Three Steps to Peaceful Parenting


Parenting can be beautiful and stressful, fun and difficult. We often wish that our kids came with an instruction manual so that we could take out some of the guesswork. The good news is that God actually has given us a guidebook, we just need to know where to look.

Theology of the Body (TOB) reminds us that families are schools of love and virtue where we all learn to live life as a gift, and that parents are the most important teachers in this school of love.  Catholic parents are empowered through God’s grace in the sacrament of marriage to do more than just “get through the day” with our kids. The world needs loving, responsible, godly people and God asks his faithful couples to give the word what it needs. The more we can approach parenting in a thoughtful, intentional, graceful manner, the more we are able to fulfill our mission as Catholics–to let God change the world through our families by raising the next generation of faithful, courageous, loving, responsible, and godly men and women.  It’s a tough job, but God gives us the grace to do it.

Here are three ways that God calls us to live as teachers in the school of love:

1. Remember To Lead–When you’re correcting your kids, only 5% of your energy should be focused on what they did wrong.  The other 95% should be focused on leading your children to a better place. Before you correct your kids, ask yourself, “What does my child need to handle this situation better next time?”  Put your energy into teaching those skills.  Punishments don’t work.  Teaching does.  Using techniques like do-overs, role-playing, time-in, cool-downs, and other loving guidance approaches to discipline focus on giving your kids the skills they need to succeed next time–instead of shaming them for failing this time.  Lead your children to virtue by showing them a better way to express their emotions,  communicate their needs, accomplish their goals, get along with others, and manage their stress.  The more energy you put into teaching instead of punishing, the quicker your kids’ behavior will improve overall and the less stressed you’ll be!

2.  Celebrate Success–Tell your kids when they handle a situation well by acknowledging the virtue they displayed.  You don’t have to throw a parade–in fact, it’s much better if you don’t–but simple comments like, “That was really responsible.”, “You handled that really respectfully.”,  “That was very generous.” “That was a very loving choice.”  and similar comments help kids understand that virtues aren’t just a list of words to memorize, but a practical guide for handling life’s ups and downs with grace.  Believe it or not, kids want to be good, and they desperately crave your approval.  By remarking on all the ways that exhibiting virtues help them manage their emotions, express their needs, negotiate stressful situations, and get along with others, you are showing your kids that they already have what it takes to do the right thing AND you’re making them want to get even better at it. Celebrate your kids’ successful efforts to display virtue by letting them know you saw what they did and that you are proud of them for doing it.

3. Fill the Tank–There is a fuel that drives good behavior.  Don’t forget to fill the tank. Both research and generations of wise parents will tell you that extravagant affection is the fuel that makes kids want to behave and try harder to please you.  Research shows that affection is actually communication.  Taking time to hold your kids close all throughout the day actually helps them reset  their heart rate, respiration, body temperature, and other bodily rhythms when they are feeling stressed, frustrated, angry, anxious, or overwhelmed.  Affectionate parents literally incline their children’s hearts to them, and make their kids naturally turn to their parents for guidance and comfort. Yes, you will still need to teach your kids what to do but affection is the fuel that makes correction work.

For more resources on becoming a more peaceful parent, check out Parenting With Grace—The Catholic Guide to Raising (Almost) Perfect Kids, and visit us online at!

Preparing for Lent In A Catholic HOM (Household On Mission)

As we prepare for Lent, we often rely on old habits or patterns. We give up the same thing for Lent or we engage in the same practices each year. Our rituals can become a little too habitual. Sometimes, it’s good to shake things up a bit, especially with regard to how we celebrate lent as a CatholicHOM (Household On Mission).

Specifically, the Liturgy of Domestic Church Life can help connect with the grace of lent to help each family member become a fully formed person—a whole and healthy child of God.

In Pastores Dabo Vobis, (I Will Give You Shepherds) St John Paul described four essential areas requiring special attention in the formation of priests (human, spiritual, intellectual, and pastoral) but his recommendations don’t just apply to seminaries.  They apply to our homes too! Christian households are meant to help each of us live out the common priesthood we inherit through baptism. Lent gives all of us “common priests” a special opportunity to use the Liturgy of Domestic Church Life, to discover new ways to consecrate the world to Christ by living out Christ’s sacrificial love in all we do.

