To Teach Fourth-Graders the Fourth Commandment

Posted by Webster 
My religious ed class was more unruly than ever yesterday afternoon; every minute I had to shush and beg thirteen 9-10-year-olds to listen to one another. But there was one moment of silence near the end of the class that I will not forget soon. It had to do with the Fourth Commandment.

The topic was the Ten. Having introduced them last week, I thought I would throw down the gauntlet to the class: How many of the Ten Commandments can you guys remember? Who can give me just one of the Commandments? A girl raised her hand—

Don’t kill anyone. Good, “You shall not kill.” Who else?

Don’t take anything from someone. Excellent, “You shall not steal.” How about another Commandment?

Don’t get divorced. . . .

I felt a preliminary tug at my heart from these words. They were offered sotto voce by a child whose parents may be separated. I acknowledged that this was a correct answer, although I rephrased it: “You shall not commit adultery.” We talked about this for a bit and what it meant.

K., a boy whose Attitude is as big as he is small, nailed the next one: Don’t take God’s name in vain, and C., another boy, clearly understood Respect your mother and father. We talked of “honoring” not only parents but priests, teachers, mentors, elders.

Then came another S. moment. S. is a pale, thin girl whom I have described before. I usually have to ask her questions three or four times, walking closer each time until, my ear virtually on her lips, I hear what she has to say, and it’s always on the money. I told the class that getting Five Commandments was stellar, that I didn’t expect them to remember any more, that I would be amazed if anyone could come up with Number Six—whereupon S.’s hand went up, haltingly, meekly, her gaze barely grazing my own. I asked my four questions, moved closer, and finally heard: Don’t believe in other gods. 

Which is, of course, the big Number One: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods before me. . . . ” I congratulated S., and she shrugged, lapsing back into body language that usually seems to say, I have nothing to say and even if I did, so what?

I had Six of Ten, and that was enough. I congratulated the class and began building the list backward from Number Ten, “You shall not covet your neighbor’s goods,” and Number Nine, “Ditto your neighbor’s wife.” We discussed the meaning of covet and that other odd term, bear false witness, in Number Eight. Stealing, adultery, and killing were a quick Seven, Six, and Five. We came then to Number Four, “Honor your Father and Mother.”

I said, as delicately as I knew how, that this could be a tough Commandment for some people to follow, that not every parent is perfect, that I have a friend who had a mean parent, that there may even be some of us in this room whose parents do things we can’t understand. Not all Catholic parents are like Frank, I would think later yesterday, when I read his latest post. But God wants us to honor our parents anyway. A boy looked at me wide-eyed and asked, Even parents who aren’t nice? Even them. The room was silent for the first time. Every pair of eyes was looking at me.

Honestly, I know nothing about the personal lives of virtually any of my students, and I really don’t want to know. It’s not my business. I have met almost none of their parents, and the ones I have met are nice enough, and I am sure there are many happy family times for the children in my class. But I know what the statistics say: that half of all marriages in our country are in enough trouble to end sooner or later. I know that Catholics are not exempt from such statistics, no matter what the Church teaches. Logic tells me that six, seven, eight or even more of the children in my class will have genuine difficulty putting the Fourth Commandment into practice. I felt helpless in the face of this, but went on gamely to talk about the first three Commandments, including the one no one had mentioned: “Observe the sabbath day, to keep it holy.” I urged them to ask their parents to take them to Mass.

I told Katie about the class at dinner. She made several good points, and this was one of them: Whether or not there are any troubled families involved here, the fact is, the parents of these children are all sending them to religious ed class. Perhaps, Katie said, in some cases, they are sending them to religious ed because they know they are inadequate as parents (as Katie and I know we are sometimes inadequate), and yet these parents still want what’s right for their children. Even though they themselves probably see their own contradictions, they send their children to your class, Webster, in the hopes that the children will bring something good home with them, something that will stay with them for the rest of their lives.

I was very touched by this observation from my wife, who is in many ways a better Catholic than I am.

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  • It's so easy to be judgmental and act like a pharisee thinking that we are better than everyone else and wonder what is wrong with those parents who don't do a better job teaching the faith to their children. Yeah for Katie! She's got it right! And thank you for teaching Christian Formation to those little ones. I used to do that and I know that it is not easy! God bless you!

