Our oldest son is a senior year in high school this year. This is an exciting time for him. But as parents, we count the days we have left with him before he leaves for
college. The next two kids won’t be far behind – in less than five years, half our children will have graduated from high school.
This time in our lives has been the impetus to much reminiscing on my part.
Like all parents, there are several things I wish someone had told me when I began parenting. Particularly about how to raise kids who leave our home with a desire and will to follow Christ in their thoughts, words and deeds. I’m learning little by little; but perhaps some of my ups and downs might help those who are just getting started with little ones before they, too, look up and realize their time and influence may be fleeting.
The advice may be worth what you pay for it; but here are my top five tips to parents with little ones:
1. Don’t be so paranoid.
We kept our kids from things like Pokemon and from Harry Potter, etc. because I’d seen all the questionable articles. I wanted to play it safe. (I say “I” because my husband would have been a little more laid back about these things.) A few months ago, our family went out for ice cream, and the shop we were in was showing Harry Potter on TV (why there was a TV in an ice cream joint is a discussion for another time:)). My teens joked at the time about how I never let them read or watch anything when they were young; shortly thereafter, my 17-year-old read all the Harry Potter books. He said they were pretty good. Not worth all the hype, but enjoyable. I don’t remember what all the fuss was about years ago, but I’ve seen no repercussions thus far. And he’s already moved on to other things.
Shortly thereafter, Pokemon Go became all the rage. My boys were right in the middle of it all (I’ve lightened up in my “old” age). But their interest faded within a week and they’ve both moved on in this area as well.
When my kids were little, I drove myself crazy trying to make sure they weren’t involved in anything that might make them stray from the Faith or might lead to other dangers. BUT… I knew other moms who let their kids do plenty of things that I restricted (within reason) and their kids grew out of them almost as soon as they tried them. Now those kids are well-adjusted and seem to make good decisions where they count.
Not only have I noticed that a little bit of gentle “openness” on the part of moms doesn’t seem to have harmed their kids, I’ve also learned that a more anxious approach to the world can have damaging effects that I hadn’t anticipated.
Case in point, I think my oldest especially (17), but to a certain extent my second too (15), have sort of written me off as “paranoid” and not particularly the voice of reason about things related to the culture. They haven’t been disrespectful about it, but I’m definitely getting that vibe.
Not only am I not their “go-to” person regarding cultural issues, but I don’t know whether I’ve really prepared my older kids to confront the “big” issues they will face in the world. Are they capable of discerning right from wrong on their own? Of saying “no” themselves when all their friends are saying “yes”? I hope they’re ready, but I am beginning to second-guess my original strategy.
While second-guessing myself does me no good, I have to say that I wish I had been relaxed about more things when my kids were younger. Even when I didn’t let them do things, I wish I would have been more “sneaky” about it – redirecting instead of saying “no.” (Lest you think that “no” is the problem – I did substitute the things I wouldn’t let them do with positive things. But they remember the “no”s.)
If we do our best to completely control their environment for them when they are young, when are we teaching our children to use their own judgement? In my case, I taught my kids right from wrong, but when kids are young and mom controls the environment – with a penchant for the word “NO”- is she helping them to check things out and discern for themselves when the stakes are low so that they can make good decisions when they are high? But the stakes are high, you might say. Yes, I always thought they were high, too. In my mind, they were high for everything from books to movies to shows to video games to friends to school to (insert issue here).
However, now they really are high. Driving, alcohol, drugs, sex, pornography, etc. And while my kids have yet to fall in those areas (at least to my knowledge), if they do come across challenges, I don’t know that I’ll be the first one they turn to for advice, frankly because they may be worried about my reaction. Additionally, I sometimes wonder if by making everything a big deal, I’ve made nothing a big deal – in other words, is it possible that my dependability for insight has been watered down? Am I the mom who cried “wolf” one too many times?
