“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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About Dr. Greg

Dr. Gregory Popcak directs the Pastoral Solutions Institute, an organization dedicated to helping Catholics find faith-filled solutions to marriage, family, and personal problems. Together with his wife, Lisa, he hosts More2Life Radio. He is the author of over a dozen books integrating psychological insights with our Catholic faith. For more info about books, tele-counseling and other resources, visit www.CatholicCounselors.com.

  • nnmns

    The best thing you can do for your children is bring them up to think. Forcing them into a church you only believe in because you were forced into it as a child is no favor. Have them read books and teach them morality and if as young adults they decide to go to your church it’s an affirmation of that church. If you force them it’s just a form of child abuse that persists from one generation to the next.

    • http://www.catholiccounselors.com Dr. Greg

      Are you suggesting that raising a child to be religious is in opposition to raising a child to think? I look forward to your clarification. Dr.G.

    • Hitchslapper

      Very good comment…. Christopher Hitchens, in one of his many Indictments of religion, labeled forcing ones religion on ones children, Child Abuse…. Morals are not learned by forcing children to attend religious institutions forcefully, they are learned from morals parents. Forcing religion on a child who is unwilling to attend church or Temple, will only lead to resentment….

  • nnmns

    With perhaps a few exceptions, yes. Generally speaking to be religious means having “faith”; believing in that for which there is no proof. That is certainly the situation for Christianity, Islam and Judaism. Believing in that for which there is no proof, or what amounts to the same thing, for which the only “proof’ springs from the organization demanding the belief, is certainly antithetical to thinking well.

    Religion as a social club, perhaps also a book club, like Unitarianism, can probably be worthwhile but a more fundamentalist approach where belief in miracles is demanded is not something we should inflict on our children.

    • http://www.catholiccounselors.com Dr. Greg

      As as social scientist, I believe in many things for which there is no proof. The first thing that one is taught in research methodology classes is that people who think that scientific research “proves” anything are hopelessly naive. A successful study doesn’t “prove” the hypothesis. It only “rejects the null hypothesis” In other words, a successful study doesn’t prove something to be true. It just says that we know something isn’t caused by error. That said, Catholicism–the religion that actually invented the scientific method–uses a very similar method to test truth claims as do scientists and comes as close to helping us discover the truth as anything. Take a look at this. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/faithonthecouch/2013/02/by-what-authority-a-secular-case-for-knowing-what-the-church-says-is-true/

      • nnmns

        So you’re saying nothing can be fully proven. And I agree with that, but people who make that their first principal in life aren’t likely to accomplish a lot. Neither you nor I, for instance, avoid doing something because our reason for doing it can’t be proven.

        But claims of miracles and claims on peoples’ obedience for life should have a high bar. Anyone Should demand a lot of verification before accepting them. Adults should be able to judge whether they have sufficient reason to accept a religion, children should not be expected to. And to require children to, early in life, accept a religion with no proof of its validity is to risk their reasoning skills for life and is a form of child abuse.

      • nnmns

        I followed your link. You are saying Catholicism should be accepted as true because more people have accepted it for a long time in more places. Of course it had a lot of help, having been spread by empires as a way to bind people, and henceforth was installed at childhood in billions of people, which is hardly a convincing proof of its validity. And what about intensity of belief? Hard to measure but shouldn’t that be a factor you’d want?

        Anyway, if that were proof of a true religion, what about the last religion for which those things were most true? There was one, whatever it was, and by your logic it should have been accepted and not doubted.

        • http://www.catholiccounselors.com Dr. Greg

          That wasn’t my point exactly. My point is that, in the quest for truth, methodology counts more than results and the Catholic methodology is sound by the highest standards of social science research.

          Intensity of belief means nothing. Lots of people believe lots of crazy things intensely. In science and religion, methdology is everything.

          Thanks fo joining the discussion. I hope you’ll be a regular vistor/commenter.

          • nnmns

            It’s been a pleasure.

        • Hitchslapper

          A Billion people believing a Lie, does not turn that lie, into the truth!!!!

  • Jim Gillen

    When my son expressed that he no longer wanted to go to church, I explained to him that I would not be a good parent if I left him home alone. If he did not want to participate, he could sit in the foyer on the couch. (The foyer has speakers that are fed from the podium.) If any one should give him a hard time about not being with the others, and he could not think of a courteous reply, he could tell them that I said that it was okay for him to be there.

    • http://www.catholiccounselors.com Dr. Greg

      How did that work out for you, Jim? I’m curious, because on the face of it, you gave him an out rather than inviting him deeper in as the post suggests. The proof is in the pudding, of course, so it may have worked out fine for you. Did he come to own the experience of going to church or did he just sit it out on the couch?

  • Patriot1

    If your teen is living in your house, still depending on you for his life’s needs, you should make him attend church with you. Much more than that though, daily you should be sharing the Gospel with him through your actions, devotion and prayer so that he can see a Christ-follower. Church is not going to save your teen from everlasting damnation. Only the amazing saving Grace of Jesus Christ will do that once your teen accepts God’s gift and allows the Holy Spirit to change him. Then your teen will probably want to take you to church.

    • Hitchslapper

      How nice it is…. to see that you swallowed the lie, hook, line and sinker….. Christ, though he may have been enlightened in his thinking, was no Ghod! The fact the he died a horrible death proves it… A real Ghod would have been able to astonish the witnesses. He would have been able to removed the nails….. climb done, and smite the Romans……. The Christian falacy, that Jesus died for your sins, was made up long after the fact.

  • Heather

    honestly, a person’s worth as a parent is NOT dictated by whether their teen goes to church or not. Religion is a personal choice, it is not a marker on whether or not someone was a good parent. A parent should be putting more emphasis on encouraging their kids to think for themselves and challenge what they believe, rather than making sure they attend church. Teens should be in church because they are looking for God, not because you are forcing them to. And if they don’t find God in church, why should they stay?

  • Koh

    As a teen who went through the atheist phase, I agree with your post. In hindsight I’m really glad my mother continued to bring me to church despite my protests, as I’m not sure I’d be here if she hadn’t. Your example of earthly nourishment is a good one, I think. :) The teen years are tough, but once the storms settle one can be surprised to find truth and beauty in the church… or not. Once adult everybody has to make his own choice, of course.

    • http://www.catholiccounselors.com Dr. Greg

      Koh, Thank you for sharing your experience. I’m sure it will be an encouragement to many visitors who are going through the faith challenges you describe. I hope you’ll be a regular visitor and commentor in the Faith on the Couch community. I appreciate your voice in the conversation.

  • Cheryl

    Make it fun for the kids and start young. As a cradle Catholic, I felt that my parents forced me to go to church. But in my adult life, I felt God himself was drawing me and nourishing my soul even when I had doubts. I also remember vividly my dad reading Bible stories to me as a young child and to this day it is one of the things I appreciate the most and I feel was key to why I remained Catholic. I’m not a parent myself but Sarah Reinhard, author of Catholic Family Fun has some great ideas to share. http://www.pauline.org/CatholicFamilyFun/CatholicFamilyFunwelcomepage/tabid/742/Default.aspx