At home we say that my six-year-old, who will turn seven in January, is in first grade. He is an outgoing and cheerful child who loves to meet people. So I was really looking forward to starting him in religious ed at our parish this year, because that is one of the first "classroom" experiences our kids tend to have. Meanwhile, I looked forward to starting him slowly at home with memory work from the St. Joseph First Communion Catechism, as I have done for all the other kids. I have a little personalized copybook printed just for him, and we take two years to work through memorizing and copying the answers to the questions:
Who made me?
"God made me."
Did God make all things?
"Yes, God made all things."
Why did God make me?
"God made me to show his goodness and to make me happy with Him in Heaven."
It is not just memorizing and copy work, although I find it is a good vehicle for practicing handwriting and for stretching the child's memory. As I introduce each one we talk about it: what it means, why we use some words and not others, sometimes different ways to think about the answers, which of the answers seem easy to grasp and which answers are so difficult that grownups still argue about them when they go to college and other grownups write whole books about what they mean. Six- and seven-year-olds, I find, are proud to be learning about things that are so important and difficult that grownups argue about them.
We add one or two of these per week, and to get through the whole First Communion catechism it takes about two school years, so I start in first grade. By the time second grade rolls around and the parish sends home the packet of things To Be Learned before First Confession and then First Communion, our children have hardly balked at learning the Ten Commandments and the Act of Contrition and the Five Steps To Prepare For Making A Good Confession and the like. I have rolled it right into their copybook and each year it has become part of the memory work.
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But as I have said, I look forward to enrolling our kids in our very good parish religious ed program in part because I like them to have a classroom experience with other kids and a teacher, just that little experience of collegiality and being a school-kid, complete with chairs and desks and chalkboards, evenings in the parish school.
So I was more than a little disappointed when my 6yo arrived for his first day and there weren't any other first graders in his class.
Demographics, the religious ed director told me. The recession. There are only about 15 six-year-olds among all the families registered in the parish, and the others go to the school and so they don't need Wednesday night religious ed. There just were not a lot of kids born in 2009-2010. My ten-year-old daughter in the same parish had 43 First Communicants in her cohort, maybe a dozen of whom were in religious ed classes with her.
The school was willing to devote a first grade teacher to my one little boy, but in the end -- he will turn seven this year -- we decided to send him to second grade, and so everything is accelerated. It is the better option for him under the circumstances, but I wanted for him to get a year older first. I wanted to have time to teach him my way for a little while.
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I was talking with a good friend over coffee the other day. She wanted to pick my brain about sex education for children and teenagers, something that I thought was kind of funny because she seems like the sort of person who would have absolutely no difficulty talking about anything at all with anyone. But as we talked it became clear that she is thinking hard about how to thread the needle between a healthy sex-positivity and anything goes, between encouraging moral behavior and fueling shame (or worse, shaming others), between a culture of chastity and the dark side of what she called "purity culture" (the notion that purity can be lost and afterwards you are permanently worth less; cf. comparing human beings, usually girls, to used wads of chewing gum and the like).
I am not sure I added anything to that idea other than "back to the Theology of the Body for you!" Because that is what authentic and sex-positive Catholicism looks like. But we talked a little bit about our different styles and how she is very assertive ("let's sit down, son, it is time for us to talk about Internet porn") and at least for young children I tend to be watchful about questions and respond to them instead. I don't want to burden them, too early, with things that they might not be ready for, I said. But as they grow older I try to spark the questions when it seems time, mostly via artful curriculum choices. So, for instance, my 10yo daughter and 13yo son are both getting Life Science this year with human reproduction included. I tend to stick to the clinical and academic, and I surround it with the social and moral context to it as we go, as it seems necessary.
I called that a "retreat" compared to her style, but she didn't think so. "The other Catholic homeschoolers I run with, it seems like they are afraid to teach their kids about the biology, because it might get them interested in sex." She felt social pressure.
"But what did you mean, specifically," she asked me, "about 'burdening' them too early? Like, what specific knowledge is a burden to a child who is too young for it?"
