Talking About Sinful Lifestyles With Children

Eric Brown wrote a post about the question of whether children of same-sex-couples should be allowed in Catholic schools the other day, which generated some interesting conversation. One of the problems that lies at the root of this controversy, I think, is the question of how to deal sinful lifestyles when talking to your children.

Obviously, one of the duties of a conscientious Catholic parents is to successfully pass on to their children belief in Catholic moral teaching. We believe, after all, that living according to the Church’s moral teachings is key to both the happiness and salvation of our children, and both of these are things we ought to care about a good bit.

This much, at least, is widely agreed upon. Why, however, should that be a reason not to want your children exposed to the children of a same-sex-couple? Isn’t that simply a great chance to talk about the Church’s teachings about marriage and sexual morality?

Frankly, I (and I think many other Catholic parents) would rather not have to rush that one. Why?

Both thinking back to my own childhood and also about my children (currently ages 8 through 1.5) one of the things that stands out to me very clearly is that children are naturally dualistic. There’s a reason why the fairy tale is a genre so enjoyed by children — children like clear heroes and villains. The adult my be interested in why it is that the wicked witch became wicked, and whether she really thought she was wicked, but to a child, the fact that she is wicked is all they need. Heroes do good things, villains to bad things, and children under the age of 10-12 have a great deal of difficulty seeing people in between.

This is one of the reasons why my wife and I are very careful about what books and movies we expose our children to: Once someone is “the good guy”, everything he does is admired and imitated. The flawed hero is not something that children are good at understanding. You see this when children interact with their real life friends as well. The girl down the street who is a “best friend” one day is “that mean girl I just hate, hate, hate” when she offends.

Thus, when I seek to keep my children from running into certain types of sins (divorce and remarriage, adultery, fornication, homosexual relationships) it’s not so much because I don’t want to explain these sins to my children, though that’s part of it. It’s more because I’d rather not have to deal with the delicate balancing act of trying to explain the “hate the sin, love the sinner” concept to a mind which is little capable of making the distinction.

“Daddy, there’s a new girl in RE class named Heather. Instead of a mommy and a daddy, she has two mommies. How does she have two mommies?”

“Well, Virginia, only a man and a woman can make a baby together, that’s how God made us. Miss Jennifer and Miss Jean may have adopted Heather, or maybe one of them had Heather before they met each other.”

“But are Miss Jennifer and Miss Jean married?”

“No, women can’t be married to each other. It would be very wrong for two women to live together as if they were married. God tells us that only men and women can marry because only men and women can have babies together. But some women try to live together as if they were married anyway.”


* * * *

“Daddy, I told Heather that her mommies are not really married and she cried. Then she said I was a big liar. And one of the boys asked her if she was a dipe. What’s a dipe?”

“I think the boy was trying to say a very mean word, and I don’t think that you should use that word, Virginia. It was very mean of the boy to say that to her.”

“But why did she say I was a liar? Her mommies aren’t married. You said so. They can’t be.”

“Sometimes people don’t like to hear things even if they are true, honey. Maybe it’s better if you don’t talk to Heather about her mommies.”


* * * *

“Daddy, I asked one of Heather’s mommies, Miss Jennifer, if she was really married, and she said she was! Then I told her you said God didn’t like that and she said you must be judge-mental. Are you judge-mental, Daddy?”

“Not everyone understands what God tells us about marriage, Virginia. When Miss Jennifer said I was judgmental, she meant that she disagreed with what God tells us about marriage.”

“Miss Jennifer said that God made some women so that they love each other, and so God means them to get married. Is that true, Daddy?”

“No, dear. Miss Jennifer is wrong.”

Yes, it could be done, but no sane parent wants to get into these situations.

It’s not a teaching opportunity, teaching only works well with people able to understand. It’s an aggravation and confusion opportunity. Children have three modes when dealing with these situations: Assuming something is okay because the person in question seems nice; deciding to loudly despise the person because “he’s bad“; and pestering all people involved with awkward questions. Since none of these are desirable, parents would prefer not to have to deal with the “two mommies” kind of problems unless family connection forces them to. Just as they’d rather not delve into the fact that the nice woman named Phyllis who comes to family functions with Uncle Edgar is not actually his wife, and will fail to draw a “teaching moment” from the fact that Aunt Belinda’s oldest child was born two months after she got married.

