A Catholic Parent Takes on the Challenges of Parenting

Every day, the cross, with joy!

Monday, February 24, 2014

Ideas for Raising Catholic Kids Who Become Catholic Adults

Parenting mortification is not so much about parenting as about mortification. In other words, it's not really about how to raise kids, but about how to address the challenges of parenting in a positive way that helps parents to become happier and holier. That said, this post will step aside from the usual content and address parenting more directly. The ideas that follow come from my husband's and my observations of Catholic parents who have raised Catholic kids who became Catholic adults. They are ideas we are trying to implement as best we can.

1. Make Catholicism fun!
Catholicism gives us so many opportunities to celebrate. So then, celebrate! Celebrate big feasts (Christmas and Easter) in big ways, with special clothes, special foods, special activities, etc. Celebrate the kids' baptism anniversaries, name days, and sacraments. Observe solemnities not only with Mass, but with cake after dinner! Remember particular patron saints on their feast days. Live the liturgical year with sacramentals, like the Advent wreath. Make Sundays feel different than weekdays - a day of rest, family time, family Rosary in your pajamas, whatever it takes to make it clear that Sunday is not just another day, but rather is the best day of the week. Catholicism is a faith imbued with the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and that should shine through the practice of Catholicism in the family.

2. Teach kids the value of suffering and mortification.
Suffering and mortification are a part of life. Catholicism teaches us that we can use suffering and mortification  for supernatural ends. While of course we want to take away suffering from our children, sometimes we can't. But we can help them cope with pain supernaturally by teaching them to offer up their discomfort or pain or disappointments as prayers for those in need. Not only is it a beautiful prayer when a child does this, but it is a wonderful formation that will allow them to deal positively with pain they will encounter later in life. Just as we strive not to waste these opportunities to die to self and live for God, so kids can do the same if we share with them this important part of our faith.

3. Emphasize God's mercy for sin and failure.
God always forgives and always wants the best for us. His mercy is abundant and he will never refuse our humble repentance. From a young age kids should know this...they can always be forgiven by God, no matter the offense. Instead of allowing sin to become a habit or vice, encourage them to see their sin as an opportunity for grace. They may feel bad or embarrassed about something they've done, and God should stand in their minds not as a ruthless judge, but as a merciful parent. Communicate that God's mercy is a consolation for them and invitation to try again. The only real failure is giving up the struggle. Continuing to fight against sin, however, makes us strong by strengthening virtue. Explain how to do an examination of conscience and teach your children an Act of Contrition at an early age. Help them to frequent the sacrament of penance as often as they'd like.

4. Educate and form children in the faith.
Kids need to know the faith. Parents do too. Sometimes we don't know the answers to their questions about the faith, and it's OK to admit that...but it's not OK to discredit or undermine the Church or its teachings because of our own ignorance. Instead, turn to the Catechism to look up answers or read about topics that your kids ask you about. The catechesis of your children is primarily your job. Kids today have plenty of formation in secular culture, from Disney princesses to Star Wars, but their primary narrative of life needs to be their faith, so educate them about the faith and form them in it with Bible stories, explanations of the Mass, and sacramentals such as crucifixes and holy water.

5. Value children's sanctity and salvation above worldly success, pleasure, and physical beauty.
There are many goals that we have for our children. Let no goal take the place of their final goal, sanctity that invites their salvation and secures their place in heaven. Too often we parents can get carried away with extra-curricular activities like swimming or piano. Parents sometimes exact too much pressure on their children when it comes to their academic success. Parents can get caught up in their children's appearance. And of course, parents want their children to enjoy life and experience fun times. The goals themselves do not have to be problematic, but rather can lead to the glory of God. Yet at the same time, any of these can lead us to spend too much time, money, and energy on things that are truly worldly preoccupations that will all pass away. Parents make all kinds of sacrifices for their young children's athletic careers - money and time spent on gymnastics lessons, for example. And yet very few adults are still doing handsprings; the returns on investing in children's sanctity, in contrast, are infinite. Often times, prioritizing children's sanctity and salvation above all else can become a mortification. For example, one dad realized as his son hit puberty that their summer family vacation to the Jersey Shore was becoming an occasion of sin (or at least struggle) for the son, who couldn't help but gawk at the girls on the beach. So the next year, the family vacation consisted of hiking in the Poconos. It was a sacrifice to forego the beach, but it was a sacrifice the parents embraced out of concern for their son's sanctity.

6. Respect their freedom.
Catholicism involves certain obligations, such as Sunday Mass attendance. Children are expected to observe those obligations as they do any other household rules. But beyond that, parents have to be very careful about trying to force the faith on kids, particularly as they grow older. Younger kids often love to imitate parents and to join in some prayer practices, but as children age they may assert their independence by refusing to do these things. That is fine. Respecting their choice leaves the door open for their return, whereas fighting against it can often cause a battle and make a negative association. So also, when it comes to preferences of food or politics or activities, tolerate or even encourage their interests, so long as they aren't committing sin in them. One of the most important realizations of parents is that their kids are not just like them. Accepting kids' personalities, interests, and preferences shows the parents' respect for their individuality.

