A Catholic Parent Takes on the Challenges of Parenting

Every day, the cross, with joy!

Sunday, March 8, 2015

On Sunday Rest

It's amazing how people respond when there is a blizzard in the forecast. No matter what their work or family schedule normally is, they somehow manage to make it to the store to stock up on food. If there's a possibility of a power outage, they get the laundry and vacuuming done. They make sure the dishes are washed, the cellphones are charged, the blankets are ready, and the snowblowers are working. People get the work done, so that when the big event comes they can cozy up in front of the fire and relax until the snow stops and they can begin shoveling. This is a great testament to the human ability to prepare and plan well.

And it can also serve as a way to help us think about Sundays. The observance of Sunday as the Lord's Day, a day set aside for rest and worship has become uncommon, and yet it remains crucial for the Christian life. From a natural perspective, human beings need a break and an opportunity to rest. From a supernatural perspective, the commitment to resting on a Sunday is a way of affirming our humility. It might seem that we can accomplish more by working more days, but taking one day off from work attests to our trust in God and belief that we do all things through God and not simply of our own power.

It might seem strange to try to categorize Sunday rest as a parenting mortification, since it truly is a precept of the Christian life. But in many ways, the Sunday observance for a busy family does involve a death to self, a sacrifice and a commitment in order to live more fully for God. This is partly because it has become counter-cultural to keep Sunday as the Lord's Day; kids' activities are now increasingly scheduled for Sundays, for example. Busy families face another obstacle for good observance of Sunday, namely, they often find themselves behind on chores or work because they are balancing so much in terms of the house, children, and work outside the home given the imperfect circumstances in which we live.

And this is why I think it is helpful to recognize keeping the Sabbath as a mortification. It is a sacrifice that may be difficult to embrace in addition to the many challenges of having kids. But like other parenting mortifications, it is a sacrifice that brings us and our children closer to God. How we parents observe Sundays also provides an important example for our children. Here are a few ideas for observing Sunday rest.

1. Abstain from your professional work. Unless you hold a job, such as a nurse or police, where you cannot avoid working on Sundays, do not get trapped into doing your outside work on a Sunday. This may take planning, but it is usually more possible than we like to think.

2. Avoid unnecessary household work. Many times Sunday becomes a catch-up day for chores, which is regrettable. There is constant maintenance in the upkeep of a house, and this means there is always something more that can be done. Of course, on Sundays we will need to do the dishes and sweep the floor, but laundry, vacuuming, and similar chores should be postponed until Monday or completed on Saturday. Please do not make Sunday "chore day" for your children, especially if you tend to get frustrated and angry when getting your kids to do chores. You do NOT want your children to associate Sunday with grumpy parents and extra housework. Nor should you think of Sunday as the day that you have to marshal your children into cleaning up the house.

3. Attend Mass. This is the most important activity a Catholic family should do on a Sunday. Dressing up for Mass is a way of reinforcing that Sunday is different from the other days of the week.

4. Eat well. Sunday is a Solemnity, the highest feast day in the Church. So celebrate it with a good meal, whether an elaborate brunch or simply a dessert after dinner. It's also a good day to set your table differently than it usually appears - with a nice tablecloth or some candles.

5. Engage in family prayer. Perhaps the most popular family prayer on a Sunday is saying the Rosary as a family. Reading Scripture aloud or saying a novena are two other possibilities of many prayer practices.

6. Do something fun as a family. Sunday is a good day to go for a hike, hang out at a park, go fossil hunting, have a dance party in the living room, etc. Choose an activity that you aren't normally able to do on a weekday.

7. Give your spouse a break. If one spouse spends more time with the children, Sunday is a good day to let that parent do something he or she normally doesn't get to do, such as go for a swim or read a novel.

8. Extend hospitality. Hosting friends or extended family can be a nice way to make Sunday feel different from the rest of the week.

9. Don't let sports or other kids' activities dominate your Sundays. It is difficult to make a hard and fast rules about children's activities on Sundays, but if you know that a particular activity only takes place on Sundays, you should carefully discern if it is worth it for your child to participate in that activity at all. Sunday can easily become "soccer day" or "wrestling day," where the focus of the day is on these activities. On the other hand, a late afternoon baseball game could contribute to a nice Sunday. If you make the decision to take your child to hockey practice instead of Mass, you are setting a very dangerous example for them, one that can imperil their soul far more than any damage that might result from missing a practice.

10. Limit screen time. Don't let technology take over your Sunday. Avoid letting "rest" and "family time" become everyone staring individually at a phone screen, tablet screen, computer screen, or television screen. Remember that the reason for guarding your Sundays is to focus on resting in God.