Of course, family connections often result in children being forcibly exposed to sex out of wedlock, divorce, adultery, etc. But at least in my own experience, when these realities do in fact make themselves known to children the results are usually less than illuminating. Children are inveterate side takers, and if they do not (as they are surprisingly able to do) remain blithely unaware of a situation going on before their very eyes, they will tend to be the ones who say hurtful things loudly at gatherings which leave all the adults glaring at each other.

And if it’s difficult to explain to children about a nasty divorce without the children deciding they need to make their moral indignation known by behaving badly in public toward one of the parties, it is that much harder to explain a situation to a child in which the sinners are apparently happy and united in their sin. If one makes a big deal of it, the child is likely to take things to far and attempt to do a little of their own evangelizing (with disastrous results.) If one is circumspect, the child will assume this is just fine, and is unlikely to believe you years later when you attempt to explain that such things are wrong.

While it may seem like singling out homosexuals for special scorn, the “same sex marriage” is perhaps the most difficult lifestyle sin to explain to children. Divorce, because it fractures a family, is naturally disliked by children. Adultery, if it somehow becomes known, will be so only in its home-breaking sense, and thus rejected similarly to divorce. Same sex marriage, however, is unique in claiming to be a marriage when it is not. And thus is by far the most difficult to explain to children. I don’t think it’s unjustified for parents, who care strongly about presenting a good example of what marriage really is to their children, to not want to have such an issue brought up to their children before the children are of sufficient mental and moral maturity to be able to understand the situation and the Church’s response to it.

30 Responses to Talking About Sinful Lifestyles With Children

  1. Todd says:

    I like your approach, Darwin, on the whole. Yet the primary “heroes” in a child’s life are her or his parents. And they certainly see us at our best and at our worst. If children can navigate our blunders and triumphs, I suspect they might be able to make distinctions sooner than we realize.

    Perhaps key to addressing the nature of sin and sinners with kids is for parents to be more forthright than my parents were. I was 29 the first time my mother apologized to me. That strikes me as being about 25 years too late.

    Kids also have a sense of fairness about them. It would indeed be interesting to check with our kids about the children of same-sex couples issues. Would our daughters and sons think it “unfair” that one of their peers not be allowed to enroll in their school because of their mom and mom or dad and dad?

    I don’t know the answer to that. Maybe for some adults, that sort of childlike fairness trumps a childish knee-jerk reaction we see from some adults.

  2. bearing says:

    A good analysis.

    But I thought that the reasoning for not admitting to Catholic school the children of parents living objectively sinful lifestyles was NOT so much to avoid scandalizing the other children, as it was that it could cause objective harm to the child, by putting her in a position where the teachers would be teaching truths that would directly conflict with the parents’ teaching by example; it would have no option other than to teach that child, “Your loved ones are unrepentant sinners in danger of losing Heaven.”

    That the Church respects parents’ right to teach and form their own children — a primeval, natural right — so much that it ought not interfere with that right even by the parents’ own consent.
    Am I incorrect about this?

  3. Todd,

    Kids also have a sense of fairness about them. It would indeed be interesting to check with our kids about the children of same-sex couples issues. Would our daughters and sons think it “unfair” that one of their peers not be allowed to enroll in their school because of their mom and mom or dad and dad?

    Childlike fairness works in many ways that we seek to curb. For instance, most children under 9 I know considered, “But he made me angry,” as a perfectly acceptable reason for hitting someone. Children’s sense of fairness also often involves things which parents know are not good for them: late bedtimes, dessert every night, unlimited movie privileges, etc.

    The entire point I make here is that we at times seek to keep our children in ignorance of certain sins for the very reason that they are not yet capable for forming just and charitable responses to many situations — situations they are not well able yet to understand. Laying out the nature of same sex marriage to a child in order to ask the child if such families should be allowed into their school would mean starting out by rejecting the idea of forming a child’s experience of the world in order to guide his or her moral development.

    (Am I really sure how the digression about apologizing to children comes in — certainly, I think it would be a deeply foolish and misguided instinct to attempt to portray oneself to one’s children as being perfect, but I never suggested that in the piece.)


