It is a truth generally acknowledged that people who have experienced unconditional love when they were young (especially fatherly and motherly love) are better equipped to discover the love of God–whether or not they actually discover it is a different question. On the flip side of the coin, those who have been abused or neglected by their parents will oftentimes have a harder time discovering God as a loving father. 

This is a brief reflection on a related problem; a pervasive but often unspoken about reality that affects those in the first group of the lucky ones who have or had loving parents. Let me offer a couple of examples of the problem I have in mind. I think they illustrate a rather common occurrence in that increasingly uncommon group. 

Maryanne is a college sophomore. She was brought up by Catholic parents, who go to Mass every Sunday and went to Catholic schools, where they received some religious formation. Maryanne, on the other hand, received little formation and has stopped going to Mass every Sunday. She goes to Mass when she is under the vigilant eyes of her parents; but when she is away at college, she does not go to Mass, counting on the likelihood that her parents will never know.

Tony –Maryanne’s older brother– is a senior in college, and he has a girlfriend. He wanted to go with her on a camping trip but he was afraid that if his parents found out, the discovery would hurt their feelings. So, he organized a separate camping trip with a group of guy friends and told his parents that he was leaving town with them for a couple of weeks. Halfway through the fortnight the guys left and the girlfriend arrived for the second part of the trip. Tony’s mom called to check on him and he concealed from her the presence of his girlfriend. She probably would never learn about it, and her feelings would be spared.

These examples, among countless others, are faulty instances of a certain art of parental imitation that should have already been replaced by the personal initiative of the young individual. What the two situations have in common is both kids’ concern not to hurt their parents’ feelings. It is not that they wanted to do the right thing for the sake of doing the right thing. Going to Mass or putting reasonable means a Christian dating relationship, were not, for them, ways of honoring God their Father or showing Him their love. It was all a matter of human respect only.

Of course, there is much to be said for an upbringing that results in young people wishing to emulate those who brought them up –if, that is, those who brought them up deserve to be emulated, which tends to be the case in the group of “the lucky ones.” But I see even such an upbringing as a failure in the education of the youth when it does not encourage them to fly higher than that earthly imitation. It is indeed a great challenge for loving parents to wean their children from just pleasing them, as they try to teach them that there is a greater love and a greater Lover that deserves all our best efforts, regardless of who is or is not watching us at home. 

There is no magic formula. But in my view the right direction is towards imparting on the young ones the notion that love for their parents, while excellent, is something of a means to an end– the end being a personal connection with his or her Father God. Maryanne will be able to say, some day: “Mom, I did go to Mass when I was away because I know God expects to see me in Church and I know that it would make you happy too.” Tony will be able to say, some day: “Dad, I gave up the next camping trip with my girlfriend, because of my love for God and for you.” Their parents will be rightfully pleased. For when they think of Mom and of Dad, those kids will now think too of… their Dad God!

Professor Santiago Legarre is a visiting professor at Notre Dame Law School. He is also a professor of law at Pontificia Universidad Catolica Argentina and a visiting professor at Strathmore Law School in Kenya. He can be reached at