Raising our kids to live in the world but not of it is particularly difficult in a culture that is hostile to religious belief.
When I enrolled in public high school at the age of 14, after having been homeschooled my entire life, I was, to say the least, unprepared. I had no clue how to navigate the seating arrangements at lunch, what to say to seem cool, or how to dress to fit in. I didn’t realize that if I actually studied during study hall, the other kids would make fun of me.
The very first week, I wore a Christian t-shirt from my youth group. I didn’t wear it to be brave or make a public witness about my faith – I simply didn’t realize how much it would make me stand out. All the friends I made up until that point in my life were from my church — they wouldn’t have blinked an eye at my shirt — but these public school kids were very different.
I suppose you could say I was naive. I wasn’t ready for socializing in such a strange environment. Looking back on it, though, I’m kind of glad I was so innocent. After a few months in school, I began to adapt. The changes helped me fit in better with my peers, but I’m not convinced it was entirely worth the loss of innocence that was required. In some ways, I survived by hiding parts of who I really was and by making peace with compromise. Maybe I could have approached the whole experience differently.
In the world but not of it
It’s one of the more difficult problems that Catholics face. How do we live in the world but not become like the world? How do we get along in a culture that isn’t predominantly Catholic – and is increasingly hostile to religious belief of any kind – but still retain our innocence?
It’s a particular conundrum for families with young children. We want to shelter them from the evil of the world, but not so much that they cannot function outside of the safety of the home and church environment.
Some parents decide that preserving their children’s innocence requires completely cutting them off from the world. No mainstream television, music, or books. Only Christian friends and religious education. I understand the motivation; I really do. Thinking back to my highschool experience, it could easily have led me permanently away from my faith. I so much want to keep my own children away from that experience.
At the same time, I worry that if children are so sheltered that any encounter with a non-Catholic shocks them, it will cause a backlash. They might wonder why so much was kept hidden from them and rebel.
My own experience in highschool had some positive outcomes. Yes, it was touch-and-go for a while, but my parents were patient and helped talk me through the more difficult moments. I emerged with a stronger sense of how to confidently carry myself in a world that doesn’t always appreciate Christian beliefs. Certainly, there are still times today that I don’t speak up when I should to defend the faith, and the way I behave falls far short of what I claim to believe, but I do think that, with the help of my parents and after having made lots of mistakes, I was able to preserve at least some semblance of innocence as I grew into adulthood.
The meaning of innocence
It helps to know the actual meaning of the word innocence. It comes from the Latin nocere, meaning harm. The prefix in negates the verb, meaning an innocent person literally is, “not harmful.”
It seems to me that a practical definition of an innocent person is someone who is aware of the harm that sin causes and seeks to repent. An innocent person retains a sense of good and bad, actively trying to avoid the bad. Notice that innocence requires knowledge of good and bad. This means the best way to remain innocent isn’t to remain naive.
G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown is a great example of innocence. He’s a good man and a Catholic priest. However, because he hears confessions, he knows far more about sin than the average person. In fact, he knows quite a bit more about sin than even proud unrepentant sinners seem to know. He isn’t sheltered or naive, but he very much remains innocent.
I’m still hesitant to put my own children through the same experience I had, partly because it seems that the culture has become more hostile even in the 30 years since I was in high school, and also because I had friends who lost their innocence as they went through a similar experience to mine. I don’t want to take anything for granted.
Every child is different, so it’s always a prudential judgment. What’s good for one child isn’t so good for another. The goal isn’t to make them all perfect clones who project the outward appearance of being perfect, moral Catholics and only socialize with one another. The goal is to preserve their innocence so they can lead happy, flourishing lives no matter the circumstances.
As a father, I cannot keep my children entirely separate from the world – that’s not the best path to innocence, anyway — but what I can do is, by word and example, show them how important it is to strive to become “harmless,” how to prioritize remaining free from sin and not become captive to vices. For me, this means parenting with prudence, being transparent and honest with them in an age-appropriate manner when they encounter the bad, and allowing them to see some of my own continued spiritual striving for innocence.
Ultimately, the goal is to live in the world as agents of good, to bring a little more happiness, joy, and innocence wherever we can.