    I think I’d more heard concerns about scandal and about the presence of such families in a parish school (with young children) serving as a mute teaching that same sex marriage is a good thing — but I think your point is a good one. I honestly can’t imagine why, having entered into a same sex marriage or “partnership”, parents would want to put their children in a school which so directly contradicts their moral beliefs. Catholic schools are often better at academics than nearby public ones, but I certainly wouldn’t take that as a reason to send my children to a school where they’d be taught morality that I expressly disagreed with.

    I suppose one could posit that a same sex couple believes that homosexual activity is a moral sin, but live in relationship anyway — but I must admit that in our “I’m a good person” society I find that a rather unlikely claim.

  4. Two notes that might add some clarity to my argument here:

    – It’s specifically the bad teaching by example as to the nature of marriage here which I have an issue with. I would not have an issue if a single divorced woman who was a lesbian wanted to put her kids into a Catholic school, so long as neither she nor the child were causing problems as regards to teaching in the school. It’s specifically the “same sex relationship” with “two mommies” or “two daddies” that I see as a problem.

    – While I can see this as a good reason for a school restricting its student body, or parent choosing who they let their children socialize with, it’s probably also fair to point out that one of the main reasons that my wife and I homeschool rather than putting our kids in parochial school is that few parish schools seem to provide a Catholic enough atmosphere for us to see a reason to pay so much more to put our kids there. So while I’d see it as reasonable for a school which did maintain an authentically Catholic culture and moral environment to exclude the children of a same sex couple — there are a host of other cultural and moral problems (routinely tolerated) which similarly cause me to see many parish schools as not worth bothering with. If I’m going to put my kids into a hostile moral environment at school, I’d at least like it to be an explicitly secular one rather than one which purports to be Catholic.

  5. Kyle Cupp says:

    It’s specifically the “same sex relationship” with “two mommies” or “two daddies” that I see as a problem

    My guess is that as these relationships become more and more common, and they will, more and more children will come to hold such relationships as legitimate. And in the next generation or two, we’ll find that those who hold to the “old” view of marriage are in the minority. I wonder if being in the minority will make the problem you intentify more difficult or less difficult to deal with.

  6. gb says:

    You’re correct. Years ago our family left a parish where we’d worshipped for ten years because the priests (not diocesan, an order) decided that lesbian couples could have the (implanted) children baptized at the main Mass on Sundays. That way, we’d all be godparents!
    Even after we (& many other parishioners) were called “unloving”, “judgemental”, “homophobic” etc, we still moved our membership to another parish because we felt (& were told by the diocese) that the objection to such baptisms is that it is, in reality, “unloving” to baptize a child into a Church that recognizes their parent as involved in a disordered relationship. That action puts the child in an untenable position.
    As to why in the world the women in question would want to do that their children, I have no idea.

  7. Spambot says:


    Canon lawyer Dr. Edward Peters wrote on the subject of delay (but not denial) baptism to some children. Quoting an excerpt:

    Understandably, canon law does not specify exactly what material needs to be mastered by parents and sponsors prior to presenting their child for Baptism. But a clue as to how much (or how little?) might be required is found, I think, in Canon 868 § 1, n. 2, which states that for the licit baptism of a child there is required (beyond parental consent) a “founded hope that the child will be raised Catholic.” Most observers would agree, that it is not much of a juridic requirement, especially when the canon goes on to state that only if such a hope is “altogether lacking” can the baptism be, not denied, but delayed for a time according to diocesan policy.

    On the other hand, the “founded hope” requirement is generally considered to be more than sufficient grounds for a pastor to delay a child’s baptism because of, say, the parents’ irregular marriage situation. Although the child’s right to baptism will eventually outweigh the parents’ duty to rectify their marital status, resulting in conferral of the sacrament, pastoral evidence is clear that many couples do correctly address their own status in the Church as part of the preparation for their child’s baptism.

    ~~~end quote

    Based on this, I think you are wrong to seek denial of baptism to children of lesbian couples.