  • to honor our parents is to remember the fact that we have a beginning, that we did not make ourselves. We owe this existence to God, and so parents are a concrete sign of this beginning. God did not make us without the participation of our parents. We owe them that, even if they turn out to be terrible and don't much resemble God the Father.

  • Webster Bull

    Thanks for the comment, Anne. I know there is a judgment implied in my observations, but you had to see the kids' faces at that moment; you had to watch the pain cross the face of the child who said "Don't get divorced."And yes, yay for Katie.

  • Webster Bull

    Fred, Well said, and I wish I had said it! I have always felt that somehow the 4th commitment is the hinge in the whole ten, between 3 ways of looking at God and 6 of looking at our neighbor.Thanks.

  • Anonymous

    Father Barnes made a "judgement" when he asked you to teach CCD – an excellent one! I would describe your reaction to your students as "loving observation," instead. My sons are grown, but I wish they had had the experience of even one male CCD teacher. So many fathers do not attend Mass with their families and the effect of this on their adolescent sons is predictable. Your example may well be the reason that some of your students continue on through Confirmation and beyond. No small thing! I'm happy for the families who have you in their children's lives for one hour a week.S.

  • Webster, I totally get that "if you could see their faces at that moment" thing. I work for the WIC program and I see a lot of faces that draw me into their pain and it changes my perspective quite a bit. I am forever working on trying to remove that beam from my eye so those specks in everyone else's won't look so bad.My husband used to say that it would be great if the parents would be required to attend one session with the kids so they could see how their kids really act and hear what they really say. I imagine that would stifle them and inhibit their natural reactions and comments and then you would lose the moment that brings your heart to love them, God's little ones. God bless you again for bringing God to the children!

  • Webster Bull

    Thanks, S. Katie made another astute comment: that I may never see the fruits of my labors, but seeds may be planted, that will be watered by someone else some day, and something will sprout. I said, Yeah, maybe I'll pass a student on the street one day and s/he will smile and say "Hi Mr. Bull," and there will be a great story behind the smile.

  • Webster Bull

    And thanks again, Anne.

  • When I was in 5th grade at a Catholic school in the mid '50s, the topic of marriage and divorce came up in the context of studying carefully and systematically the Seven Sacraments. Our teacher blithely stated, concerning marriage, "It's a mortal sin to divorce." I tried to hide myself behind the child in front of me as tears gushed from my eyes and my little body shook. My parents had recently divorced. I was still in mourning. As far as I knew I was the only child among 55 who had parents who were such sinners. It was traumatic. I'm happy you are so sensitive. Today's children need to hear the truth, but gently.

  • Hi, Webster –During Lent, I guide every 3rd through 6th grade class (one class at a time) through an interactive stations of the cross. It's not a Passion Play re-enactment. It's to help them realize that we need to remember we are on a journey of faith every day of our lives — and that the Stations can provide a good meditation about that journey. At each station, the kids are asked to pick up something, write something, do something that relates to their lives and to the station's focus. For Station #3 — Jesus falls for the first time, there is a pile of pebble rocks. They are asked to take a rock, a sheet of paper, a pencil. To sit down at a pew and to write on the paper what they are struggling with that day. They then wrap the paper around the rock and place it in their 'traveling bag.' The written responses (read only by me — and shared anonymously with their teacher) are often honest, practical, moving. One time a child of divorce wrote that her struggle was with "to love."

  • Webster Bull

    Stefanie, This is a wonderful idea, and I can use more like it. I am convinced that my 4th-graders are open to the life of the spirit; I just have to remember that and keep looking for the doors.

  • Webster Bull

    And Ruth Ann, Thanks for your comment and your memory. I was so blessed in my parents, who were together for 58 years until my father's death last year, but one of my parents was a child of divorce and I know this had a tremendously painful impact. And I can only imagine the impact on my children if Katie weren't so understanding with me, because without that understanding, who knows what might have happened?

  • I have to admit, I worry about teaching the Catholic faith to my own children! Our parish has an interesting program that they use instead of CCD classes, it's called "Family Formation". It's sanctioned by our bishop and it involves teaching the whole family instead of just the kids. I haven't taken the class yet so I can't recommend it but I thought you might find it interesting. Here's the link: the way, I commend you for taking the time to invest in these kids!