Christian lives, a witness that is often without words, but which perseveres throughout a day-to-day life lived in accordance with the gospel" (no. 68).

It is, therefore, important that, as much as possible, parents strive to live the basic themes of the gospel, including those of love, forgiveness, compassion, peacemaking, sensitivity. Of course, all Christians are mandated to live these themes, but parents are living them not just for themselves but in order that their children might absorb them and grow in faith. As Chris Long wrote some years ago, "The child is a pre-believer who is in the process of becoming a believer through his faith in the significant adults in his life."(3) Children identify greatly with the significant adults in their lives, particularly their parents. Where values and attitudes of the adults are in evidence, there is a tendency on the part of the child to emulate them.

On a more explicit level, parents need to speak of their faith to one another. Children can gain much from hearing parents share their respective faith stories with each other and from their vocalizing other aspects of their faith lives. Living in an environment in which discussions of faith are common occurrences, the children gradually assimilate some of the more fundamental elements of the message of faith.

Small children can learn much about the faith from stories that are read to them. Children enjoy stories and can gain a great deal of insight from those dealing with some of the basic themes of the Christian faith, for example, the nativity of Jesus, creation, the Good Samaritan.

Of course, children are full of questions about God and other aspects of faith. While these sometimes pose significant challenges for parents, answering them in a forthright manner can aid the child's understanding of faith.

Some years ago, when our older daughter was three years old, she and Neil came upon two dead mice in our yard. Although the mice did not appear to have been dead very long, insects were already beginning to make a feast of them in the summer's hot sun. At the sight of the mice, our daughter began to struggle to hold back her tears. Neil suggested to her that they bury the mice. So they dug a small hole near the flower garden and placed the mice inside it. As they began to fill the tiny grave, our daughter found that she could no longer hold back her tears. With tears streaming down her face, she asked in rapid succession: "When we die, will we be put into the ground like the mice? Will bugs eat us too? If we are buried in the ground, how will we get to heaven?" And, finally, the question that almost brought Neil to tears: "Will you and mommie die before me and leave me alone?"

Her questions were profoundly theological and, essentially, beyond her own capacity for understanding, even if we could provide adequate answers. We were able to comfort her by assuring her that God has prepared a wonderful home for us in heaven where we will all be united after death. We spoke to her fear of being left alone by telling her she would be grown up before mommie and daddy would die. She would then have others to love.

Since then, there have been countless more questions by her and by our other daughter. These questions provide ample occasions for imparting the essential elements of the faith. Indeed, if parents were to do nothing more for small children than to try to handle their questions about the religious significance of life, they would soon cover most, if not all, of the major mysteries of our faith.

Besides responding to questions, parents can seize the multitude of occasions in the life of the child for "teachable moments." Practically every aspect of the child's life, particularly their relationships with other children, are fertile ground for planting seeds of religious meaning. Parents are cautioned, however, not to use God as a means of getting children to behave. Such an approach would cast God into the role of judge and punisher, an image that could have serious consequences for later religious development.

Celebrating the liturgical seasons in the family will often be a means of surfacing various aspects of the Christian message. We have found that our children tend to ask more questions, to take a greater interest in religion, when the mysteries of the faith can be made visible and celebrated in the context of the home. Thus, Advent and Lent are particularly good times for imparting the message of the faith to children.

We have found, too, that all aspects of the Christian message need not come from explicitly religious sources. There are many good books available to children which highlight themes of caring, sharing, and even self-sacrifice for others. These stories can be read and enjoyed, all the while helping the child to gain greater insight into the Christian message.

Recently we purchased stamps from the post office that commemorated the 800th anniversary of St. Francis of Assisi. By showing the stamps to the children and explaining the meaning of Francis's life, a significant part of the Christian message was imparted.

Even as preschoolers, children in many parishes today have access to formal religious instruction. Such instruction can be highly valuable, especially when it is supported by the parents' own instruction at home. Too frequently parents feel that once the child is enrolled in a religious instruction class, their own responsibilities for religious education, at least in a formal way, cease. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is highly important that parents reinforce the religious instruction of their children in the family setting. Again, from Pope John Paul's Apostolic Exhortation on Catechesis: "Christian parents must strive to follow and repeat, within the setting of family life, the more methodical teaching received elsewhere. The fact that these truths about the main questions of faith and Christian living are thus repeated within a family setting impregnated with love and respect will often make it possible to influence the children in a decisive way for life" (no. 68).


The church is by nature communal. God has not called believers to divine friendship as isolated individuals but as members of a community where there is the practice of mutual love and support. That children be exposed to the communal dimensions of faith early on is highly important. In the study on the unchurched American, the basic reason why the churched joined the church was because they were brought up in the congregation. Nearly half the responses were in this category.(4)

In the Constitution on the Church (no. 11), the family is referred to as the "domestic church." It is in the context of family that children can experience what true community is; later they can more fully appreciate the communal dimension of church. How might this be done?

Parents can build on their ongoing efforts to help their children expand their ego boundaries. Small children are by nature egocentric. Their world revolves around them. In the nurturing process, parents help their children to see that greater meaning in life comes from going beyond one's own needs and including others through various relationships. Essentially, this is at the heart of community. And authentic Christian community calls for us to relate to others even to the point of self-sacrifice. We have found that helping our children learn to share their little pleasures-such as candy, gum, and games-with others helps them to develop a sense of responsibility towards others.

In many preschool and child-care centers today, the children are encouraged to think along these lines. Each child is presented as highly valued and needing to be included in activities. Such emphases are ready material for parents to translate to the Christian notion of community.