  8. I’d posted this at my personal blog as well, where one of our regular readers who is from the Philippines left this comment I liked quite a bit:

    My little brothers go to a very small Catholic school and are classmates with a boy who has “two daddies.” (I think they chose the school precisely because of its tiny student body and its repuation for being “progressive.”)

    One time, my brothers were talking about getting that classmate a birthday present, and I asked, “Is that the day he was born or the day he was adopted?”

    I found myself on the receiving end of two wide-eyed stares. Then the younger of my brothers asked, “Why do you think he’s adopted?”

    Then my mother yelled from the other room: “Your sister is just teasing. Hahaha! What a joker!”

    My brothers don’t seem very bothered by the idea of two dads, but they do wonder where the mother is. They’ve asked about it, and the answer they got was predictably vague: “Oh, maybe she’s in America . . . But don’t ask your friend about her, okay? It might make him feel bad because she doesn’t live with him.”

    Anyway, I have no quick answer here; just the opinion that the situation doesn’t spell the end of the world. I can understand why parents wouldn’t want to deal with that moral question when kids are so young, but I wonder whether the political situation in the United States is making this more of an issue than it has to be.

  9. Art Deco says:

    My guess is that as these relationships become more and more common,

    That’s interesting, Kyle. Is it your contention that there is no ceiling to the proportion of homosexuals in the population or that there is a secular trend toward homosexual monogamy?

  10. bearing says:

    Art Deco,

    I would guess that the proportion of children who are being raised by an openly same-sex couple is in fact rising.

  11. Mike Petrik says:

    Bearing has to be correct. Seriously, the quoted assertion has nothing to do with the proportion of homosexuals in the population or trends toward homosexual monogamy. The key variable is social and legal acceptance of such arrangements.

  12. Art Deco says:

    Mr. Kupp, who is capable of replying for himself, had this to say:

    And in the next generation or two, we’ll find that those who hold to the “old” view of marriage are in the minority.

    Which is a reference to the lateral association between the ‘parents’.

  13. bearing says:

    I’m sure Mr. Kupp is capable of replying for himself if he wishes to continue reading the thread.
    I don’t know about you, but I don’t always come back to re-read every comment thread I post on.

    Just in case he doesn’t choose to do so, I believe I am free to express my own opinion along those lines, which is that it’s the proportion of families headed by same-sex couples and raising children which matters here, not (as you suggest) the proportion of people with same-sex attraction nor the proportion who are monogamous (because, of course, monogamy and child-raising are not in one-to-one correspondence in any population).

    The relevant population is indeed rising.

  14. Phillip says:

    I suspect that in a few years homosexual marriage may in fact not only be tolerated but legislated as a protected alternative. As such it may be as in Canada where if we were to denounce such a thing we will be brought before a Human Rights Commission.
    Perhaps part of the problem is the degree to which such attitudes have been accepted in general – even in Catholic education. How many students in Catholic Universities hear about the adverse consequences of contraception, divorce and single parenthood? How often do Catholic Universities actually endorse such trends and are even now endorsing homosexual activity? How much of this spills into Catholic families that have incorportated these secualar ideas into thir own lives and send their kids to Catholic schools with the expectation that these are normal beliefs? Should the Catholic school, including the university, be distinct from the secular world? How much “in the world” without being “of the world” should be tolerated among Catholics? That is, how many ideas should be tolerated in a school, either through direct teaching or through the passive example of families admitted, that are contrary to the faith?
    The idea of the Catholic hospital comes to mind. How much contraception, abortion or IVF should be tolerated? I would say none though from a post below we see that that is clearly a problem with hospitals. While these are direct attacks on life and the foundation of the social fabric, so too is the education of children that flaunts moral norms – even if indirectly in the form of scandalous behavior. And for many children, ultimately the emotional argument that “they love each other so its okay” will trump many a logical argument to the contrary. This particularly so in middle and high school when children are naturally rebelling and more inclined to accept such arguments. Let’s not forget the admonition not to teach children evil or be cast into the sea with a millstone about one’s neck.
    I might suggest that, as there are a great deal of arguments on this and other Catholic blogs on basing our choices on the Faith and not on ideologies, that this is a good place to start. Perhaps we should not expect the secular anti-life mentality of contraception and abortion to be taught in our schools. Perhaps we should be able to condemn the sin while we love the sinner – even in a school. Perhaps if the condemnation will hurt the child then we should accept that that child shouldn’t be there. Perhaps we should accept that not offering a forum for scandal is more prudent when educating a child than seeking to provide a Catholic education for everyone. Perhaps we should accept that making such a choice is part of being Catholic.