So how do we use John Paul II’s guidance for priestly formation in our family?

Human Formation – Human formation refers to the lessons we need to learn to be the kind of healthy, holy people whose lives lead others to Christ. Christian families encourage good human formation by mindfully and intentionally practicing specific virtues, working to be more empathic with each other, being good listeners and respectful communicators, being generously affection and affirming, and cultivating the kind of relationships that lead them into deeper communion with each other and  God.  This Lent how will you and your family focus on human formation?

One simple way your family can practice living Christ’s sacrificial love at home is by using the Family Team Exercise – Each morning ask, “What do we need to do to make each other feel taken care of between now and lunch?” At lunch, ask, “What do we need to do to make each other feel taken care of between now and dinner?” Then, at dinner, ask, “What do we need to do to make each other feel taken care of between now and bedtime?” This exercise is a simple way to live out the third practice in the Liturgy of Domestic Church Life’s Rite of Christian Relationship: Offering prompt, generous, consistent and cheerful attention to each other’s needs. It challenges you all to be more thoughtful and generous than you otherwise might be, and shows how generous service leads to a happier, healthier home.

Spiritual Formation – Spiritual formation is all about learning to have a close relationship with God and be a faithful disciple. One of the practices we recommend in the Rite of Family Rituals is a strong family prayer life. By having strong family prayer rituals, families invite  God to be the most important member of their household.

As a family, keep God close all day long through both formal and informal family prayer times. For instance, in addition to regular morning, meal-time, and bedtime prayers, you could pray over our child before a test, game, or important event. You could thank God out loud for the little blessings you experience.  You could ask God’s help before cooking a meal, or helping a child with homework, or having an important conversation with your spouse or child. Likewise, assuming your child is used to receiving blessing from you, don’t forget to ask your child to pray over you when you’re having a tough day. Give your kids the chance to exercise their muscles as budding spiritual warriors!

Using this lent to cultivate stronger family prayer rituals will help you do more to encourage the spiritual formation of the common priests in your household.

Intellectual Formation – Intellectual formation refers to the habits we develop that enable us to  know God better so that we can love him better. In the Rite of Family Rituals, we recommend regular family talk time as one important ritual that can help us achieve this goal at home. By carving out a little time during the day to have meaningful conversations about how our faith and life connect, how God is showing up for us, or how we think he is asking us to respond to the challenges we face, we can foster our family’s ability to grow in our knowledge of God and both the understanding and application of our faith.

Other good Talk Rituals include family reading time, where we can read stories from the bible, or the lives of the saints, or just good books that give us a chance to discuss our values and share how we can live them. Lent is a great time to make time to talk about why we have Stations of the Cross, or what the parts of our celebration of Holy Week mean and how all of our Lenten practices can help us draw closer to God and each other.

Pastoral/Apostolic Formation – Pastoral formation refers to our ability to cultivate compassionate hearts of service to others. The third rite in Liturgy of Domestic Church Life, the Rite of Reaching Out, helps us do this by encouraging us to look for more ways families can serve each other—both at home and in the world. The Rite of Reaching Out is all about reminding us of the importance of leaving people better off than we found them.

This Lent, think about ways your family can do more to serve each other and your community. How can you be more generous to each other at home?  How can you and your family reach out to others in your life and be a witness of God’s love? Perhaps your family could work together to create small care packages for with cards, baked goods, or little gifts and share them with your neighbors/friends. Maybe make one care package each week in Lent for a different friend, relative, or neighbor.

However you choose to develop your relationship with God this Lent, it may be helpful to reflect on these four pillars and how they apply to your family. What areas are your strengths? What areas could use growth? What is one tangible practice you and your family could partake in this Lent to strengthen your Catholic HOM?

Join the discussion on Facebook at Catholic HOM—Family Discipleship

Experiencing Advent in a Catholic HŌM

The Advent season is a beautiful time, full of anticipation and hope as we wait for the Christmas season and all that comes with it—the fun, the food, the family time, the presents, and the traditions. While it can be hard to wait, all this anticipation is meant to point toward our need to learn patience as we wait for the Glory of God, the Hope of Nations, to enter our lives more fully on Christmas Day.

