Dear friends of ours, when they found out they were expecting their first child, asked Patti and me for parenting advice. Though I think there are tons of people far more qualified than I am to offer true wisdom, I acceded to their wish. What wisdom we do have on parenting we learned from God’s kindly light, from others or from our many mistakes. Patti also wrote them her advice, which I never saw. I’m sure it was far more practical than mine. Below is what I wrote. As my blogs go, it’s long! But if there’s anything useful here for new parents, I hope it does some good.
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Let everything take second place to our care of our children, our bringing them up to the discipline and instruction of the Lord. If from the beginning we teach them to love true wisdom, they will have greater wealth and glory than riches can provide. If a child learns a trade, or is highly educated for a lucrative profession, all this is nothing compared to the art of detachment from riches; if you want to make your child rich, teach him this. He is truly rich who does not desire great possessions, or surround himself with wealth, but who requires nothing. Don’t think that only monks need to learn the Bible; Children about to go our into the world stand in greater need of Scriptural knowledge. — St. John Chrysostom
Moral education entails asking of a child or a young person only those things that do not involve a disproportionate sacrifice, and demanding only a degree of effort that will not lead to resentment or coercion. Ordinarily this is done by proposing small steps that can be understood, accepted and appreciated, while including a proportionate sacrifice. Otherwise, by demanding too much, we gain nothing. Once the child is free of our authority, he or she may possibly cease to do good. — Pope Francis
“Thoughts on Raising Children.” I will limit myself to [twenty three], so I’ll actually give you something useful and won’t put off writing this until “that day” that will never come! There’s so much more to say. This is what came to me as I sat today. Have no illusions that we achieved them all! But we aspire to them all. Love you both. Cherish every day. Jesus is with you! Tom
- Remember your children aren’t yours, are not your possession, and you are neither the arbiter nor the judge of their worth or purpose or mission in this life. They are given by Him to you, entrusted to your care. Though you are given the dignity of being co-creators with God in bringing your child into being, once they exist your power over them is only that of shepherd and steward, a divine vicar who mediates and discerns for and with them. You must not manipulate their life’s unfolding under grace. Your main task is to help them learn, like the prophet Samuel, to hear the voice of God for themselves and be ready to consent to His will when they know what it is. So your primary posture toward your children is reverence and gratitude, holy fear and a readiness to reveal to them, as best you can, the Face of God each day in your own faces. Especially in your smiles.
- The greatest gift you can give your children is your marriage, which is meant to be for them a safe playground within which they can grow. Framed by stability, consistency, joy, faithfulness, affection, laughter, openness to life, generosity, hospitality, humility, forgiveness, adventure and diversified unity, this playground will allow them to feel safe enough to sprout, grow and bloom. Let them see a living model of what love looks like so they can internalize what is to be the grand narrative of human existence: The wonder-full drama of human and divine love!
- Order your home with rhythms of time and predictable patterns, within which spontaneity means something. Your home should know that balance between the given and unyielding structures of nature and the creative and spontaneous freedoms of grace. Too much rigid structure can stunt the unfolding of their playful uniqueness, while too much freedom can leave them without the safety of boundaries or the solid foundations of virtuous habits. Somewhere between tyranny and anarchy is charity. 🙂
- As spouses-become-parents, you are sacramentally consecrated as priests empowered to bless your children and intercede for them in their needs. Bless them every day, all their lives. Make it a bedtime routine every night, a brief ritual that will imprint itself in them as a gesture of care and tenderness. A sign of the cross on their foreheads with a brief formula that is your own, including the Trinitarian invocation, with a splash of holy water. Relentlessly pray and quietly sacrifice for them every day, especially in times of need, celebration or rites of passage.
- Teach them to pray. Have them memorize the traditional prayers from the earliest age. Encourage them to speak to God from their heart with intention (i.e. knowing they speak to God who loves them) from the first days they can speak. Never make prayer a punishment, never discipline them with anger during prayer, and make daily family prayer time short and sweet and consistent, though with a variety of forms. Give them a role in creating prayer forms as they mature. Use sacramentals as much as possible in prayer — candles, holy water, incense, holy images, relics, beads, etc. Soak their senses.