  15. S.pamb.ot says:

    Perhaps if the condemnation will hurt the child then we should accept that that child shouldn’t be there.

    If the Catholic school is a good one and doing it’s job, all the students will eventually hear condemnation of a sin that is in some way personal to them.

  16. Phillip says:

    True enough. And they will hear of reconciliation and penance. And they will hear of going and sinning no more. The problem with two “mommies” or “daddies” is the “going and sinning no more part.” This especially for other children who continue to hear that Joey has two “mommies” or “daddies.” Thus that scandal that emerges from allowing such an arrangement in a school. More obvious than a contracepting family or a divorced and remarried one. Of course both of those also need to go and sin no more. And if they don’t, then the child will feel a measure of pain. And if the parents make their sin public and are causing scandal to children then they should be asked to leave also.

  17. spambot,

    Agreed. Though let’s be honest, most Catholic schools are not good ones and are not doing their job. If I had strong confidence that schools were doing a good job of passing on both Catholic teaching and culture, I’d actually have a lot less worry about things like admitting people who don’t agree with Catholic teaching.

  18. j. christian says:

    Amen to Darwin’s comment. If Catholic schools weren’t afraid to be Catholic, and the parents in question *still* wish to send their kids there, more power to them.

    On the matter of Catholic schools being Catholic, there is a small but promising body of schools that fit the bill:

  19. Eli says:

    I experienced quite a similar situation growing up. In my small Catholic school, my friend’s parents separated, due to the mother finally coming out as a lesbian. It did not explode my precious little mind. You underestimate your children, and seem to think that they are destined to inherit exactly your moral code. Nowhere does the bible come out and judge homosexual relationships to be any worse a sin than any other. Can any of you honestly say that you live a life free of sin, never returning to commit the same one time and time again? Are you so pure that the thought of your children learning the reality of the world makes you queasy? Education, tolerance and love are all that you need. The lesbian parents wanted to be good Catholics, to teach their children, and you forsake them? Shame on you all.

  20. S.pamb.ot says:


    In general I support allowing the children of gay parenting partners into Catholic schools, as long as there is no deviation from Catholic teaching that is presented to the students. The parents have to agree to that at the time of enrollment, and the students must learn Catholic teaching well enough to pass requried tests (whether or not they actually believe it).

    Having said that, this is what the Catheism has to say on the subject of homosexulaity:

    2357 Homosexuality refers to relations between men or between women who experience an exclusive or predominant sexual attraction toward persons of the same sex. It has taken a great variety of forms through the centuries and in different cultures. Its psychological genesis remains largely unexplained. Basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity, [Cf. Gen 191-29; Rom 124-27; 1 Cor 6:10; 1 Tim 1:10] tradition has always declared that “homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered.” They are contrary to the natural law. They close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved.

    2358 The number of men and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies is not negligible. This inclination, which is objectively disordered, constitutes for most of them a trial. They must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided. These persons are called to fulfill God’s will in their lives and, if they are Christians, to unite to the sacrifice of the Lord’s Cross the difficulties they may encounter from their condition.

    2359 Homosexual persons are called to chastity. By the virtues of self-mastery that teach them inner freedom, at times by the support of disinterested friendship, by prayer and sacramental grace, they can and should gradually and resolutely approach Christian perfection.

    ~~~end quote

    Eli, the lesbian parenting partners must agree to allow the school to teach their children this (in an age-appropriate manner), or no deal. They are being singled out. The Catechism has items that push us all against our natural inclinations.

  21. Joe Hargrave says:

    Well, since we’re still discussing this, I’ll reiterate my total opposition to both the idea of homosexual partners “raising” children, as well as the idea of Catholic schools admitting these students.

  22. Phillip says:

    Actually the Catechism calls on homosexuals to live chaste lives. Its unclear but perhaps the homosexual partners in question were living as sisters. If so, and if they were making that clear to everyone, then there would be an argument to admit them. But if they are continuing the appearance of being “married” which implies ongoing sexual relations, then they are continuing to commit acts of “grave depravity.” As such, there is still plenty good reason to refuse admission.

