What Can Catholic Parents Learn from Dzhokhar Tsarnaev?

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Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarneav is on trial today, and we know something about the argument his defense team will make. They will say that, while Tsasarneav is indisputably guilty of carrying out a ghastly plan to murder civilians in the streets of Boston, he was no ruthless mastermind, but a vulnerable young man pushed around by his older brother, Tamerlan. The 19-year-old Dzhokhar was in a country foreign to him, just beginning college when his parents were divorcing; his home life was unstable, money was tight, and the only stability and guidance he could find came in the person of his violent, radical brother. Tamerlan took the opportunity to radicalize the teenaged Dzhokhar, who previously had showed no interest in politics or radical Islam, and who, by most accounts, behaved like at typical American teenage guy.

Reasonable people may argue over whether or not "my brother made me do it" is a good enough defense to save a 19-year-old murderer from the death penalty. Whether or not he was vulnerable and whether or not his brother exerted a predatory influence over his life, the fact remains that he chose to commit a heinous crime.

What caught my attention in the defense's argument was an idea that is hard to refute: the idea that young adults everywhere desperately need guidance from older people who care about them. Or, more precisely, young adults will get guidance from somebody, for better or for worse -- so it really must be from someone who actually cares about them.

Many parents think that the really intense stage of nurturing comes when a child can't feed, dress, or care for himself. It's true that this stage is physically and emotionally demanding. But the teen years are just as demanding in other ways; and whether they admit it or not, teenagers have an intense need for the guidance of stable, caring adults.

In his recent essay What Children's Confessions Reveal, Fr. Anthony Gerber recounts hearing the sins of the same children over the course of many years. He says that, when children are young, he will hear all the typical offenses, plus missing Sunday Mass. The children are ashamed and chagrined, even though they missed Mass because their parents failed to take them. But, he says,

by the time the kids were in the seventh grade, they would confess this sin of missing Holy Mass with a kind of nonchalance. They would go through their litany of sins, but totally dispassionate. Some would even confess with a smile on their face.[ii] Why was this? During their earlier years, they confessed this with sorrow. But now, with lukewarmness? Why?

Fr. Gerber concludes that children originally know that missing Mass is a serious sin, but they see their parents' indifference. They are forced to decide: either my parents are seriously wrong, or else God must not care very much. And if God doesn't care very much, then why should they?

The disastrous result is that young adults preparing for confirmation no longer take sin or God seriously. Many of the teenagers he met no longer even bothered to receive Communion for many years at a time.

The remedy, says Fr. Gerber, is for the teenagers' parents to hear some hard questions:

 Parents, do you know that your seventh-grade child has a killed conscience, the victim of indifference?

Parents, do you know that if you continue in the way you are going, you will not see your kids married in the Church, they will likely not have kids, and all of this time and money you are spending is really wasted?

It all starts with the parents -- the example the parents set in their own lives, and the amount of effort the parents are willing to exert to make sure that kids learn good habits and are educated about why their habits are meaningful and important.

As the mother of three (soon to be four) teenagers, I recently poured out my parental anxiety to Jen Fitz, who is heavily invested in catechizing a new generation of Catholics. Fitz told me that if a child experiences three things, he has a very good chance of developing a mature faith and retaining it into adulthood. Those three things are:

  • Having parents who are disciples;
  • Engaging in meaningful religious activities with other adults who are disciples; and
  • Having a personal religious experience of some kind.

Note that two of the three require that a dedicated adult be involved in the young adult's life.  And note that the third may happen any time and anywhere, but is most likely to happen when an adult is actively engaged in arranging for the child to be involved in retreats, catechism classes, adoration, etc. In other words: adults matter, a lot. 

Sherry Weddell, author of Forming Intentional Disciples, said in a recent conversation, "There is hope for kids whose parents who are neither disciples nor practicing. But it takes other multiple factors to offset this." (For more about the study to which Fitz and Weddell were both referring, see Young Catholic America: Emerging Adults in, Out of, and Gone From the Church by Christian Smith, based upon the National Study of Youth and Religion.)

Take this seriously, parents. Our kids need us. Most of our teenagers are not in danger of becoming violent jihadists like Dzhokhar Tsarnaev; but unless we make a deliberate, consistent, sincere effort to live our faith and to make sure that our older kids are well connected with adults who can guide and educate them and answer their questions, and unless we give them many opportunities to practice their faith, then there is little hope that they will still be Catholics when they leave our homes. 

Teenagers are not known for being cooperative or receptive. But that doesn't mean they don't want you to be involved, and it certainly doesn't mean that you're excused from being involved. If we don't lead and influence our young adults, then someone else will.