"You will be a better mom because you are a theologian, and a better theologian because you are a mom."

Is it true? In this blog, I explore the interplay and intersection of motherhood and theologianhood.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Formation and Experience

Recently I found myself at a paper presentation where the presenter was attending to the category of "experience," specifically, the experience of children receiving the sacrament of confession. As someone who is interested both in children and in this sacrament in particular, I found the presentation very interesting, especially the original research that had been done interviewing children about their experiences.

At the same time, however, I found myself concerned with the use of "experience" as a category in theology. On the one hand, I do think that experience is important to consider when it comes to religion, especially inasmuch as it shapes the practical dimension of how we pass on the faith to our children. On the other hand, it seems to me that the category of experience only becomes meaningful when we consider the category of formation as well.

My mom never liked scrubbing the kitchen floor. She complained about it whenever she had to do it, and when we had to help with this chore it always felt like a punishment. So I don't think it would be a surprise to anyone that I also disliked this chore. My mom always enjoyed reading, and she snuck away to her rocking chair with a book whenver she could. So it may not be surprising that I have always taken an interest in reading and enjoyed it.

Now, I'm not trying here to make a hard and fast connection between formation and experience. It's always possible that children will not share the perception of their parent's activities, especially if the parents make the child feel bad about not living up to expectations or if the parents try to force something on the child in a negative way.

A friend of mine was telling me about her experience of praying the Rosary as a child. It involved her Dad interrupting the Sunday night movie right at the climax to make all the kids pray. Yes, this could give a kid a negative experience of the Roasry. Likewise, her experience of confession was her dad loading everyone up in the car on the first Saturday of every month, and making everyone go to confession. Again, this could make even a faithful Catholic adult have negative associations with the sacrament.

We often live our lives in American society without much attention to how we are being formed by that society. If we are not attentive to our formation, and conscious and intentional about what we allow to influence us, then it will be a mistake to use our experience as a category to make judgments about moral and religious practices. If, however, we are attentive to our formation - trying our best to have a "well-formed" conscience, for example - we can be more confident in occasionally critiquing religious and moral practices.

Going back to the paper presentation, it was fascinating to me that so many children (80%) had positive or very positive experiences of the sacrament of confession in a country where so few Catholics partake of this sacrament. It seems unlikely that a great majority of children would be formed to believe in the importance of this sacrament. As for the 20% of children who had lukewarm to negative experiences, I think it would be important to find out their parents' attitudes toward the sacrament. Do their parents ever go? Are they positive about it? Or was the students' first introduction to it through a class where they were told they would have to go to the sacrament whether they liked it or not?


revolutionme2 said...

I'm not sure why mom never used a mop. . . You were never encouraged or forced to pray the rosary or go to confession growing up. Free will and strong formation both have their benefits. I'm glad we were formed the way we were, it makes us more diverse.

Theologian Mom said...

Seriously! Once I realized the beauty of a mop I stopped detesting cleaning the floor... and actually came to like it.

I'm for free will, but when it comes to kids, parents have to do a lot of guidance... for example, encouraging kids to try different activities (sports, music, etc.). You can try to say, "I'll just let my kid pick whatever they want to do," but the truth is, they won't know about piano if you never show them one. They won't know what baseball is if they never see it played.

p.s. I have strong memories of Dad going to confession regularly when I was a kid. Maybe it wasn't encouragement, but it was a model.

Clara said...

Confession is a complicated one, because it's not clear how "positive" you want the experience to be. I guess I'd say that you want confession to be an overall positive part of their lives, but it's not necessarily supposed to be fun or exciting to go to confession. Sometimes we distort the real meaning of something for kids because we're exerting ourselves so hard to make it an entirely palatable, enjoyable experience for them.

My husband and I are sometimes at a loss in considering how to present these things to our kids, because, since we're both adult converts, we have no childhood experiences of Catholicism at all to draw on. On the other hand, this does at least make you appreciate that you did miss something... and, I have to say, my early confession experiences as an adult weren't all terribly positive. One I would even describe as "extremely negative." But I think what I mainly take from that is that I'd like my children to see confession, not necessarily as positive, and certainly not as horrible and traumatic, but as a normal part of life. If they can get used to it as kids, when life hopefully isn't that complicated, then I think the sacrament will be to them what it needs to be, when it really is needed. If that makes sense.

One more thing though: in addition to needing exposure, kids often lack the discipline needed to reach a level of achievement where a particular activity becomes enjoyable. So sometimes it can be a gift to "make" them do something for their own good. It's complicated, of course, because as you say the negative perception can sometimes stick to the point where they never enjoy the thing in question. I say this as someone who was flogged through years of piano lessons and now, in adulthood, feels not the slightest desire to ever study the piano again even if I had six centuries to live and a Jane Austen-style life of leisure. Still.

Theologian Mom said...

Clara - too funny! I had the same childhood experience with piano! Of the four of us, however, my younger brother turned out to be an excellent pianist and organist as well. And now, I actually do kind of regret not having learned... I'd love to have even Eliza's or Emma's inferior piano skills! Also, one of my profs used to always say that they FORCED him to learn Latin when he was a kid...and now he's free to read Latin (as a theologian, he's probably one of the few who maintained that childhood skill).

But as regards confession and matters of the faith, I do think it's important for kids to have a positive experience...maybe because I'm studying Catholicism of the 50s and 60s...so many people of that time period (esp. the post-V2 generation) had such traumatic experiences that it turned them off to the faith. At the same time, however, things like confession WON'T always be positive, nor is it supposed to be a warm, fuzzy kind of thing. But I think if PARENTS can have a positive attitude toward it (like this is really valuable and important even when it's hard), that can make a big difference. It could be similar to a kid's first day of school - how many have "positive" experiences of the first day of school? But if parents can be positive about the value of school, kids pick up on that.