Every parent wants their children to listen to them, not just about the requests and directives they make, but about the faith and moral lessons they want to pass on. But how can you get them to listen? Even more importantly, what does it take to get kids to OWN the lessons you teach them and willingly live them out in their own lives? The key, as we reveal in Discovering God Together: The Catholic Guide to Raising Faithful Kids, is fostering a discipleship heart in your child.
Forming Discipleship Hearts
Cultivating a discipleship heart is separate from teaching faith and moral lessons. It refers to how successful a parent is in helping their child be receptive to these lessons and, moreover, actively seek out the parent’s advice on these issues (and follows that advice willingly). A child has a discipleship heart if they consistently turn to you for help and guidance in meeting their spiritual, emotional, and relational needs and finding answers to their questions about living an abundant life. They do this not only because they have to (because you make them or because they have no other options) but because they want to.
Discipleship & Attachment
A “discipleship heart” is the fruit of the strength of your attachment with a child. Did you catch that important distinction? Attachment isn’t about how close the parent feels to the child (that’s called “bonding”). Rather, the word “attachment” refers to how strong the CHILD feels his relationship is with the parent. When parents respond promptly, generously, and consistently to the child’s practical, emotional and spiritual needs and requests for guidance the child develops a strong, gut-level sense that his parents are THE source for learning how to live life to the fullest. This is what attachment is; the degree a child feels compelled to turn to the parents–as opposed to anyone else–to meet his needs and answer his important questions about how life works. Because discipleship is all about forming a child in what it means to live life in a faithful ways, discipleship is the fruit of attachment.
Attachment vs. Spoiling
One point of clarification. Although forming healthy attachment/discipleship hearts does require meeting children’s needs promptly generously and consistently, meeting children’s needs doesn’t mean spoiling them. Spoiling comes from either neglecting a child and pacifying them with stuff or from giving them whatever they ask for without any thought. Building secure attachment/strong discipleship heart with a child requires an active effort to understand the positive intention or need that motivates a child’s behavior–even when that intention or need isn’t immediately obvious–and then working with the child to find healthy, godly ways to meeting that need or intention.
Creating strong attachment/discipleship hearts requires hard work, openness, patience, and generosity on the part of the parent. BUT the reward is two-fold. First, the process of building attachment is what makes child-rearing a source of sanctification for the parents. It challenges us to grow in virtues like patience, compassion, understanding, generosity, and love; all qualities that will help us become the saints we are called to be. Plus, it connects us with the way God our Heavenly Father Second, it fosters the child’s absolute confidence in your credibility to be THE source of information and guidance on how to live an abundant life.
In general, there are four signs that a parent is succeeding at fostering healthy attachment/discipleship hearts in his or her children. The child who has a discipleship heart/secure attachment…
-offers cheerful obedience. (They aren’t automatons, but they willingly and faithfully respond to requests/directions and will often offer to help without being asked.)
-willingly initiates and accepts generous affection with the parent. (as opposed to being awkward or uncomfortable around parental displays of affection)
-openly seeks and regularly accepts advice and counsel from the parent. (as opposed to being resistant to/rejecting of advice).
-regularly initiates and eagerly accepts offers to spend time with the parent. (as opposed to strongly preferring to spend time with friends and seeing family time as mostly an obligation)
Is Your Child A Disciple?
How effective are you at cultivating discipleship hearts in your children? Ask yourself, “How would my child answer the question, “Do your parents respond promptly, generously, and consistently to your needs, questions, or requests?” Any doubt/hesitation on your part means that you might have some work to do. The more a parent may put a child off, frustrate their needs, shame them for their requests, or present obstacles to getting what they want out of life (instead of helping them seek healthy alternative means of getting those things–think “qualifies yes technique) the more that parent is increasing the likelihood that their children will turn to people other than the parent–including peers–for guidance and formation.
By contrast, parents who are able to respond to their children’s needs and requests promptly, generously, and consistently teach the child that they are the best and easiest source to turn to for help and guidance. This cultivates a sense of openness and gratitude that makes the child receptive to input from mom and dad even when the child hasn’t asked for it. To learn more about cultivating a discipleship heart in YOUR child, check out Discovering God Together: The Catholic Guide to Raising Faithful Kids and Parenting with Grace: The Catholic Parent Guide to Raising (almost) Perfect Kids.