By Paul Koch –
“And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.” Deuteronomy 6:6-7
I’ll never forget the very first time I taught a confirmation class. I was on my vicarage assignment in Bremerton, Washington. Part of my training was to teach a section of the confirmation instruction. I was eager to inspire and motivate those young impressionable students, to open to them the wonders and beauty of Luther’s Small Catechism, to walk along with them as they learned to both question and confess the faith. I assigned the first bit of memory work and anticipated our next class discussion.
To my dismay our next meeting proved disastrous, for only a few of the students even attempted to do the memory work. I was told all the usual excuses, “Too much homework,” “After soccer practice there wasn’t enough time to get it done,” and my favorite, “My mom said I didn’t have to actually memorize the words, just know what they mean.” I responded with a passionate discussion about how it made more sense to fail math or miss out on soccer practice than to skip through an opportunity to examine and discuss the heart of our faith. I assumed that this was what everyone was thinking. This is why they were in confirmation to begin with. This was important, a crucial step in their growth as disciples of our Lord. Clearly it was more important than math, right? Certainly it was of more benefit than making the starting side on the soccer team, wasn’t it? Well as it turns out – no it wasn’t!
Let’s just say the parents weren’t too happy with my reprioritizing of their children’s focus. Apparently math is more important than I ever gave it credit for, and for some strange reason – so is soccer.
What I was struggling with all those years ago, and continue to struggle with every year since, is a symptom of a continuing trend in our culture. Quite simply, we are losing our children. It’s not just that we are losing them to the teachings and ways of the world. If that was all, then we could certainly recapture the vigor of faithful catechesis and make a stand against it. It is not simply that we are losing our children to popular music or movies either. There is more to it than Eminem singing,
“They say music can alter moods and talk to you
Well can it load a gun up for you, and cock it too
Well if it can, then the next time you assault a dude
Just tell the judge it was my fault and I’ll get sued.”
Our children are being lost at an alarming rate to a new perversion of adulthood. Their childhood is being consumed a little more each year, and we are helping it happen.
In his amazing book The Disappearance of Childhood the late Neil Postman makes a strong argument that childhood is not a biological category but a social artifact. That is, our society has established a distinction between childhood and adulthood. It is the way in which we communicate that helped fix and defend the distinction. But as our main mode of communication has moved from the way of Guttenberg and the printing press to the way of TV and YouTube videos and Instagram pics, we have begun to erode the distinction.
Today our children can stand in front of a TV screen and all the realities, secrets, and perversions of the adult world comes flooding into their experience without a single filter. They don’t have to read, they don’t have to understand, they don’t have to do anything but watch. The same goes for the iPad, smartphone or personal computer with high-speed internet access. The distinction between a child and an adult becomes blurred. These days we receive our important political information and discussion at the level of a 5th grader, and a 5th grader learns freely all the things of adulthood.
What we end up with is what Postman aptly calls the adult-child. Our media moves us toward viewing life in only three stages; infancy on one end, senility on the other, with the adult-child in-between. He describes the adult-child as “a grown-up whose intellectual and emotional capacities are unrealized and, in particular, not significantly different from those associated with children.”
As childhood is eroded we find our children no longer play children’s games but smaller versions of adult games with all the rules and demands of adult games (i.e. soccer). School is not a free and safe place to gain insight or to learn how to think, rather it is a crucial step to build toward an adult career. On the flip side, our adults head off to college with no idea of self-reliance and a fragile emotional system that can be crushed with one bad grade.
In confirmation I was assuming that I was going to teach children the distinctive of our faith, but I was wrong. These weren’t children with the freedom to be children, to explore and engage the Word. They were the early forms of the adult-child. Confirmation displayed no substantive purpose they (or their parents?) could recognize other than it’s what Grandpa would have wanted.
The playing field has changed. If we don’t find a way to engage, we will lose more than childhood. We will lose our children.