    Yes the Catechism does challange us all.

  23. Joe Hargrave says:

    Living as sisters? Oh come on!

  24. Phillip says:

    I take that from the Church teaching that men and women living together in irregular relationships (divorced and remarried) who cannot for whatever reason separate (i.e. raising children of the marriage) live as brother and sister.

    Hard to do yes. Best not to get in such a situation.

  25. You underestimate your children, and seem to think that they are destined to inherit exactly your moral code.

    If I thought my children were destined to inherit my moral code, I wouldn’t be putting in hard work in order to try to teach it to them. But, obviously: yes, I do hope my children will grow up to share my moral code, since I believe it is true and I want them to have God’s truth.

    Nowhere does the bible come out and judge homosexual relationships to be any worse a sin than any other.

    At a minimum, the bible teaches that homosexual relations are very serious sins, along the lines of adultery, idol worship, etc.

    Can any of you honestly say that you live a life free of sin, never returning to commit the same one time and time again? Are you so pure that the thought of your children learning the reality of the world makes you queasy? Education, tolerance and love are all that you need.

    I absolutely do not claim to be free on sin — but that has nothing to do with trying to teach my children about morality and protect them (where possible) from its messier manifestations. There are a lot of things which I don’t think that very young children are able to think about and deal with clearly. While on the one hand I would never try to hide homosexuality from a 15-year-old, I would also never try to discuss it with a 6-year-old. Nor is my attempt to shield my children from the graver perversions of family restricted to same sex relationships — for instance, there’s been a nasty divorce (complete with adultery, calling the cops on each other, stealing each others cars, snatching the kids back and forth and constant recriminations) ongoing between a couple in our parish whose kids my know my own kids slightly, and you may be assured that I have done all that I can to shield them from knowing any of the details about that situation.

  26. Eli says:

    The bible is far more concerned with matters of prohibiting what food you eat and the clothes you wear than condemning homosexuality. You pick and choose the words of your almighty god. If someone were to tell me they took their morals from the bible, I would refuse to stay in the same room as them. The bible teaches that it is good for a man to impregnate his brother’s widow. That it is good to send out your virgin daughters to be raped by a mob in the place of 2 strange men. That after a victory, you should kill all of your enemies apart from the virgin women, who you should take for your wives. You do have more than one wife and have plentiful offspring, right? If you only have your father around, getting him drunk then having sex with him is doing the lord’s work. Doing otherwise would surely be an affront to god. I understand that this venue is not going to find anyone with an open mind, but have you read the bible lately? It’s full of filth, incest, murder and confused mistranslations and repeats. Holding up the moral writing of livestock obsessed tribesmen with no knowledge of how the universe worked is not something to be lauded.
    The catholic church in particular needs to stop persecuting others on such a minor matter as 2 people who love each other while ignoring the far more serious matters of abuse within its own ranks. Protecting abusers and exposing children to known criminals has been institutionalised. Having loving parents, no matter who they are, is not something to recriminate.

  27. Art Deco says:

    You are not being persecuted, and if the matter were ‘minor’, the opposition would not be so vehement about it.

  28. j. christian says:

    Stop being such an emotivist, Eli, and think with the brain that God gave you. In our hyperindividualist society, in which anything that stymies self-determination is considered a sin, it’s no surprise that such responses are common. But really, give it a shot: Think about something other than the reflexive sympathy of “two people who love each other should be together.” Think about the family as the unit of civilization. Think about cultural norms about marriage and how they might be negatively conditioned by permissive attitudes and laws. Think about how the principle you apply to gay marriage would work equally well with any other number of logical absurdities.

    Just think, for crying out loud.

  29. Donald R. McClarey says:

    “It’s full of filth, incest, murder and confused mistranslations and repeats. Holding up the moral writing of livestock obsessed tribesmen with no knowledge of how the universe worked is not something to be lauded.”

    Ludicrous. I assume your reading of Scripture is limited to what you have cribbed from atheist websites. The lengths people will go to hang on to their cherished sins.

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