One mom-theologian's take on how to keep kids Catholic

Raising faithful Catholic kids in today's society is not easy. Holly Taylor Coolman, assistant professor of theology at Providence College and adoptive mother of five, recognizes the many challenges and recently spoke with OSV News' Charlie Camosy about her new book "Parenting: the Complex and Beautiful Vocation of Raising Children."

--Charlie Camosy: Why yet another book on the topic of parenting? Aren't there enough such books?

--Holly Taylor Coolman: There are quite a few! This book came out of experiences I had, though, that suggested a real need. My husband and I have five kids, most of whom are now grown. I found I was hearing regularly from younger parents who wanted advice -- or sometimes just a listening ear.

In the context of those conversations, I found myself stepping back to consider some bigger questions. What are we really up to as parents? How does this work connect to the faith we profess?

That approach -- combining personal, "on-the-ground" experience with big picture ideas -- runs throughout this book. And maybe this is just what you get when a theologian writes a parenting book? Theology certainly involves both of these things: it brings us in contact with some very big ideas, but also revolves around a God who knows us and loves us, who came to share our human life in all its everyday detail.

--Camosy: Many of us are concerned about how to best raise our kids Catholic, particularly in the current culture. A new study came out on this topic recently. Any thoughts on the study? Ideas that you think are worth highlighting?

--Taylor Coolman: Recent data shows that about a third of those raised Catholic will walk away from the church (even though most of these report that they were very involved as children, attending Mass at least once a week). The study you are referring to is really helpful, I think. It found that the key is not this program or that program. Rather, those who remained in the church tended to have had a foundational experience in their families. They grew up in homes that were warm and connected, where children were invited to talk about their faith, including voicing doubts and sharing struggles. Parents and children spent time together in prayer and service to others -- and also in just having fun together.

My book invites readers to move more deeply into a vision of this sort of family life. I don't think that we necessarily need more faith-related "activities." We need ways to imagine the everyday stuff of life -- eating together, driving to school, even things like discipline or chores -- as places where this vision can be lived out.

Just one example: in the book, I talk about the family table as a crucial place of formation. I think it's worth it to be intentional about doing a daily meal as a family, including sharing prep and clean-up, even if it means saying no to other things.

--Camosy: You seem to be drawing a significant amount from your personal experience. Can you tell us a bit about your history of being a parent and how that history informed your writing of this book?

--Taylor Coolman: My husband's and my parenting story is an adventure, to be sure. I mentioned that we have five children. All five came to us via adoption, and in most cases, they came with connections to their birth families, as well. Our youngest two came to us later when they were tweens, and so we have had to do a lot of learning and growing as we become part of their stories, and they become part of ours.

Our kids have a huge variety of gifts, challenges, interests, etc. In the process of raising them, we have had to be creative as we try to accompany each of them and build a larger family culture at the same time. All of this has required the big picture thinking I mentioned. There are no simple "tricks" or "strategies" that could work with all of our kids in our big, unpredictable family!

Our family experience has also made me pretty suspicious of the drive for "perfection" that I see all around me. In our image-driven world, it's easy to fall into focusing on kids who say the right things, do the right things, or at least can be collected into a winsome, color-coordinated photo. But I think we are called to bigger things.

--Camosy: Your experience provokes me to ask the following: it is one thing to think about parenting in the context of a mother and father in a healthy first marriage with biologically-related children. But quite another in the context of divorce or separation, single parenthood, and other ways of being family in our messy, fallen world. Can you speak to this a bit?

--Taylor Coolman: I talk about this at length in the book. I envision two primary approaches here, approaches that I think ultimately complement each other. The first is just to be sensitive to varying family configurations and to affirm that these families, too, have a place in the church. We can celebrate the goods of marriage and birth while also meeting people where they are.

The second is to be unafraid in noting the real losses and absences that are present. Any family will have to face loss, but for some these are persistent. As an adoptive parent, for example, it's important to me to say that I don't simply replace a birth parent. I believe that part of my call is to come alongside my children in processing the losses involved in their adoptions.

These are complex matters, but we can begin by building habits of honoring those who are absent and by welcoming the more difficult emotions of anger and sadness. That can be scary, but the risk is worth it if we want to love one another fully. And we can have a certain boldness, knowing that we all are supported by a love much greater than ourselves.

--Camosy: What responsibility does the broader church have to help parents in such situations?

--Taylor Coolman: I'm convinced that it's impossible for parents to do all this on their own, but, sadly, nuclear families have become more and more isolated. It's so normalized that parents don't even realize how much the challenges of their day-to-day life are created by it.

This is another way that I think my book is somewhat unusual: it's not simply giving parents more advice about how they can do it alone, but is about finding and building community. This, of course, is central to what the church is about. And there are so many specific ways that parents can be supported: parent gatherings with childcare provided, family retreats or mentorship with more experienced parents.

The challenges are huge, but we have so many opportunities to meet those challenges with courage and love.

- - -

Charlie Camosy is professor of medical humanities at the Creighton School of Medicine in Omaha, Nebraska, and moral theology fellow at St. Joseph Seminary in New York.