Before I had kids, I had all these grand plans for how I would raise them, constantly taking mental notes of what I would and would not do. When I became the head of a faith formation program at a large Catholic parish (married, but still sans kids), I was chock full of opinions of how to raise a child in the faith, and mystified as to how anyone could possibly choose to make time for sports and not faith formation.

Then I had kids.

And the air of judgment and this-couldn’t-possibly-be-as-hard-as-people-say-it-is attitude suddenly dissipated. Fast forward several years later — past the newborn fog and my preoccupation with hand sanitizer, past the toddler years of first words and first steps and packets and packets of Plum baby food, almost past the pre-school stage and potty-training and hiding in the corner from my kids when I want to eat the good snacks in peace — and both my girls are suddenly at the age where enrolling them in some sort of faith formation program is at the top of that forgotten mental to-do list.

Are we doing this right? I feel like that’s the constant question buzzing around in the back of my head. Are we giving our kids the tools they need to be functioning, well-adjusted adults? Will our kids know who God is?

This much I know: faith formation isn’t simply a matter of copying and pasting our own childhood memories of church and Sunday school or youth group. Forming my kids in the faith is not just a transmission of information, or a perfunctory exercise in memorizing prayers and Scripture verses or reciting creeds or going to Mass.

These are all significant moments in being formed in the faith, but they won’t necessarily be what captures the attention and imagination of a young child — which isn’t as elusive as one might think. Case in point: As I write in the early morning hours, I’m listening to my 3.5 year-old happily hum to herself as she entertains herself with a large box. She has the capacity to keep playing like this for at least half an hour, longer if her older sister is with her.

Over the years, I’ve come to appreciate the wisdom of Maria Montessori, whose educational philosophy focuses on following the lead of the child. Montessori, a trained medical doctor, spent time observing children before developing materials and preparing an environment that would foster social and cognitive development. She was able to identify and describe distinct developmental stages of a child, including when and how to introduce certain concepts.

This idea of introducing certain concepts at the ideal stage of growth has resonated with me, especially when it comes to children’s faith formation. The fact that the words Catholic and guilt seem to always be synonymous makes me wonder if this guilt is an unintended consequence of introducing children to the idea of sin and morality before they are developmentally ready.

Catechesis of the Good Shepherd (CGS) is a Montessori-based approach to faith formation for 3 to 12 year-olds. Developed in 1954 by Sofia Cavaletti and Gianna Gobbi, CGS provides a practical and developmentally-sound approach to the question of how and when to introduce certain concepts about God and faith. It takes the best of what Montessori knew about child psychology and development (Gobbi studied under Maria Montessori) and grounds it in sound Scripture scholarship (Sofia Cavaletti was a Hebrew Scripture scholar), and applies it to work with children in a faith context.

Unlike traditional religious education that is structured according to school grade, CGS divides children’s faith formation into three levels: Level I (3-6 yo), Level II (6-9yo) and Level III (9-12yo). For those familiar with Montessori education, you’ll notice that CGS Level I coincides with Montessori’s first plane of development: The Absorbent Mind (0-6yo). CGS Levels II and III correspond with Montessori’s second plane of development: Conscious Imagination (6-12yo).

The atrium is a place that is especially prepared for this age group, with materials and works that have been created and chosen after years of observing children from families of varying income levels and different parts of the world, and making note of which stories and materials the 3-6 year-old child would return to again and again. What I find most compelling about CGS is that the themes that are covered (e.g., the Jesus, the Good Shepherd, the Light of the World), were chosen because this is what was observed to be most attractive for 3-6 year-old children, regardless of their background.

Due to a confluence of circumstances (but mainly because I think God has a sense of humor and knows I’ve always refused to shied away from work with young children), I began training as a Level I Catechist this past September. The past few months, I’ve been learning all about the 3-6 year-old child and the role of the catechist as a matchmaker for God and the child.

Nearly every session, Davette Himes, our formation leader asks “Who is the 3 to 6 year-old child?” A child of joy, love, wonder, and hope. Sofia Cavaletti says it beautifully: “Early childhood is primarily the time of the serene enjoyment of God” (The Religious Potential of the Child, 74-75). So if we are to follow the lead of the child, everything a catechist places in front of the child must be in direct response to the 3 to 6 year-old child’s capacity for joy, love, wonder, and hope. This (the ongoing practice of meeting children where they are) is what is most helpful for them in cultivating fertile ground for their relationship with God.