So how do we communicate the spiritual benefits of waiting through this season to our kids?

Being patient is something that is often hard for adults, never mind kids, but the Rite of Christian Relationship can help us take advantage of this Advent season to develop and strengthen the virtue of patients.

Make Waiting a Positive Experience—Children (especially young children) struggle with the concept of time in general, which makes waiting even more difficult. When parents set a time frame on something, (such as getting a snack, when we’ll arrive at our destination, or when we get to play a game) our kids often ask (maybe a million times), “Is it time yet?”  Take this as an opportunity to make being patient a positive experience. When your child asks you over and over if it’s time, stay kind, loving, calm, and affirming in your response. Say things like, “I know you’re excited to have your snack (or play your game), you’ll be able to have it in X minutes. Can you tell me about what you’re most excited for (about your snack or game)?” This type of response is affirming and engaging. It helps the child process their own excitement and allows them to focus on preparing to receive their gift. Remember that your child is not being selfish or rude in asking you over and over how much time is left, they don’t yet have the ability to conceptualize time. Use your relationship with your child to teach them that patience is a good thing and model to them how to effectively practice the virtue of patience by being patient with them in your responses.

Fulfill Your Promises—Just as God fulfills His promises to us, it’s important we (do our best) to fulfill our promises to our children. If we tell our child a timeframe and fulfill our promise to them—such as, “You can have a snack in 10 minutes” then set a timer and give our child a snack in 10 minutes—we’re able to help them develop a better sense of time, and also develop a real sense of trust in their relationship with us. It’s easy to tell our child a time frame for something, then hope they forget about said thing in that amount of time. But using this “out” causes our child to learn that “10 minutes” maybe means hours or days—which hurts both their understanding of time, and their trust in us/their ability to rely on us.

Create a Visual—creating a visual representation of time passing is a great way to help our kids learn to be patient (and even enjoy the wait)! Of course, Advent calendars are a fantastic way to help our kids understand each day in the Advent season. However, we can do things like this even on a smaller, daily basis. If we need our child to wait for a few minutes, set a timer that they can see. If they ask you how much time is left, ask them to tell you what the timer says so that they can be engaged in the waiting. If you’re on a car trip, draw a map and every hour move a sticker closer to the destination. Make a schedule for the day and allow your child to color in the boxes that depict the hours as they pass or the tasks as they are completed. Creating a visual for time helps our kids to better understand the passing of time and learn to be patient.

Waiting is hard, but it doesn’t have to be bad. As we see in this Advent season—this time of patience and preparation—there is real beauty in waiting and it makes the reward that much better.

If you want more ideas for experiencing Advent in your Catholic HŌM, join the conversation on Facebook at Catholic HŌM—Family Discipleship!

Parenting Wisdom in Shorthand

By: Judith Costello

father and child beach

A posted meme says: “‘Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me’–NOT TRUE! Words hurt, scar and leave deep wounds all the way down to the soul.”   On the surface this meme sounds right. And it has been shared almost 200,000 times!

But when I saw it, a red flag started waving. My reaction was, “Don’t invalidate the parenting wisdom that is ages old.”

An incident came immediately to mind. My son was in first grade. He had been riding the bus to school for a few days when he came home with tears in his eyes. Another boy had been taunting him. The boy’s words were hurtful and mean. And yes, it made my son feel “wounded.” So how is a parent to react?

My husband and I took him in hand and talked for quite awhile sitting on the side of his bed. After about 30 minutes he was calm; within an hour he was laughing about it. The next day he walked past that boy, looked him in the eye and smiled.

And do you know what our first words were? You guessed it—“Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.”

We explained what that saying means of course. It doesn’t mean that words are never hurtful. It means–we can choose how we react! We can choose what we allow to settle into our hearts.

There are four important lessons here: 1) Bullies will always be with us. 2) Bullies are sad people. Their words come out of their troubles, their desire to control others and their ignorance. 3) It’s important to stay strong in yourself and let the mean words wash away like water going down the drain.   4) St. Paul said, “We do not wage war with human resources” (2Cor. 10). We must pray and stay focused on God’s words of love and mercy.