And that question really gave me pause. I realized I had been saying that for a long time, without ever articulating something specific to myself. I ended up telling her that I remembered a deep sense of revulsion, something not quite shame or fear, but a desire to get away, at the ages of eight-nine-ten if ever one of my parents wanted to speak to me about sex or puberty or any such thing. I have heard it said that this is a natural impulse, possibly self-protective, that many children have; I have also wondered if I felt unusually unsafe in that territory because that was around the time that my own family broke down around me, and there was no context in which it would have been safe to discuss morality or justice or consent. So I don't know, but the memory of that feeling of horror has made me reluctant to impose the feeling on my own kids. I "retreat" (at least in theory -- we shall see if I managed it, I guess) to a clear and age-appropriate explication of biology and a clear and age-appropriate explication of our duty to act justly to other human beings and never to use them as a means to an end, and draw the connections when I get the chance.
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From that conversation I discovered at least one thing that I think can burden a child too young for it, and that is a certain way of looking at the sixth commandment: "Thou shalt not commit adultery."
My six-year-old, the one thrust a bit too soon into the first-communion-prep program, is supposed to memorize the ten commandments because of the first-confession-prep which precedes it. Memorizing the ten commandments is completely fine with me. I get that the ten commandments can also be used as a handy memory aid when one is examining one's conscience. But I have always been a little bit bothered by the "child's ten commandments" they offered to us to make it easy for the kids.
"God comes first" is fine. "God's name is holy" is fine. "God's day is holy" is fine. All of them are fine until you get to number six, and then the children are offered as an alternative to "Thou shalt not commit adultery,"
And -- I don't want to teach a six-year-old that this is what the sixth commandment means.
For one thing, it isn't accurate.
For another thing, none of the real ten commandments are about what you should "be" -- they are about what you should "do." Breaking one does not change you from who you are -- a human being, a child of God -- into something else.
For a third thing, "thou shalt not commit adultery" is a call to acting justly towards others, whereas "be pure" sounds like something you do within yourself, without reference to anyone except yourself and God.
I know where this comes from. It comes from the commendable practice of using the ten commandments as a sort of mnemonic for examinations of conscience, or possibly from the way that the Catechism organizes its discussion of the moral life around the structure of the ten commandments. All the possible sins against chastity are gathered together in section six.
And the teachers are trying to come up with a way that they can teach the children to start obeying the sixth commandment right away. They think "Be pure" is a child-sized version of it.
"Be chaste" would be better, I think.
But even better would be to teach the seven-year-olds this: Seven-year-olds cannot violate the sixth commandment.
The sixth commandment is for their sake. It is meant to protect them. But it is not aimed at them.
When they get older, they will need to incorporate it into their own behavior.
But right now, it is not aimed at them.
The St. Joseph First Communion Catechism pointedly reassures its readers that young children do not commit mortal sin. Before going on to explain that grownups do commit grave sins, and sometimes so do even big boys and girls, it says about young children: God protects them in a special way. They learn about both venial and mortal sin now for completeness, and because later they will have to wrestle with both kinds; but for now we reassure them that they cannot endanger their own souls at the age of seven.
I like this formula, and I think we should adopt it for the sixth commandment.
I don't think seven-year-olds need to be burdened with the worry about whether they are "being" pure.
I think seven-year-olds should understand clearly that if they are exposed to unchastity in their families, if someone inapproriately sexualizes them, if they come upon explicit materials or media -- it is because someone else has sinned against them.
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This post turned out way more rambly than I thought it would, but it has been helpful.
I always have taught the meaning of "Thou shalt not commit adultery" to my young children like this: It exists to protect children and families. The sixth commandment means that mothers and fathers should work hard to make a safe home for children. It means, "Do not find another person who is not your husband or wife to be with," because children need to grow up with their mother and their father.
I have always felt confident about teaching that. In part because kids get it: They know that their parents, and other adults, are supposed to take care of them and keep them safe. And also because as they get older, they can come to understand that all of chastity serves justice for children. Chastity exists to put the needs of children above the desires of adults. I want my kids to know my marriage as a mantle of safety wrapped around them, and I want them to remember that mantle when they grow up and know where it came from, and what that means for their own decisions.
Will they be safe people for children?
Not "be pure" but "be safe."
"Be safe," in the sense of "be a person who offers safety to others." Especially children, I think I will be more purposeful about rejecting the "be pure" formulation, starting today. Even when we are well-meaning, we take serious risks when we teach simplified versions of the words of Scripture or of sound doctrine. It may be more difficult, but it is always safer to stick with the original.