7. Don't criticize the Church. Be proud to be Catholic.
If a wife constantly criticizes her husband, the kids pick up on that and begin to imitate it, finding their own critiques of his messiness or laziness or other faults. So also, if a dad regularly complains of his mother, his own children will pick up on this and imitate his lack of respect and reverence for Grandma. As adults, we are often acutely aware of the sins and failings of some of the members of our mystical body the Church. At times, we may be disappointed with the leadership in the Church, whether at a local, regional, national, or international level. And yet, as Catholics we describe our Church as "holy" and we truly see it as holy, even if the members of the Church sin. But just as a wife should not criticize her husband to her kids, nor a dad criticize his mother to his kids, so also we parents should not criticize our mother the Church to our kids. If anything, there will be a time to explain how members of the Church sin, but yet the Church remains holy because of Christ. But if we take to criticizing, undermining, discrediting, or disagreeing with Church teachings in front of our kids, we can expect them to pick up on that and end up discrediting the Church as a whole. So often we hear the expression "proud to be an American," and yet our government does not have a spotless record. Neither does the Church, it's true, but the Church is full of sinners trying to become saints through the grace of God. We shouldn't have to hide our Catholicism, nor teach our kids to hide their faith. Rather we want them to own it, to defend it, and to explain it as best they can.

8. Socialize with other Catholic families; keep tabs on your kids' friendships.
One of the most important choices made by children concerns their friends. So then, give them the friends that you want them to have. At least, give them the opportunity to meet children of like-minded Catholic parents, parents whose primary goal for their kids is for them to become saints. They will probably make other (non-Catholic) friends as well, and this is fine, but needs care and observation. One big task of parents may be practicing hospitality, and giving kids a safe, comfortable place to spend time with their friends. Let your house be the house where kids want to gather. Let your children see that people and relationships are more important than possessions and "success."

9. Practice the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy.
Don't let a day go by when your children are young without encouraging them to remember people who are in need. It may be hard when children are young to find some way of involving them in these practices, but there are small ways that can become important reminders, for example, a weekly donation to the food pantry at the local parish can be a regular and concrete action expressing concern for the poor and hungry. Taking a meal to a family mourning the loss of a loved one can ingrain the importance of concern for those in need of comfort. And when these actions aren't possible, it's always valuable to remember the needy in prayer.

10. Don't give the devil access to your home through media.
If the devil knocked on the door, would you let him in? No, right? So don't let him sneak in through the airwaves. The television, Internet, movies, music, video games, and sometimes books or friends can form children in ways that we don't want, and they can be invitations to sin. The "normal" in media today used to be objectionable, and it is becoming increasingly sexualized in particular. It may help to look at what's happening on a television screen (or computer screen or cell phone screen) and think to yourself how you would react if you opened a door to your house and saw the action on the screen in that room. Protect your children's modesty and purity. Have rules governing media usage, monitor your children's online activities, and offer alternative activities (hiking, baking, card games, board games, etc.).

11. Model, model, model.
Basically every parenting book advocating any method of child-rearing will note that the most important influence on a child is the model provided by their parents. When it comes to living Catholicism, the parents are the most important models for their children. So parents should model joy in living the faith and consistency in prayer; kids should see their parents pray and have a sense of their parents' prayer schedule. At Mass, kids should see their parents actively participating in the Mass...and that means...praying! Moreover, the example of the parent is also important in many of the above items numbered above. Parents model enthusiasm for and enjoyment of the faith. Parents model dealing with suffering well. Parents model repentance and use of the sacrament of penance. Parents model formation and education in the faith and a desire to explore it. Parents prioritize their sanctity and salvation over worldly values. Parents model support of the Church. Parents model the value of good Catholic friendship. Parents model corporal and spiritual works of mercy. Parents model discipline in regard to media and a desire to maintain purity. Of course, we all fall short at times, so also provide your children with other models, such as the saints.

12. Pray, pray, pray for them!
Parents who believe that prayer makes a difference will pray for their kids, not as an afterthought, but as an integral part of their parenting.

Anything I'm missing?

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Compassion and the Suffering of Our Children

(Station 4 from the outdoor stations at the mission in Santa Barbara, CA)
Photo credit: Damian Gadal

In many of my parenting mortification posts, I've dwelt on topics where we as parents have to deal with difficulties that directly affect us, physically and emotionally. Sleep deprivation, getting insulted, and having our possessions damaged are all challenges of parenting that become great opportunities to mortify ourselves - to die to self and live for God by turning our lack of choice in some circumstances into a choice to serve God.

The topic of this post is a little different - rooted not in those things that understandably inconvenience and annoy us - but rather, it is a challenge that stems precisely from the love we have for our children and our consequent desire for their well-being and happiness. We don't like to see our children in pain or suffering and as parents, we are supposed to do our best to address these issues. But sometimes we simply cannot remove the pain and suffering. How can we deal with this challenge?