The message of this maxim is Biblical. We are called to help our children learn ways to cope with mean-spirited people.  If we don’t teach them  that they have resources for dealing with hurtful words, then our children will feel their identity is determined by mean people. And they will think that the government, or someone outside themselves, has to punish others to make things right.

So my response to the meme is two-fold:

1) There is history and wisdom in maxims like “sticks and stones…” That particular expression can be attributed to around 1862, published in a Christian magazine, but is probably much older. And the point of the “sticks and stones” saying is to teach children they can rise above whatever meanness they experience. Jesus said we will be persecuted and reviled, and we can actually celebrate it! We can unite our hurts or troubles with the suffering of Jesus and offer it up for our prayer intentions!

The tools of our battle against the meanness and lies of the world are  in our faith. St. Paul dealt with his detractors by saying this…”they only demonstrate their ignorance”…”we arm ourselves with the shield of faith.” 2 Cor. 10:12 and Eph. 6:16.

2) The first part of the meme has to do with  how we respond  to the meanness of others. That is what I have been addressing here. The second part of the meme has to do with  what we say to  others. That too is covered by an old bit of parenting wisdom: “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.”

Again this is a maxim…a shorthand way of saying important things. Jesus frequently talked about how we should avoid gossip and speak with charity. We should consider every word before we speak.

Words can definitely be used as weapons and that too is in the Bible. Our goal as Christians is to use words to be a light in the darkness, rather than  as knives that cut.

So as far as this meme goes, here’s another maxim….”Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.” It’s great to come up with new ways to say that “words hurt, so watch what you say.” But don’t throw out the teachings of our ancestors in order to say that.

Credit to Judith Costello of CatholicExchange.


Family Prayer

By: Francine and Byron Pirola

family prayer

Some kind of regular family prayer ritual is critical to fostering your child’s emerging relationship with God. Some families say a whole Rosary after dinner, some have a routine bed time prayer. Others read scripture stories together or adopt faith activities like those provided in CathFamily.

You hear it consistently in in many vocation stories from priests and religious; a family that prays together gives birth to vocations of all kinds.

If you have young children, establishing a habit of prayer is often easier as they will be less likely to resist the change. The best way to get older children praying is by extending an invitation and going ahead with or without them. It might take a couple of weeks, but if you stick to a routine, they will notice and influenced by it, and may even join you.

Like many family traditions, they require effort, and an active choice. However starting such a habit can be daunting so we’ve put together some simple prayer cards and pooled together the other prayer rituals we have created over the years to help you get started. The downloadable PDF contains a simple prayer that could be said at bedtime or after dinner. It also contains another set of prayers that are specifically for discerning vocations. It can be said on your own or in a family prayer time.

Download Prayer Card Here.

Credit to Francine and Byron Pirola and CathFamily.

"But I don't Want To!"-A Mini-Article on Praying with Your Children

By: Dr. Gregory Popcak

child praying

Sometimes my two year old loves to pray, and sometimes when it is time to pray he says “No thanks.”   Whenever this happens, I just envision episodes of rebellion and negativity towards the faith years down the road.   What’s the best way to handle this situation?


Dear Sarah,

It is good to give children choices about things like the clothes they want to wear or the games they want to play. That can be quite empowering. It is less useful to give children choices about things like whether they should take medicine when they are sick, when they need to take a bath, or when they need to pray. In those times, we simply give the child their medicine, plop them in the tub, or pray. It isn’t a choice–but it doesn’t have to be a power-struggle either. If your 2yo says, “No thanks!” to prayer, that isn’t rebellion. Prayer is a very abstract concept for 2yo’s. He isn’t fighting prayer so much as he’s saying that, right now, he’s more into something else. Instead of reacting negatively, make a big smile, scoop him up in your arms, give him a big kiss and say, “‘No thanks?’ Wow! What a polite young man you are! Let’s thank Jesus for helping you be sooooo polite! ‘Dear Jesus, thank you for giving us such a polite and respectful young man. Help him to grow up to love you with all of his whole heart, just like I love him with my whole heart and you love him with your whole heart. AAAAAmen.”     Resistance overcome. Prayer accomplished. For more suggestions, check out our sections on faith development and toddlers in both Parenting with Grace and Beyond the Birds and the Bees.


