by Kate Ristow
[CLICK HERE] for a worksheet on the sacramentals for parents and their children to complete together.
A sure key to success as a catechist is the relationship you forge with the parents of your students. Working as partners, you and parents help the children grow in faith.
Strictly speaking, your role is more formal. You teach the beliefs and practices of the Catholic faith using the organized, systematic approach that is presented in your textbook. Parents, on the other hand, provide the culture in which faith is lived out in daily life.
Make no mistake about it, though: Your roles are intertwined. As you teach, you will serve as an important role model. You certainly will tell stories of your own family’s faith experiences, and rarely do your stories fall on deaf ears. Your stories will encourage the children to share their own family’s faith customs with the class, or to take home the ideas they hear in class, hoping that new traditions can become part of their family’s faith experience.
Forging the Partnership
Your catechesis extends beyond the classroom to parents through the family pages in the child’s text that you send home each week. Your catechesis also reaches beyond the classroom through the program website you encourage parents to visit with their child. Yet, this is just the tip of the iceberg. There are many other ways you can promote a partnership between the classroom learning experience and the home. Here are a few ideas to incorporate early in the year.
Reach Out: As soon as you get your class list, make an effort to call each child’s home to talk with one of the parents. Introduce yourself and invite the parents to tell you a few things about their child. Ask if their child has any special needs or allergies. This information may already be noted in the child’s file, but it never hurts to double check.
Exchange contact information. Ask parents if they prefer to receive occasional emails or text messages from you. Encourage parents to contact you if they have questions, comments, or concerns. Conclude this brief phone call by expressing your desire to work together to ensure their child’s positive experience in your class.
Home Connection: At the conclusion of your first session with the children, point out the family page that accompanies the lesson. If possible, have each child carefully tear the page out of the texts or have copies on hand. Emphasize the importance of sharing this page with their parents. Pique the kids’ interest by calling attention to one specific activity they may enjoy doing with their families. Some catechists prefer to tear out the family pages before class so that they have time to write a quick personal message on a self-adhesive note and attach it to the page.
Hail and Farewell: Stand at the classroom door to greet parents as they drop their kids off for class. Do the same when you dismiss the students. As you learn everyone’s names, use them, adding personal comments where appropriate: “Hi, Mrs. Jones. Amanda told us all about her baby cousin’s Baptism. I’d love to have a picture to show the children.” Or “Tony certainly makes our sessions livelier, Mrs. Smith. We all enjoy having him in class.”
Why Include Parents?
Church teachings have always emphasized the primacy of the parents’ role in the faith formation of children. In teaching about marriage, the Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us that the Christian family is the domestic Church—the Church of the home—recalling the pronouncement of the Second Vatican Council that parents are “by word and example…the first heralds of the faith with regard to their children” (n. 1656).
The National Directory for Catechesis further clarifies this role: “Parents are the most influential agents of catechesis for their children. They have a unique responsibility for the education of their children; they are the first educators, or catechists. They catechize primarily by the witness of their Christian lives and by their love for the faith” (n. 54C).
It is up to us as catechists to support parents as the primary catechists of their children. We can do this best by being inclusive. Look for opportunities to invite parents to get involved in activities that relate directly to your lessons.
Catechetical leaders frequently complain that they have a difficult time getting parents to attend meetings—even those advertised as “required”—or convincing families of how important it is to participate in weekly liturgy. However, there is a different dynamic in the catechist/parent relationship. The classroom setting is more intimate than a large-group grade-level parent meeting. Your encounters with the parents and their experience of seeing their children’s enthusiasm and growth will help build rapport throughout the year.
Kids today are busy; too busy, in many cases. A major hurdle is helping the children and their parents recognize that religious formation is much more than “just another activity” in the kids’ lives. Counter this misconception by getting the parents involved in the process.
For example, plan one or two classes a year in which the kids get the opportunity to “show what they know,” and invite parents to be part of the experience. You can have the kids work in groups to dramatize several Scripture stories they’ve read in a unit; they can work to prepare a choral reading of a psalm; older kids can be challenged to create a textbook-based Jeopardy game with volunteer parents and classmates competing as contestants. Little kids might sing a song they’ve learned, pray with gestures, or take an active role in a unit-ending prayer service.
There are endless possibilities. Invite parents to drop in at a designated time. Typically, this kind of thing works best at the end of class—perhaps 15 minutes before dismissal.