The child’s time in the atrium is purposely unrushed and is meant to be a space where they have agency and are given time to ponder over the Gospel stories and other Scripture passages (translated by Sofia Cavalletti for this age group) at their own pace. In a time of their life where they’re always being hustled from one activity to the next, when parents (like me) are constantly hurrying them to put their shoes on so we can catch the bus, the atrium is a peaceful reprieve from what can understandably be a demanding life, even for well-adjusted little ones.

The role of the catechist is simply to make the Gospel proclamation, present works freely chosen by the child, and then “step back, fade, and observe,” as Himes frequently reminds us. We do so to allow space for the Holy Spirit, the Inner Teacher, to work in the child.

These presentations in the atrium reflect the liturgical cycle of the church year. The works, concrete hands-on materials, are signs for the child to experience the transcendent reality of Christ (RPOC 55). From the catechist’s perspective, time in the atrium is largely an exercise of trust that the Spirit is indeed the child’s teacher in those moments the child goes about their work.

Rather than viewing the child as an empty vessel, we understand the child as already in relationship with God, even before they ever step foot into the atrium. This brings to mind something one of my professors used to always say when paraphrasing Rahner, that we are “always and already embraced by God.” The very fact that we are created implies that we are in relationship with our Creator through Christ, through whom and for whom all things were created (see Col 1:16-17; Jn 1:3).

Just by virtue of being created by God, we believe that even the 3 to 6 year-old child has the capacity for deep religious experiences — they simply need the right tools and environment. The formation that takes place in CGS is an uncovering and discovering what is already true — that Jesus, the Good Shepherd knows and calls each of us by name.

As we enter into this season of Lent, I’ve been taking a second look at my family’s traditions with a more discerning eye, mindful of who my children are and what they most need at this developmental stage.

Last Lent, I was feeling guilty about not being proactive enough with my kids’ faith journey, and so my involuntary reflex was to give my kids the same spiritual experiences that I had grown up with. My mind immediately went to Stations of the Cross. Knowing what I know now (and perhaps this was obvious to other families of young children), I’ll save the Stations for when my kids are at an age when the jarring images of Jesus’ passion (no matter how sanitized) aren’t at the center of attention.

If I am to take seriously my 3-6 year-old girls’ hidden quest for “the serene enjoyment of God,” then that also means taking a second look at certain Lenten activities that make Jesus’ suffering the centerpiece, and discerning the right time to introduce them (if ever):

  • Resurrection eggs with miniature whips and nails from the cross
  • Making crowns of thorns with toothpicks, where a child pulls out a toothpick every time they make a sacrifice or do a good deed
  • Putting a jelly bean in a jar every time you make a sacrifice.
  • Attending Good Friday service.

For those of us who grew up with a mentality of “Jesus died for you” (and, in parenthesis, what will you do to show your gratitude or repay your debt?),” the thought of observing Lent without lingering on Jesus’ sacrifice (often unquestioningly conflated with his suffering and death) may seem counterintuitive (1). After all, how can we celebrate Christ’s resurrection without acknowledging his suffering and death? Is it possible to speak of Jesus’ sacrifice without mentioning his suffering?

It all comes down to what we deem most essential about the Easter Story. When we observe Lent with the 3-6 year old child, what is, as Montessori would ask, the “point of interest”? Is it the violence of Jesus’ suffering, or is it the fact that he died and rose from the dead?

The answer that Himes offers is fairly straightforward (and a lot more intuitive than I realized): we refer back to what they’ve known since starting formation in the Fall. Christ has died, Christ is risen. The words we say every time we light the candles in front of the altar in the atrium.

We know that Christ has died, and so we sit briefly at the foot of the cross.

But we don’t linger. In the same breath, we immediately point towards the Resurrection — because Jesus’ death and resurrection are part of the same mystery. Recognizing the child of hope in front of us, we emphasize that the cross is not where the story ends. We always point toward Easter. So what does this look like in practice?

Himes describes the City of Jerusalem presentation typically offered during Lent, in a way that honors the child and where they’re at. This re-telling of Jesus’ last days situates and grounds Jesus’ life in a real time and place in history:

The children are invited to imagine this beautiful city and on its holy hill, the temple. They walk through Jerusalem, visit the different places that Jesus went to in his last days. The Cenacle or Upper Room, the location of the Last Supper. Caiaphas’ house. The Antonia Tower. The Temple. The Garden of Olives. Calvary. The tomb of the resurrection (see Religious Potential of the Child, 114).