"Where Did I Go Wrong?"-A Mini-Article on When Children Leave Their Faith

By: Dr. Gregory Popcak


woman praying

I have adult children who have grown lukewarm to the Faith.   I see the pain they are going through as a result, and I am torn that they don’t have the peace that they could have in Christ.   I often feel as if I did something wrong in raising them.   What more can I do for them now?

-“Where Did I Go Wrong”


Dear “Where Did I Go Wrong?”

It’s hard to escape life without racking up a few regrets. Even when we do our best, things don’t work out the way we might hope.     When older children fall away from the faith, there are several things we can do, but wasting time feeling guilty isn’t one of them. That just stops us from being the effective witness God wants us to be and our kids need us to be. First, make sure to pray without ceasing. St. Augustine is one of the most well-known saints of the Church, but almost as well-known is his mother St. Monica. It was due to the persistent prayers of this faithful mother, over the course of many years, that eventually won over the heart of her pagan son.  Second, ask yourself how your faith is making you a more joyful, stronger, confident, loving and charitable person. Work on specific ways to keep developing the connection between your faith and those qualities. Let your kids really see the difference your faith is making in your everyday life and relationships. Effective evangelization occurs, not by talking about the importance of faith, but by giving people the opportunity to see the faithful difference in our lives.  Third, be as emotionally close to your kids as circumstances permit. Attachment isn’t just something babies need. All people crave attachment. The closer you are to your kids, the greater part you will ultimately play in their decisions over the long haul. Finally, don’t ever lecture or preach at your kids. Instead, bite your tongue and pray that the Holy Spirit would give you natural opportunities to share your faith in times when it would be well-received instead of just generating another eye-roll. For more suggestions, check out, God Help Me, These People Are Driving Me Nuts! Making Peace with Difficult People.


Give It A Rest: Reclaiming the Meaning of the Sabbath Day

By: Emily Stimpson


Once upon a time, in a land we call our own, the Lord’s Day was an occasion for great piety … and even greater gloom.  On Sundays, the people of Connecticut, circa 1781, were forbidden to run, dance, play cards, kiss their children or bake a minced meat pie.  Their neighbors to the north, in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, attended church by order of the state. Wardens patrolled Boston’s streets, ensuring the law was obeyed.  Later, in the pioneer West, the child Laura Ingalls uttered the sentiments of many when she proclaimed: “I hate Sundays.” She recorded that proclamation decades later, in 1934’s “Little House in the Big Woods.”  For her, like for most American children who lived after the Mayflower and before moving pictures, Sunday was a day of shiny shoes, starched shirts, stiff backs and solemn Bible reading. It was a day when no fun was to be had.  Today, a century after Laura Ingalls denounced Sundays, plenty of Sunday fun can be had by children and grown-ups alike — that is, fun can be had for those not racing off to soccer practice, catching up on homework or heading into the office.

Gloom to Glee

Although the Lord’s Day in the 21st century has lost the Sabbatarian gloom heaped upon it by our Puritan forefathers, it’s also lost the Sabbatarian rest written into it by God the Father. For most Americans, it’s become more a day of shopping than solemnity, a day — almost, if not quite — like any other day.  According to Stephen Miller, author of “The Peculiar Life of Sundays” (Harvard, $28), part of the blame (and credit) for that goes to Catholics.  “The United States was 95 percent Protestant until 1850,” he said. “That Protestantism was heavily influenced by the strain of Calvinism that went through England and Scotland, a strain that mandated strict observance of the Sabbath. But as soon as large influxes of Catholics and Lutherans began arriving in the middle of the 19th century, that began to change.”  Those Catholics and Lutherans, Miller continued, favored the merrier Sundays of Continental Europe and didn’t take kindly to Protestant attempts to keep them from gathering in pubs and dance halls after church. Attempts to shut down New York City’s beer gardens on the Lord’s Day actually led to rioting in the city’s streets.  Finally, Miller explained, the Sabbatarians’ battle to keep Sunday holy in the strictest and gloomiest sense of the word was lost for good during World War II. With men overseas and women working in the factories five and half days a week, the only time left for shopping was Sunday. Some shops started keeping Sunday hours at that time, and more and more did so over the next two decades, as dual-income couples found themselves with the same dilemma as Rosy the Riveter.  “Now, Sunday is the second biggest commercial day of the week,” Miller said.