- Make Sundays special days of worship, catechesis, joy, fun, food, family. Develop Sunday traditions that set it apart, a special time of family leisure and celebration. We recommend “screen free Sundays” to protect face time: no electronic devices with screens all day, except for family movies or sports. Have Sunday Mass stand as a centerpiece of the day. Have a special meal, offer hospitality to others, visit a nursing home, play games, take trips to the park.
- Teach them to work, sacrifice and serve in (always) age-appropriate ways by giving them home responsibilities early on (i.e. chores). Though your witness as parents to a life of hard work and servant leadership is essential, challenging them from a young age to work and make sacrifices themselves, and put others first, is far more important. Can’t emphasize that enough! This links to the principle of subsidiarity, which, as you know, means that the life of a home is a work of shared governance as each takes his or her proper role in contributing to the common good of all. “Do your part.” Responsible care and use of their own possessions, as well as responsible care for common areas and things in the home, should be part of every stage of their growth in virtuous self-mastery. Social justice, and all the social virtues, are first learned at home.
- Let them know love for the poor, the sick and the needy. Make sure they are never far from those who suffer and help them develop, age appropriately, compassionate and merciful hearts. Keep close to the lowly and teach them to live simply.
- Oversee their friendships. Friendships are of extreme importance in the growth of children, and ensuring their friendships are healthy and compatible with your family culture is crucial. Get to know the familes of their friends and try to connect your families as much as possible, so they see friendships and family life form a natural unity. That said, don’t be overprotective helicopter parents that require perfect friends who will not challenge and stretch your children. Let them learn how to fight and reconcile, to deal with differences and learn the appropriate virtues for real life. For God’s sake, don’t try to protect them from all disappointments, mean and hurtful words, or the ups and downs of relationships. Strike a balance and let them learn some of life’s harder things for themselves. Bit by bit.
- Expose them to great art from the earliest age. Music, paintings, plays, musicals, movies. Encourage their love for painting, sculpting, drawing, singing, building. Get them into kinesthetic learning modes as often as possible. Sing with them and teach them to sing, to play instruments, to write poems and stories. Teach them to make beauty!
- Cultivate a love for reading. Read to them, teach them to love to read, especially literature that grows their moral and spiritual imagination. Let their imaginations run wild, without help from screens. Don’t moralize your children, browbeating them with moral lessons, but inspire them with stories of virtue and vice, sin and redemption. Let their consciences grow gradually and don’t expect too much altruism or impose a rigid code of moral rectitude at too young an age. If you press too hard, they may explode later in life. Let them experiment and learn in the playground of your family.
- Help them to see the beauty of the natural world by spending lots of time outdoors, exploring the mysteries and adventure and excitement and dangers of nature. Let them get dirty and muddy and wet. Teach them to fish, hunt, spot birds, explore the wild world and breathe the fresh air deeply. Let them feel cold and hot, rough and smooth, sharp and soft. Let them get stung and pricked and scraped knees. Let them be afraid of the thunder, awed by the wind and thrilled by the first snowflake.
- Have clear rules for technology. Don’t be afraid of teaching them how to live in a digital world, but have clear guidelines and keep to them. Don’t trust their online explorations for a long time — filter everything. Protect their imaginations when they are to be innocent, but help them face the dark images of life when it is time as they mature. Don’t leave them naive when they should not be. No phones until they absolutely need them. Stand strong, the pressure is fierce.
- Guard your speech. Create a language culture in your home that you would like them to imitate all their lives. Be especially wary about gossip, detraction and calumny. Don’t talk about your children in front of them, unless you feel they must hear what you say and would benefit from it.