Cavaletti takes care to mention:

with regard to the events of the passion, we restrict ourselves to indicating the location…The texts offer a detailed account of the passion; but we believe those texts should not be given to children. At times these passages go into details that arouse horror, such as we could not bear in relation to anyone dear to us; why then should we dwell on them with respect to Jesus? We risk inciting sentiments that should not be aroused. We concentrate on the Last Supper, the death and resurrection, and the gift of the Holy Spirit (Ibid. 114).

At home, the emphasis for the 3-6 year-old child is not on the penitential aspect of Lent, rather, it is on the Good Shepherd:

The Lord is my Shepherd, I have everything I need. The Good Shepherd loves me and knows my name.

Silence, as a Lenten discipline and an opportunity to simply sit before the Good Shepherd — even for just 5 minutes — can be powerful for your little one.

In grounding the child’s faith in love and hope before anything else, the child has a surety:

I don’t have to worry because Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. I am in the arms of the Good Shepherd.

For parents who might not have much experience with CGS or Montessori, but want to make Lent a special time for their family, Himes suggests some simple ways to incorporate your faith in your everyday lives:

  • Praying together intentionally as a family is a lovely practice. Simply displaying a swath of seasonal purple and lighting a candle at dinner, where the children may meditate on the psalms, Good Shepherd prayer cards or offer a blessing.
  • Instead of eggs, a resurrection garden or simply planting seeds/bulbs. New growth pointing to new life.
  • If you cook, baking bread for soup supper that can be shared with friends and loved ones during Lent. 

So many possibilities when we take the time to stop and listen, when we take the time to see our children for who God calls them to be in this very brief, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it stage of development.

As we enter into the second week of Lent, may each of us journey forward knowing that the Good Shepherd knows and calls each one of us by name. May we be comforted and encouraged by the words of my 6 year-old in atrium last week when asked, “What makes the Shepherd good?” She replied, “Because the Shepherd never leaves anyone behind.”

More than anything else, this one reply gives me hope for our Church.

Many thanks to Davette Himes, course leader at the Center for Children and Theology in Washington, DC, for her insight and generosity in being such a rich source for this post.

  1. This could very well be an assumption I make because of my own bias as a Filipino-American. The Catholicism that was brought to the Philippines by the Spanish included practices like self-flagellation (which continue to be practiced today), and could be one reason why my past experiences of Lent have had such an emphasis on the suffering of Christ (and consequently, heavy on guilt and shame — another blog post for another day).

2 thoughts

  1. Interesting idea. I don’t have kids, and I’m no longer Catholic, so this post primarily makes me think of my childhood, growing up Catholic, and how different things might have gone had my mother been introduced to these concepts. Because I went to Catholic schools for 12 years, I always had Good Friday off. I could play with my next-door neighbor, but between noon and 3, we had to be quiet. If my mother heard us, invariably she would whip up a 8.5 by 11 poster and tape it on the wall, saying something to the effect of, “Jesus is dying on the Cross for you RIGHT NOW, and you are being disrespectful! Stop it!” My friend and I would read it and be shamed for a while, until we got into our playing again and forgot. And sometimes there was a second poster. We always greeted the strike of 3 with immense relief.

    I’m pretty sure this has nothing to do with why different gods called me in a different direction much later in my life. But it is interesting to think about. Thank you for posting this.

    1. Isn’t it amazing (unfortunate?) how certain childhood memories stay with us forever? I have similar memories — my mom didn’t let us watch TV (unless it was something like Jesus of Nazareth) for all of Holy Week (which coincided with all of Spring Break). I actually dreaded when we had that time off.

      As an adult, I can only look back at that time and realize that so much of what our parents end up doing is most likely what they were taught (because they didn’t have the time/access to any other way when they were just trying to get to the end of the day).

      Speaking to your initial thought — I also wonder how things would be different if we, as young children, first knew and loved Jesus, the Good Shepherd before knowing that he laid down his life. I love the fact that Luke 15:4 says that the Good Shepherd goes after the lost one “until he finds it.” His search is relentless — and for me and how much I wander, that will likely take a lifetime 🙂 Thanks so much for reading and taking the time to comment.

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