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How to answer your kid’s toughest questions about God

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Theresa Civantos Barber - published on 06/18/23

Lots of parents find it hard to respond when their kids have questions about faith. Here's where to find answers that are healthy, accessible and Christ-centered.

Parents are often surprised by how difficult it is to answer their children’s questions about religion. 

It’s often a struggle even if you’ve studied theology. Kids have a way of stumping adults with questions we would never have imagined.

That’s what happened to Julianne Stanz one day when her son asked her a question about God she didn’t know the answer to. He asked, “Mom, what’s the closest planet to heaven?”

… it was a shock to realize that all my years of formal study did little to address the practicalities of my children’s questions…

“As a Catholic parent who speaks and writes about faith regularly and ministers in the Church, I admit that his question stumped me,” Stanz said in an interview with Aleteia. “As a parent with advanced graduate studies in theology, it was a shock to realize that all my years of formal study did little to address the practicalities of my children’s questions and indeed, how to frame the answers for their understanding. Until I became a mother, I didn’t quite realize how deficient my studies would be from the practical perspective of answering my children’s questions.”

I asked my husband: How were you prepared to share your faith with our children?

As she explored the situation, Stanz realized that many other parents felt ill-equipped to answer their kids’ tricky questions about God and faith:

“How were you prepared to share your faith with our children?” I asked my husband once. “I wasn’t really,” he said. “It’s trial and error mostly.” Does this feel familiar? It does to many of my friends who are parents and have shared the same sentiment with me as well.

As someone trained in theology, however, Stanz decided to do something about it. She conducted multiple interviews, and asked parents and kids to share their most perplexing questions about religion. 

The result is a treasure of a book: The Catholic Parents’ Survival Guide: Straight Answers to Your Kids’ Toughest Questions.

Stanz wrote the book to help parents talk with their kids about faith in a healthy, accessible and Christ-centered way. I had the chance to ask her about the process of writing it and what inspired her. Here is our conversation.

Would you tell me about what inspired you to write this book?

I received an excellent education, but it didn’t equip me to address the faith questions of my children in a way that was simple, clear, coherent and compelling. I often thought, “If I can’t address these questions in a way that feels satisfying for my own children, even with continued years of theological study and formation, something is wrong …

I can certainly relate to feeling inadequate in the face of the seemingly unrelenting questions of my children! “Why, why, why” seems to be the mantra of young children in elementary school. But as they get older, our high school and college-aged children often stop asking questions about faith. Is it because they are no longer interested? Or is it because, as one 16-year-old told me, “My parents just don’t know the answers to the questions I was asking, so I stopped asking.”

Keeping our children Catholic is a continual talking point among all Catholics today, especially because the research is grim. There has been much hand-wringing in our Church communities regarding how to reach future generations. 

I have been an elementary teacher, middle school teacher, and high school teacher in both public and private schools in Ireland and the United States. I have also ministered in the Church as a youth minister and a young adult minister. I consider myself to be on the front lines every day of the struggle of parents to address their children’s questions about faith, youth who become more disinterested in faith as they grow up, and the sadness of grandparents who struggle to pass on their faith traditions. But I wrote this book as a mother, not simply a minister. Part of what motivates me is the desire to nurture my own children’s faith and to see our Catholic Church stronger because of their gifts and witness. Young people are an incredible gift to the world and the Church!

So what’s the closest planet to heaven? Well, you’ll just have to read the book to find out.

Who is the intended audience for The Catholic Parents’ Survival Guide?

This is a book for anyone who wants to grow in their understanding of the Catholic faith and how to share clear teachings in a compelling way with others! The book features real parents and grandparents addressing children’s toughest questions and draws on a wide variety of parental perspectives. It is a teacher-, catechist-, and parent-friendly guide to talking with children of all ages about the Catholic faith. So, the audiences include: 

  • Catholic parents/grandparents of children in elementary school, middle school, or high school years
  • Teachers in Catholic schools 
  • Catechists in religious education/faith formation classes
  • Godparents and anyone who wants to nurture the faith of young people 

It is also inclusive of families in all stages of life — those from single parent homes, divorced homes, and from different ethnic and religious backgrounds. 

How do you envision this book being used?

This book is designed to be simple, direct, and helpful — it’s meant to assist parents, grandparents, teachers and catechists to address children’s honest-to-goodness real questions and to share age-appropriate and Christ-centered information with children today. 