If you notify parents far enough in advance, they usually are able to make adjustments without placing undue burdens on their schedules. Catechists have told me that events like these help parents feel good about their decision to educate their child in the faith. It is not unusual for a parent to say, “I wish my religious education had been like this!”
Strategies for Engaging Parents
Classroom Helpers: Most young kids (preschoolers through fourth grade) enjoy having Mom or Dad serve as an “assistant catechist” during one class.
Before inviting single-event volunteers into the classroom, check with your DRE to ensure that you are following diocesan training guidelines for child protection. Then write a letter to parents making them aware of this opportunity and explaining the role of the helper: distributing materials, supervising a small group, helping kids with art projects, etc. Tape a sign-up sheet on the wall outside your classroom, listing the date of each session. Ask the weekly helper to arrive 15 minutes before class so that you can explain his or her specific responsibilities. Remember to introduce the helper to the children at the beginning of class.
Parent/Child Session: Choose one class during the year in which parents can participate right along with their child. Although this might be a scary prospect if you are a new catechist, you don’t really need to make any special arrangements or vary your teaching style.
Simply choose a chapter in the text that will be of interest to both parents and the kids (prayer, the Ten Commandments, the Eucharist/the Mass, the Bible, Creation) and teach as usual. Form discussion groups with two or three parent/child pairs. Catechists often like to choose a lesson that has an engaging art activity or challenging worksheet to be completed during the session.
Notify parents about this special session well in advance. Invite one or more volunteers to supply snacks to share.
“Quickwork”: Use an occasional email or text message to give parents a quick, concrete activity to do with their child at home. For example: “Look at the illustration on page 73 of your child’s religion textbook. Together, create a caption for the picture.” Or “While watching your favorite television show together, help your child find an example of people who are showing love for their neighbors.”
A Reason for the Season: Many parents don’t have the faintest idea how to celebrate Advent or Lent at home. They need and want specific suggestions and resources. Work with your DRE and other catechists to prepare easy-to-use seasonal packets for families that can be sent home. Don’t overwhelm parents with too much information. Keep prayers and projects simple! Remember: Less is more.
Gather in His Name: Invite families to attend a specific Sunday liturgy together on an upcoming weekend. Arrive early enough to reserve pews for your students and their siblings and parents. Supply nametags for everyone. After Mass, share doughnuts and beverages in an empty classroom and encourage adults to get to know one another.
Profile Posters: During November, when we honor the saints, provide materials for families to make posters about one or more of their family saints or saints they admire. Suggest they research saints to learn five facts about each individual that they can turn into clues. For example: I was both the mother of five and a nun; I became Catholic as an adult; I founded the first Catholic school in America; I formed a religious community devoted to educating young people and caring for the sick; I was the first American-born saint. Who am I? (Answer: St. Elizabeth Ann Seton). Have families illustrate their posters with scenes showing the saints at work. Display the completed posters in a public area of the parish. Post the “Who Am I” answers in the bulletin.
Building Community across the Grade Levels
One of the challenges DREs and CREs face is that kids and their parents often do not see themselves as a community. They are part of the parish to be sure, but in religious education they simply participate in individual classes that have no relationship to one another.
One way this misconception can be overcome is for the catechetical leader to organize a committee, much like a parent-teacher association, that plans community events, service opportunities, field trips, fundraisers, and the like. This committee might organize a mid-winter Fun Fair to get kids and adults out of the house and engaged in a variety of carnival-like games and contests. During the summer, the committee might sponsor a Classic Movie Night (E.T.; The Black Stallion, etc.). In addition to seeing a timeless feature film, kids and adults enjoy the interactions with one another. An ice cream social is another possibility. The leadership and support of the catechetical leader is crucial in this endeavor.
The DRE can affirm the group’s work and the families who participate in the various activities. Above all, the catechetical leader can help the committee avoid playing the “numbers game.” Does it really matter that you have 200 people in your RE program and only 40 showed up at movie night? Accentuate the positive! Affirm the adults and children who participate. Word of your success will help grow your community.
Kate Ristow, Contributing Editor to CATECHIST, has worked in Catholic publishing for over 25 years as a national speaker and writer, building on a wealth of experience in the religious formation of children and catechists in both parish and Catholic school programs.
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This article was written by the Catechist Staff and appeared in Catechist magazine, August 2012.
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