Bottom line – if my eight-year-old brought home a Pokemon card (or some other questionable toy or game) from a neighbor today, I would treat it no differently than any other toy (granted, there are exceptions to this rule; e.g. Ouija Board.) And I’m sure it would disappear within a day or two. If it didn’t, I would probably use the same technique they recommend for toddlers – get rid of the card when he wasn’t looking and then redirect his attention to something fun and good, without using the word “no”.
2. Help more; require less.
Let me preface this commentary by saying that my parents are both retired military, with over 20 years of service each. That should give you some understanding of my own upbringing. Needless to say, when my older kids were little, I had chore charts, responsibilities and expectations. I wanted to raise independent children who could do for themselves. When I dropped them off with a babysitter, they waved goodbye and ran to play. (I was put off by those little kids in play groups who wouldn’t let go of their mothers’ legs. I thought MY kids would never do that.) The first three could all read at age three – no lie. They were capable and very independent. When they asked for help, if I had taught them the task in the past and I knew they could do it, I would explain that they needed to do it themselves.
Perhaps you can already see the problem with that angle.
While I may have taught my older kids a great sense of independence and a strong work ethic, did I model a sense of compassion or a helpful spirit? Thankfully, some of my kids are naturally helpful. But in some cases they do not bend over backwards to help siblings, and frankly, with my expectation that they do for themselves, I may have failed to teach by example in that area. They all help if I ask. And they’ll do any chores required of them. But ideally, they would all help when not asked. They would look for places to serve (whether at home or in the world). And they would be joyfully willing to help when asked by a sibling (I’m treading on thin ice here, because there are times when they all serve and some of them always serve). But I have a feeling I could have better cultivated a sense of service and cooperation, and am trying to make up for it now. By the way – on a selfish note – all those kids I knew who were so attached and needy of their mothers when they were young? They are still attached, if not needy. That concept is awfully attractive to a mother with a senior who can’t wait to become an independent entity. He is capable of taking care of himself and more than excited about demonstrating his ability. We are definitely proud of his accomplishments. But right now, I’d give anything for a little attachment🙂.
3. Make family time FUN.
When my kids were younger, we celebrated what we called “Family Fun Night” every Friday. I planned various activities, whether a craft, bike ride, board game, or what our family calls “Tickle Monster.” Those nights are some of the best memories our family share together. But as the family grew and the age gap from top to bottom widened, I took my foot off the gas. Partly because I was busy and tired. The last thing I wanted to do every Friday was plan family entertainment on top of an over-scheduled week. Family Fun Night morphed into movie night – easy and low stress – which in the grand scheme of things, has not produced many memories. Movies run together in our minds and there is little family interaction when everyone hangs out with their eyes glued to the television.
My advice? Keep the FUN in Family Fun Night. You’ll never regret it. If necessary, let something else go. If you don’t, you’ll have teens who find friends more important than movies and going out more important than staying in. Movies don’t strengthen relationships. Laying out blankets in the grass and counting the stars – does. Serving finger food in various shapes for dinner and having everyone make pictures with their food – does. Hanging out around a campfire and roasting marshmallows – does. And even if you argue that those things still won’t entice the teens – they may and they may not. It depends on the teen. But even if they don’t, the older kids will be able to reminisce on great memories when they walk in on the fun, and they may just surprise you and join in.
And what does family fun time have to do with Faith? As a Domestic Church, the family is a child’s first and most important contact with God and with Godliness. Is there anything more attractive and inspiring than joy?
4. Place God at the center in action – not just word. He is a Person, not a belief system.
I remember listening to an atheist professor in college. He told us some crazy things. Among them, he said that Christianity was created to suppress the poor, and that the rich pooled the New Testament to encourage sacrifice as a “virtue” among the downtrodden.