It’s my hope that this book will be carried in the handbags and backpacks of parents everywhere. That it will be left in the car or minivan, brought on family outings, and kept on the coffee table so that it can facilitate conversation wherever parents and young people are gathered together. That it will become well-loved and worn from lots of use.

For parents, I see this book as an encouragement to their own faith life since so many of the stories, teachings, and resources are also aimed at helping them to grow in their relationship with Christ. I also see it being accessible for catechists and teachers in Catholic schools and that the information provided (which is undergirded by Scripture, Church teaching and references to the Catechism) becomes a teaching tool that sparks dialogue and engagement on a variety of issues, particularly the more difficult and sensitive topics in the area of morality and Christian living.

I loved reading all the thought-provoking questions and wise answers from various participants in this book. What was your process for putting it all together?

Rather than writing solely from my own perspective, I interviewed parents and young people from all different backgrounds and stages of life. I inquired as to how they were striving to live out their faith. I asked parents the questions that they struggled to answer and the questions and traditions that they felt they handed on well. When I interviewed young people, I asked them about the questions that they wished they could ask their parents and what would be the best way to answer those questions. Putting both perspectives together allowed me to draw upon a vast array of experiences from real-life Catholic parents and youth. 

In sharing this experience with other parents, I also realized that knowing how to answer questions about faith is not merely enough. What also matters is how we also address these questions through our body language, tone of voice, our disposition, and our own willingness to listen and engage. Sharing accurate and precise information isn’t enough. Information must be balanced by our own openness to dialogue and meeting our children “where they are.” Every chapter includes practical ideas, stories, prayers and resources on a variety of topics to continue the discussion and to center the home as a place of faith, hope and charity. 

What is the most important thing you would want people to know about The Catholic Parents’ Survival Guide?

For parents: You can do it! You are the best ones to introduce and share your faith with your children in a way that can deeply impact their lives. 

Research continues to bear out that parents are the major influencers when it comes to the faith of young people and have the greatest impact upon their faith development in the face of grim research about the increasing rates of disaffiliation among young people. Released in 2017, the survey titled Going, Going, Gone: The Dynamics of Disaffiliation in Young Catholics sought to describe more fully, and in young people’s own words, why they have left or are considering leaving the Catholic Church. One of the statistics that perturbed many, and rightly so, is the stark reality that 74% of young people indicated that they stopped identifying as Catholic between ages 10 and 20, with a median age of 13. 

Every time I share this statistic at conferences, talks, parent retreats etc., there is an audible gasp from those in the room. Every. Single. Time. This statistic strikes a nerve and cuts deep. Even those who do not practice their own faith regularly seem to be rightfully bothered by this. The fact is that it should unsettle and bother all of us. As the popular expression goes, “the struggle is real!”

At the heart of this issue lies the real struggle of parents, parents just like you and I, who struggle with how to talk to our children about faith, how to share our faith as a family and how to keep our children Catholic in a world with increased rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide among young people who are longing for meaning, authenticity, and community. 

Why did you write this book?

While researching and writing this book, many parents shared that the messaging they receive from the Church regarding parenting can sometimes make them feel guilty about all the things that they aren’t doing. These messages can inadvertently be perceived by parents as very “pushy” and disheartening. Most parents are generally just getting by in the rush of life trying to do their best and want to see their children grow up to have a strong faith life. As a Church, we can build on the natural goodwill that parents instinctively have, listen to their joys and worries and partner with them as a support, resource and encourager of the “domestic Church.”

Many parents also commented to me that books often marketed to families in the Catholic Church often are very homogenous in their approach and outlook. Many Catholic writers often presume that there are two parents raising children who are happily married and both invested in their faith. They are often written with little regard for any kind of diversity- within the family context and the wider world. I wanted to uplift and share the stories and witness of parents and young people from all walks of life, from different cultures and backgrounds all linked together by our beautiful Catholic faith.

Children hear a lot of “what the Church teaches” in faith formation classes or Catholic schools but we don’t often address the “why” behind the “what.” This book lays a foundation for the who and the why (Jesus) before the “what and the how” of the Church’s teachings to help parents make the connection between faith learning and faith living in the home. It is my sincere hope that it encourages parents and young people to grow deeper in their faith and to see our Catholic faith as beautiful, transformative and life-giving.

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