There can be a certain discipline involved in making Sundays feel like Sundays, distinct from the rest of the work week. It involves planning and preparation. But it is possible. And it is nourishing for both our bodies and souls.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Being a Toddler of God

Yes, that's one way to eat applesauce.
Life with a toddler is quite a unique experience. Perhaps at no other age are children so dramatic, so temperamental, so opinionated, so cute, and so difficult as when they are toddlers. Some people will say that the main reason for toddler tantrums is simply that they have trouble communicating what it is they want and hence become frustrated, acting out in whatever way will get them attention.
No doubt there is some truth to that, but it also seems that much of toddler frustration comes from the realization that they cannot have everything they want at the time they want it or in the way they want it. Toddlers can also appear completely irrational, in part because they do not understand (or perhaps do not LIKE) the way the world works. My toddler has in the past gotten very frustrated at my stopping at red lights, especially if I seem to be waiting too long. "GOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!" he will yell from directly behind my driver's seat. This past summer, my toddler threw a monster tantrum every single morning for two weeks in a row because I refused to give him a popsicle for breakfast. Rules like stopping at a red light or no popsicles for breakfast are simply not compelling to a toddler.

Then we may also observe that toddlers often have a more profound degree of indecision than the rest of us. A simple question, such as "Do you want red socks or blue?" can wreak havoc. Not to mention that toddlers sometimes will ask for something, and when they are given it, they forget about it and walk away. There are other times when they seem upset that they received what they asked for, and they will throw it or themselves on the ground.

Toddlers can be extremely covetous, employing that word "MINE!" frequently, even for things, such as the garlic mincer or potato peeler, which clearly are NOT theirs. And another frequent word of toddlers, is, of course, "NO!" which in their mind seems to apply in many situations, even when it is not a valid answer to a particular question.

It can be quite tough living with someone who gets upset over small matters, dislikes particular rules, throws tantrums about minor concerns, is indecisive on basic decisions, shows little gratitude, and is possessive about things that aren't even his. It is a great parenting mortification. Dealing with a toddler is an opportunity for death to self in order to live for God. There are many aspects of toddler behavior we'd like to avoid, but since we can't, we should try to make the best of the seeming irrationalities, tantrums, etc. We can offer these situations, and our attempts at patience with them, as an opportunity for prayer and growing closer to God.

Life with a toddler is also a wonderful situation for reflecting on our own childhood before God. Do we ever get frustrated with God's rules? Do we ever try to avoid good formation and growing in virtue so we can do things we find more pleasurable or fun? Do we ever have bad days where we get upset for very little (or even no) reason at all? Do we ever ask God for something in prayer and then forget about it or show no gratitude when we receive it? Do we ever get possessive about material possessions, acting as though they will last for all eternity? Do we ever want other people's things and get angry when we can't have them? Do we ever tell God "NO!" when we feel He is asking us to do something we don't want to do or something that we think is too difficult?

Yes. The fact is that we - even as adults - often act like toddlers. That we are bigger and older might make it seem to us that our adult version of the toddler behavior is more acceptable than their toddler behavior. And yet, God probably often looks upon us in loving patience (and even amusement) the same way that we look at our toddlers. We get upset about little things. We don't always want to follow God's rules, and we don't admit our failings. We sometimes yell or take out our anger on others, including people who do not deserve it. We hate to wait and show our impatience in dramatic ways. We become indecisive about decisions when we should be trusting in God. We do not thank God enough for our blessings. We often want too much when it comes to material possessions. We sometimes try to bend God's will to our own, while also resisting doing God's will, even when it is clear to us.

"Amen, I say to you, unless you become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven." These words of Jesus from Matthew 18:2-4 tell us that we should be like children. But surely the behavior described above is not what Jesus had in mind. Toddlers can be difficult, it's true. And yet they also have a tremendous amount of trust and willingness to be loved. As much as they want to do things by themselves, they realize they need help and they ask for it. They seek our help and like constant awareness of our presence. They know that we will often grant their requests. They seek our affection. They seem to recognize their dependence. 

Our toddlers should be a reminder to us of our own dependence upon God. We need to seek to be childlike as they are, ready to ask for help and trust that we will get the response that is best for us in God's eyes, rather than just our own. As adults, we should leave behind the childish toddler tantrums we see exhibited by our kids, but at the same time, we should humble ourselves, becoming childlike by recognizing our dependence on God and growing each day in love for him.

So, the next time the toddler throws a tantrum, embrace that as a double mortification: a challenge requiring loving patience and a reminder of our own imperfections and need for childlike humility. The childish response is to become annoyed and angry at the irrational demonstrative child. The childlike response is to use this moment to depend on God's help, asking Him to give us the grace we need to be good parents, as He is to us when we throw tantrums.