I remember my first experience of maternal compassion, which began within the first days of my oldest child's birth. Already she had taken up permanent residence in my heart, and I felt that instinctual compulsion to protect her from all harm, holding her close to me as much as I could. So when it came time for a newborn jaundice test requiring a heel prick and a tiny vial of her blood, I actually cried for the few minutes it took the phlebotomist to collect enough blood. Again, with her first vaccines, I struggled knowing that we were causing her such pain and that she had no understanding as to why we would do this to her when she trusted us so implicitly. I literally could not handle it; I had to have my husband hold her down while the nurse administered the shots. That's how acute my maternal compassion was when it came to my child's suffering.

It's a bit embarrassing to admit the above in retrospect. I certainly have the perspective of a bigger picture now that the oldest has been around for almost eight years. Yet, even with my fourth, I sorrowed for him to spend his first days after birth in an isolated bassinet receiving phototherapy, punctuated primarily by regular visits from the nurses to prick his heel for another blood test. When breastfeeding time came, I put all my energy into making up for those hours away from me, and when I had to put him back under the lights, I  spent much of my time out of bed, singing to him as I stood next to the bassinet touching him in whatever way I could given the circumstances.

Bearing witness to the suffering of a child beyond the newborn stage does not get any easier. Rather, it becomes more varied and complex. In addition to seeing the pain of the first bumped heads and scraped knees, there are the longer illnesses, achy heads, sick stomachs, sore throats, and all the common ailments that life on this earth brings. Sometimes there are big injuries that require trips to the emergency room. There are chronic health problems that require constant attention. Then, add to this the sometimes even more difficult suffering caused by learning how to interact with others - the emotional pain when a child is teased or bullied for the first time, when a child is inexplicably hit or bit or otherwise antagonized by another kid at the park. There is the suffering that comes with disappointment in performance on a test at school or lack of confidence in abilities and talents.

Though the other topics I've discussed before are all instances of feeling less control over our situations than we'd like, this experience of parenting perhaps is the best example of feeling absolutely helpless and powerless. We want so much to prevent their suffering, to ease their pain, and yet sometimes the best we can do is to lift up the toilet seat and hold back their hair as they vomit. We can comfort, we can alleviate, we can sympathize, but as parents we often find that we cannot take away their pain.

In short, this is life. When we look back over our own life and even current circumstances, we see that we ought not be surprised that our kids also will feel physical pain and endure emotional suffering. But that doesn't really make it easier for us. Like all occasions for parenting mortification, this is hard. It is difficult. It is a challenge.

But it is also an opportunity. It is an opportunity to turn to God in prayer, to lament openly to God the suffering of our children, to beg God to intervene or to bring comfort. It is an opportunity to die to ourselves and our own plans for our children and to live for God, taking as our model the maternal compassion of Mary as she endured her only Son's passion and death. The counterpart to his passion was her compassion. She loved him so much that she would have borne for him whatever of his pain that she could, but her role was to enter into it, not with the physical burden of the cross, but with her own suffering of compassion.

Like other parenting mortifications, the suffering of our children becomes invaluable as a way of growing in love, virtue, and holiness. Like any other mortification, we can offer up this pain and our sharing in this pain as a prayer to God. In so doing it ceases to become simply an instance of suffering and becomes a moment of grace; it is no longer about anger and resentment but generosity in bearing the cross and entering into that suffering.

Practically speaking, there are three important tasks that will enable the suffering of our children and our coincident compassion to become spiritually fruitful for us and for them. The first is for us to improve on our view of mortification in our own lives. By embracing other parenting mortifications, as well as our regular physical discomforts or emotional disappointments, we train ourselves to re-narrate the sufferings of our children in a more positive light. We can see suffering in a supernatural light, with the potential to increase our sanctity and bring us closer to our final end. We detest seeing our children in pain and that's precisely why we can accept it as a gift that we would never have chosen.

Secondly, it is truly worthwhile to encourage your children, at a young age, to accept the challenges, pains, and sufferings of childhood as their first instances of mortification. We have one daughter who, fighting a stomach bug at age three, offered all of her sickness for the needs and intentions of the pope. As she stood uneasily in front of the toilet clutching her belly, she pronounced, "this is for the pope!" before leaning over to vomit. It wasn't fun for any of us, but her simple prayer and willingness to offer her suffering brought meaning to her sickness for her and was a powerful witness for her parents, who strive with difficulty to do what she had done in utter simplicity and trust in the efficacy of mortification as prayer.

The last and most obvious task is simply to be compassionate to our children when we cannot eliminate their pain, to share in their sufferings and difficulties, to offer kind words and warm embraces, to make toast and herbal tea, to sympathize, to read books with them on their sickbeds, to take them to the doctor kindly and generously when needed, to distract them from the pain if necessary, to pray with them, to encourage them when helpful, to love them and love them and love them in the midst of their suffering.