“Should I Force My Teen to Go to Church?”

Over at the National Catholic Register, Matt Archbold discusses his frustration with parents who give older kids and teens a pass on going to church.

I thought I’d throw my .02 in as well and say that Matt is on to  something when he encourages parents to insist that their children of every age attend Mass.  The Eucharist is the food our souls need for eternal life.  “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and Drink his blood, you have no life in you” (Jn 6:56).  If your children were not eating healthy meals, you would insist that they sit at the dinner table and eat.  If they resisted further, you would recognize that the child might have a problem–even an eating disorder–and you would seek help.  If you, as a parent take your child’s earthly nourishment seriously, why would you neglect your child’s spiritual nutrition?   It needs to be understood in your household that Mass attendance is not optional.  Sometimes we don’t bring ourselves to the Lord’s table in the best mood or the best spirit, but we must always bring ourselves to the Lord’s table.

That said, forcing your kids to go to Church isn’t enough.  Often your kids resistance to Mass attendance is rooted in one of two deeper problems (or a combination of the two); no personal relationship with God or the deterioration of their relationship with you.  Let’s look at each.

Mass Resistance Hurdle #1–The Lack of a Personal Relationship with God.

Too many kids and teens ride their parent’s coattails when it comes to faith.  As parents, we assume that our kid is “catching” faith from us.  But that’s not how it works.  Imagine that you have a friend.  You meet your friend for lunch every week, and you always take your child with you, but before you go to the restaurant, you tell you child that the most important thing to do is to remain silent and still while you talk to your friend.  You do this every week for years until, one day, your teen say, “I don’t want to go to that lunch with your friend.  It’s boring.”  Would you be surprised?  Probably not.

Continuing the metaphor, if you wanted your child to eventually become friends with your friend, in addition to teaching your child how to behave in a restaurant, you would also need to teach your child how to listen to the conversation and make appropriate contributions to the discussion.  This way, over time, your child would learn that he was a welcome part of the discussion and that he could make bigger and better contributions to the discussion as time went by.  Soon, your child would look forward to these luncheons as much as you and your friend would start to become more and more your child’s friend as well.

In the same way, if you want your child to appreciate going to Mass, you have to help your child develop his or her own relationship with Jesus.  We do this through regular family prayer, teaching our children individual prayer, and a host of other family spiritual practices that help our children cultivate a relevant friendship with God.  The better job we’ve done fostering our children’s personal spirituality at home, the less we have to force them to go to church.

Mass Resistance Hurdle #2–Your Relationship with Your Child has Deteriorated.

When teens are angry at mom and dad, they have a tendency to go for the jugular.  If you are a faithful parent, your angry teen is going to go for the jugular by insisting that Church is irrelevant and, perhaps, that he doesn’t believe in God.  In my experience, the vast majority of teenage atheism has nothing to do with God and everything to do with looking for a way to hurt mom and dad–and especially dad (assuming dad is faithful).

Honestly, if this dynamic exists, it is almost always accompanied by the first hurdle as well.  The best way to begin addressing this faith crisis is by first restoring the parent-child relationship and then working on developing the teens relationship with God.  You really can’t do it any other way because you can disciple someone who does not want you to be his mentor.

The Good News

The good news is that if you do this work (instead of just freaking out and indulging in protracted religious lectures) chances are good that even the most resistant teen will re-discover (or discover for the first time) his or her desire to experience God in church and wherever else he can be found.

We offer many more suggestions for cultivating your child and adolescent’s spiritual life and cultivating the sort of relationship with your child that makes him or her want to listen to you in Parenting with Grace:  The Catholic Parents’ Guide to Raising (almost) Perfect Kids.  And if you need more assistance still, please check out the Pastoral Solutions Institute’s pastoral tele-counseling practice, where you can work with a faithful, professional Catholic therapist to get your marriage, family, or personal life where you would like it to be.

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