- Yelling is a sign you have lost control. Avoid it at all costs, and work mightily to keep to serene, firm, immediate and consistent consequences. Talk is cheap, action works. Work hard as a couple to be on the same page for applying discipline to the children. You will differ, yes, and you will have to work on that always, but never let your children see you divided on essentials. Never disrespect your spouse in front of them, or let them disrespect your spouse. And unless you have agreed on it for some specific purpose, avoid the good-cop, bad-cop default roles, e.g. dad’s nice and easy on us, mom’s hard and mean. Kids pick up on that and exploit it, and tend to lose respect for parental authority when they see division. Though there tends to be the natural default in a marriage (one is better at discipline than the other), you must work hard to keep toward a happy medium and a united front.
- Practice forgiveness. Let your children see you forgiving each other, let them hear about people who forgive others, forgive them often and teach them how to forgive and reconcile. Be humble when you are wrong. Help them see that forgiveness is not overlooking wrongdoing, that it requires a change in the forgiven person, and that it is not a sign of weakness but of strength. Help them develop a healthy conscience that sees mercy as the predominant context of sin and failure. Let all this dynamic be the way in which they learn the meaning and value of monthly Confession. Have a family tradition of going to Confession, even before their first celebration of the Sacrament. Once they receive, have a post-Confession celebration every time — friends of ours called it “Prodigal Son” — that links the experience of forgiveness with the experience of joy.
- Teach them how to suffer and fail and sin. They say in my dad’s Russian church that the vocation of the priest and the parent is to teach their children to suffer well. The natural instinct of a parent is to protect their child from suffering and failure, and to a certain extent this is absolutely appropriate. But it must be balanced with your vocation to teach them how to suffer with grace and courage, how to offer their sufferings up to God for good, how to learn from suffering and to not be afraid of it (unless there is good reason to!). The best teacher is to allow as many of the natural consequences of their actions as possible to befall them, so they learn the world of cause-and-effect, personal responsibility and how to avoid bad decisions in the future. Natural bad consequences are often far better teachers than manufactured ones. You also have to teach them how to fail, how to accept failure and its consequences, to learn from these, grow and not be crushed by them. Start this lesson early, and cultivate, age appropriately, virtues like courage, humility, patience, longsuffering, perseverance. Teach them not how to sin, but how to recognize it, face it, repent of it, and rise up from it full of hope and joy. Help them to distinguish sin from weaknesses and imperfections, to avoid scrupulosity and obsessive guilt, and help them see it is really about relationships, and the greatest harm of sin is the damaging or destroying of a relationship and not simply the violation of a moral code. But know that process of growing a conscience is uneven and gradual, is Spirit-led art. So you need to beg the Spirit to guide you, as He alone is the true pedagogue of their soul.
- Talk about the faith openly and often, embrace your role as primary catechists and don’t default to allowing parish or school to do your work for you. Whether you choose to home school or not, what they learn from you is their most important source of faith formation. Talk about the Trinity, the Saints, and especially Mary, their patron saints and guardian angels. Teach them to pray for the dead, and visit graveyards so they know how to reverence the dead.
- Teach them to honor their mother and father by never allowing them to disrespect either of the two of you. Let them know that you guard each other’s honor, and will not stand for any dishonorable behavior. Honor your own parents openly and visibly. Never speak disrespectfully of your parents in front of them, or of any of their relatives. Though you may have to speak difficult truths to them about family now and again, always do so in charity and justice and respect. Teach them to intelligently honor all authorities in their life (e.g. teachers, priests), and never speak of these people with disrespect, even though, again, you may have to speak difficult truths about these people.
- Let them always know that they can tell you anything, no matter how bad or scary it is, and you will not respond with anger or outrage. Yes, you will have to respond to things that require a firm response, but you will never receive anything they tell you with a harsh or angry or punishing response. Always with love that is in their best interests.
- Every night when they go to bed, as they grow, let them talk freely. It may take patience and you will have to draw some boundaries of time, but they should feel that there is a designated time and space for sharing their inner lives and that you are interested in everything they say. Building trust from the beginning is the pearl of great price. And let me say, bedtime is a very opportune time to let them open up.
- Give them great memories that they can draw on all their lives, memories of a childhood and young adulthood that they can celebrate and laugh and cry over one day.
- As Dad, I say: mostly, have them listen to their Mom. “Behold your mother” (John 19:27).