Having very little foundation in Christianity, what that professor said seemed reasonable to me. I hadn’t been to church much growing up. So I was tempted to take him at his word. After all, he had the PhD. But I thank God nearly every day for the two students in our class who questioned his theories. They were certain and confident that what he was saying was wrong. They weren’t argumentative. They weren’t disrespectful. But they asked questions that pointed out the irrational nature of his conclusions. I was amazed. I remember thinking as I sat there, “I wish I had their faith. Even if believing in God is only a crutch, I want that crutch.”
Years later when I converted to Catholicism, I was determined that my children would not only know what to believe, but they would know why they believed, like those college students years before. Whatever happened, I did not want them to doubt. I wanted them to KNOW, as I finally know, that Christ is The Way. So I talked to them early and often. I read to them. I catechized them.
But now that our influence over our older kids wanes and our days together dwindle, I often wonder – have I shown them?
Have I been joyful?
Have I been at peace?
Have I been generous?
Have I loved?
I taught my kids plenty of prayers; and I taught them frequent participation in the sacraments; but did I teach them to know Jesus as their best friend? Have I demonstrated that He is mine?
My oldest knows all the right words to say. He knows what we believe and why we believe it. (And that’s one thing I wouldn’t change – so if you are leaving the catechesis of your children to Mass attendance or to their religious education class, then I’d add an additional tip — make sure your children know their Faith. You are their first educator; their faith is too important to leave to chance.) But when my son gets out in the world and is tempted to turn away, the choice to remain faithful will be easier to make if he feels that he is being faithful to a Person, a Friend. Have I properly introduced him to that Friend; and have I helped to cultivate a lifelong friendship? Or have I been so focused on the What and the Why, that I neglected the Who?
DO teach your kids to KNOW. But make sure you imbue them with a knowledge of the heart, not merely a knowledge of the head.
5. Remember that No family is perfect but YOU are Perfect for Your family.
I know this is an obvious point in theory; but often our emotions don’t follow the obvious. I spent years thinking that everyone else knew more than I did about how to be a good parent. There are times I’ve actually asked God, “Why did you give Child X to me instead of to that person over there?” Not because I was frustrated with my child, but because I felt the virtue I saw in another person would lead my child to holiness a lot faster than my vices would. But the truth is that we all see the challenges and the sin in our own home and wonder what we are doing wrong.
The older I get, the more I realize that we are all learning how to be parents. Your weakness may be another parent’s strength. But other parents are watching your family and wishing for the strengths they see in you. We are all fallen creatures. There is no perfect family. (For more thoughts on that subject, read here.) God has a plan for your family. There is no home in the world that will contribute to the sanctity of your children like yours. God wants them in heaven; but He has entrusted their souls to you. That is no mistake. Our Lord has great faith in your ability to seek His grace daily and to turn to Him when you fall. Thank goodness for that, because there is nothing like parenthood to bring you to your knees.
Parents’ Prayer for Their Children
O God the Father of mankind, who hast given unto me these my children, and committed them to my charge to bring them up for Thee, and to prepare them for eternal life: help me with Thy heavenly grace, that I may be able to fulfil this most sacred duty and stewardship. Teach me both what to give and what to withhold; when to reprove and when to forbear; make me to be gentle, yet firm; considerate and watchful; and deliver me equally from the weakness of indulgence, and the excess of severity; and grant that, both by word and example, I may be careful to lead them in the ways of wisdom and true piety, so that at last I may, with them, be admitted to the unspeakable joys of our true home in heaven, in the company of the blessed Angels and Saints. Amen.
O Heavenly Father, I commend my children to Thy care. Be Thou their God and Father; and mercifully supply whatever is lacking in me through frailty or negligence. Strengthen them to overcome the corruptions of the world, whether from within or without; and deliver them from the secret snares of the enemy. Pour Thy grace into their hearts, and strengthen and multiply in them the gifts of Thy Holy Spirit, that they may daily grow in grace and in knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ; and so, faithfully serving Thee here, may come to rejoice in Thy presence hereafter. Amen.
(Prayer borrowed from Catholic Online)