Whole Parenting Family

Christmas Celebrations: Why We Start Religion for Our Children Right Away

Merry Christmas!

It’s Christmas. For us that means lots of religious customs. We’re religious folk, AA and I. Our sense of spirituality is bizarrely similar, given that we were raised with fairly different approaches to it. We love tradition. We love dark churches lit by candles. We love Latin chanting. We love a quiet session in the Adoration Chapel. We love private prayer. We love our parish {see article I wrote on it here}, the same one I was born into, and now the same one our children were!

Spirituality and religion are so profoundly personal. And not everyone wants a sense of either. And many of us are still on our journey of either/both/one. Given that each person has a particular journey, why start religious instruction early for children? Why not let them choose their own path when they are old enough to be interested in it? Why foist your views, or lack thereof, on an impressionable young mind?

We have opted to start religion for our kiddos from the get-go for five basic reasons:

1) Give a baseline for later and more nice people in their lives for now.

I hope our children always feel and think their faith and beliefs, but even if they change their course or adopt different beliefs, they have our heritage as a baseline. Even if only for cultural references. The gift of access to faith, encouragement in faith, and exposure to people who believe in things (that takes a leap!) is a beautiful example. Our religion focuses a lot on sacrifice and giving of yourself, also great attributes that are not religion-specific, but help shape character.

I had no idea how important Jesus and the Blessed Virgin Mary would be as simply people in SuperBoy’s life. He doesn’t get the advanced concepts of the hypostatic union, or transubstantiation. He doesn’t need to. He understands Jesus was a little boy too once, a little boy who shared and respected his parents, a little boy who was God and a little boy, and an example for him. He understands Mama Mary to be his heavenly mother, and Jesus’ mama, who’s there to comfort him when he’s alone and scared, or who’s there to ask for help when he’s frustrated and angry. And that the Saints are not only a great baseball team, but also a team of wonderful people who are dead and whose examples we strive to follow.

2) Development of conscience and teaching of moral values.

One doesn’t have to be religious to develop a conscience or moral code, obviously. Religion can be a vehicle for both, though.

Conscience: We don’t see religion as a vehicle for shaming or guilt-tripping. The shaping of a conscience is comprised of delineating desirable behavior from undesirable behavior, and empowering the child to internalize this distinction process. All parents do this, regardless of creed. Our path to shaping may just have different no’s and yes’s, specific to our tenets.

Values: Our family saying: “We love and we pray; we share and we play.” SuperBoy often needs reminders of the third part of this. Love, sacrifice, offering things up, being gentle and kind, respecting your parents, etc. We talk about the Ten Commandments. We discuss Church teachings. We read about Jesus’ life. We differentiate between things that are okay to do, and not okay to do.

But why start now when they’re so little? Because I can’t hope that our children come to embrace these values later on as they’re not the natural values to embrace. It’s natural for children to be sneaky, rude, selfish, and wild. Instead of shaping his behavior through punishment (all the time), an external force, we’re trying to give him a rooting in the why’s behind the don’t-do-that. Following your base instincts won’t bring you closer to a God of love, and won’t make you happy. You have to practice self-discipline, and develop it from the get go, based on something that’s higher than your parents. Someone you’re accountable to when no one is looking. Someone whose rules and regulations are motivated by what’s best for you, little SuperBoy.

3) Reinforcement of what we teach as parents.

Religion with a structured belief system that reinforces what you teach as a parent backs you up. All children rebel against their parents. All children push back on what they’re taught. Some more so than others. But that adorable baby you’ve birthed, feed, clothed, and snuggled will someday in someway really dislike you, specifically. Unfathomable, but true. If you’ve surrounded your child with a culture that backs up what you’ve shown them, then they can see from their friends, their friends’ parents, their school, and their environment a mirroring of values you hold true.

If you’re the only port in the storm, why should your child believe you when you say “do it just because it’s the ‘right’ thing.” What’s right? What’s wrong? It’s all relative without a foundation in conscience. Your child will and should go out to discover and make mistakes and test drive their beliefs, etc. Arm them with tools for decision making! Or at least something to critique and analyze.

4) Children learn with all their senses.

The concept of God is a remote one for little kids. But they absorb truth, beauty, and goodness through all their senses. Our example is the most powerful teacher for our children. We try to make our environment at home full of beautiful and good things (art, food, music, toys, religious icons, etc). And having a church as a space separate from home with additional sensory experience of the Divine is instructive as well.

Mass is mystical and magical for SuperBoy. He knows many of the prayers and songs and loves to participate. He takes delight in the daily lighting of the Advent wreath candles. He asks about which feast day it is today, and always wants to know when it’s Sunday again because that’s when he gets to go to church and visit God. This enjoyment in the familiar is certainly not limited to religious habits, or our particular breed of religion!

5) Tradition has value.

As children do love routine and the familiar, why not provide something that’s pointing them in a direction beyond the every day, and into the mysterious and beautiful?

Why not have God as a part of their routine? If you view religion as benign, and something you were raised with, but not crazy about, baring serious issues with how you were raised, why not give that gift of exposure to it to your child? That’s a complex question for many, and I’m not judging if you really didn’t like how religion played a role in your development and therefore don’t want it to play a role in your child’s. I’m simply saying that it’s up to you how you present the routine of the Divine, and which traditions you emphasize, and accordingly you could give your child a better version than what you got.

Traditions are a great way to shape your family, your new nuclear family, and differentiate what’s important from what’s not. De-emphasizing the material side of Christmas, for example, and emphasizing the family togetherness, church attendance, special songs and books related to the holiday. We’re having a birthday cake for Baby Jesus, and yes, Santa gets his cookies & milk by the chimney too. I hope you have a very Merry Christmas if that’s what you’re celebrating this year, and feel that God is working in your life through you to share love with those around you.

Lots of love from us to you!



  1. […] my simple life. I wrote about why we start religion from the cradle in our house the other week, here, but this post is all about me and my nourishment of […]

  2. Kate on January 9, 2013 at 5:29 pm

    Nell, this is really wonderful. “You could give your child a better version than what you got” hits home for me–not because I had a negative experience of religion in childhood but because I had none at all. Haven’t figured out how this will go in my family with one non-believer and one highly non-specific kind of believer (that’s me), but you’ve given me lots of food for thought. You and AA are such great parents!

    • Natural Mama Nell on January 9, 2013 at 9:25 pm

      As with so many other aspects of parenting, you figure it out along the way! We always want a richer, fuller, and better version of life for our children than what we’ve experienced, even if we don’t view our experience as severely deficient, right?

      You are so sweet. I feel overwhelmingly blessed to have a husband who parents and partners superbly. He’s a real gem and definitely an example for me everyday in genuine holiness and love.

  3. Sani Marija on November 25, 2015 at 2:43 pm

    Great post. Implementing religion early in a child upbringing is also my approach. Spiritual education is equally important as any other aspect of raising your children. Spirituality, religious values, traditions and practice deeply permeate every segment of my existence and I think it would be hard to filtrate religion from everyday life in attempt to create some neutral education space.