But even if the family developed a high degree of community, where sharing and support were readily practiced, there would still be a need to translate the notion of community beyond the family. As much as possible, families should be expansive in their interaction with the larger community. Important messages of faith can be communicated to children by parents who reach out to others in need, incorporating them into the family community. Little things, such as caring for another's children when the mother is sick or helping to fix meals for shut-ins, communicate to children that community goes beyond family; it essentially includes everyone.

Families can help create a sense of world community by praying for others who are experiencing problems, such as starvation in Africa. The family can also go beyond prayer to alleviate the sufferings of others; the family can join with others to support financially a hunger project. The Christian faith is about people together, in community with one another.

Another way to expand the notion of community as a Christian ideal is to visit different ethnic celebrations of the liturgy. Children find the various native celebrations interesting, especially when done in native dress. At the same time, the experiences serve to convey a sense of many varieties of people that make up the Christian family.

The attendance of children at church is a problem for many parents. Even small children today are prone to say they do not want to go to church, that they are "bored" with Mass. Yet, without some church exposure, children may fail to gain the necessary appreciation of the church as community. The resistance of children to church attendance may require some creative problem-solving on the part of parents, but it should not be given into too easily.


Worship is an important dimension of catechesis in that it helps the believer acknowledge his or her creatureliness before God. It enables one to express gratitude to God for blessings received and to seek God's assistance with the challenges of life. Genuine catechesis helps children appreciate the importance and place of worship in their lives. Worship includes both the liturgy of the church and communal and private prayer.

To help children gain an understanding of worship in their lives, various methods can be used. First of all, it is important to establish a certain amount of family ritual. When this ritual is tied into the liturgical seasons of the church, so much the better. We like to give great emphasis to both the Advent and Lenten seasons for helping to establish a sense of ritual in the family. In Advent, the Advent candles, the Advent calendar, and setting up the crèche help bring the Christian mysteries into the routine of family life in a prayerful way.

While Lent does not have the same symbolic attraction for children as does the Christmas season, there are still a number of things that can be done to instill faith through worship. Besides evening recitation of Lenten prayers before meals, families may also wish to use some means for collecting money to help the less fortunate. Each year our parish participates in Operation Rice Bowl. Each family is given a small cardboard rice bowl in which they can make contributions throughout the Lenten season. These then are collected at a Mass just before Easter. The presence of the rice bowl not only adds to the ritual of the family's observance of Lent; it also can stimulate conversation about Christian responsibilities for assisting those less fortunate than we.

Parents can also seize upon other opportunities offered by parishes for incorporating their family routine into the liturgical seasons. Again, with reference to Lent, our parish offers a weekly soup kitchen that many families attend. Presence at such functions also helps the children to understand that the parish community is about much more than hosting Mass.

One highly successful means that we use for highlighting the worship dimension of catechesis is to celebrate the anniversary of our daughters' christenings. The celebration usually includes a special dinner at which the child's baptismal candle is lit, a small gift of some kind is given, and, after the dinner, films and slides of the christening ceremony are shown. We have recently invited relatives and friends to share in the celebration. What we particularly like about the christening observance is that it is not only a ritual in itself (thus helping the children to sense the importance of ritual in their lives), but it also serves as a beautiful occasion for retelling the message of what a christening is all about. Our girls never seem to tire of hearing more about their baptisms. And, of course, the slides, films, and other pictures help convey the message that the celebration was communal, that other believers came to welcome them into the church.

Prayer is, of course, a highly important dimension of Christian life. Jesus asked us to pray always. To help children learn to pray, parents can first of all model prayer for them. When our daughters were younger, we said the prayers before meals. Now, they usually offer their own grace.

Our daughters are accustomed to praying spontaneously because that is how they have experienced us praying. But it is just as important to help children learn some of the church's rich treasury of prayers, such as the Lord's Prayer and the Hail Mary.

Here again, patterns are important. While children should be helped to see that prayer can take place anythime when the need or desire for it is present, it is nevertheless important, especially for small children, that certain routines of prayer be established. This is, incidentally, as true for adults as it is for children.

One pattern of prayer that we like to use is to give a blessing to each of the girls just before she goes to bed. Our girls have come to expect it, and they will frequently call for it if we find ourselves forgetful or too pressed for time. The point is that through these various routines of prayer, children come to an implicit understanding of the importance that prayer plays in the life of the believer. SERVICE Service is an important element of catechesis. Unless the learned message is somehow put into action, faith will not be complete. Jesus said, "None of those who cry out, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of God, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven" (Matt. 7:21).

As was mentioned previously, we will not comment on this topic at length because it will be treated elsewhere. It would be important to note, however, that as with message, community, and worship, the personal witness of the parents is essential for helping their children understand the service dimensions of faith. A simple family life-style that avoids ostentation and consumerism can speak volumes to impressionable minds. Also, when parents reach out to others in need or emphasize peacemaking within the family, significant learnings do take place. The essential point to remember is that without some conscious service dimension to faith, a true catechesis does not exist.

The task of family catechesis is not an easy one today. The above suggestions are only a few of the things that parents can do to emphasize their responsibilities as first proclaimers of the word to their children. But the immense complexity of today's society poses serious challenges to parents. With God's abundant grace, however, and the willingness of parents to try, significant steps can be taken to help children grow to full stature in the faith.

  1. The Unchurched American (Princeton: Princeton Religion Research Center, 1978), p. 12.
  2. Andrew D. Thompson, That They May Know (Washington, D.C.: National Catholic Education Association, 1982), p. 77.
  3. Chris Long, "Your Child Asks about God," Pace 1 (1970):3.
  4. The Unchurched American, p. 13.