Much Needed Rest

Sunday’s transformation, of course, has its pluses.  “In Protestants’ very strict observance of Sunday, a lot of the joy of the day was lost,” said Kimberly Hahn, author of “Graced and Gifted: Biblical Wisdom for the Homemaker’s Heart” (Servant, $15). “Rather like the Pharisees, some took the idea of the Sabbath rest to the extreme.”  And indeed, the Sabbath rest on the Lord’s Day was never meant to be about gloom and doom. But it wasn’t meant to be about shopping ’til you drop either. The whole idea of a Sabbath rest, explained Hahn, originated in the Old Testament.  “The Sabbath was part of the pattern of creation described in Genesis 1 and 2,” she said. “God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh.”  His resting, however, wasn’t a kicking back and watching the game kind of resting. It was actually a hallowing, a making holy kind of resting. God’s rest made the Sabbath sacred.  In the centuries before Christ, the Sabbath was celebrated by the Jewish people on Saturdays, the seventh day. Early converts from Judaism to Christianity, however, moved their celebration of the Sabbath from the seventh day to the first day, gathering on Sundays, the day of Christ’s resurrection, to pray and celebrate the Eucharist.

Now, as then, she said, Christians need to observe some form of the Sabbath rest on Sundays because, “It’s one of the big 10” — the Ten Commandments, that is.  “We don’t just set aside the prohibition against adultery, and we shouldn’t set aside the Lord’s Day either,” she said.  Hahn also noted that we need the rest on the Lord’s Day because as human beings we are all “Sabbatarian creatures.”  “God didn’t make us to work seven days a week. We need a break. The Sabbath is stamped into our very beings,” she said.

Family Time

But what exactly does it mean to “keep the Sabbath holy”? How, in a globalized economy and a wired world, can Catholics make Sundays a day set apart? And can it be done without all the starched collars and glum faces of old?  “Of course it can,” said Father Edward Connolly, a pastor in the Diocese of Allentown, Pa. “We’re not anti-fun. The Church is in favor of fun.”  Rather than give up their fun on Sundays, Father Connolly advises families to think about the true purpose of the day.  “Sundays remind us that we’re immortal beings — spirits with materials parts. We’re destined for the Great Sabbath — eternal rest in heaven — and Sundays prepare us for that.”  That preparation happens first and foremost through worship. In the Mass, the veil between heaven and earth is pulled back, and men and women are invited to worship with the angels in time as they will one day in eternity.  Accordingly, when it comes to how we spend our Sundays, attending Mass is an absolute must for Catholics. (Missing Sunday Mass without good reason constitutes a serious sin.)  But, if all a family does is attend Mass together then go their separate ways, Father Connolly said they’re missing out on a precious part of what it means to keep the Lord’s Day.  “In heaven, besides getting to see God face-to-face, our greatest joy will be getting to know other people,” he explained. “So, we should spend our Sundays doing that now, investing in human relationships, caring for our fellow human beings.”  Rather than heading to the mall or watching television, Connolly urges families to “invest emotionally and intellectually in one another.”  “Play ball with your children, read to one another, go for a drive, be affectionate, just listen to one another,” he said.

Sabbath Feast

Hahn also stressed the importance of dialing back on outside activities on Sundays, forgoing sports practices and trips to the office, putting away schoolwork and “to-do lists,” and most important, bringing back the tradition of the Sunday feast.  Several years after converting to Catholicism, the Hahns abandoned their 20-year practice of eating cold cuts on paper plates after Church, and started pulling out the china, crystal and silver for an elaborate Sunday dinner.  “The Eucharist isn’t only a family meal, but it still is a family meal,” said Hahn. “There seemed something lackluster about participating in that marvelous feast, then coming home to ham and chips. We wanted what went on in our home to be more a reflection of what we experienced in Church.”  As for how Catholics trying to reclaim a bit of their lost Sabbath rest can ward off any creeping legalism that might leave children (or grown-ups, for that matter) sympathizing with Laura Ingalls’ contempt for Sundays, Hahn passed along a piece of wisdom from her own mother: “Play as much as you pray.”  Added Father Connolly: “If you want to mow the lawn, mow the lawn. If you want to wash the car, wash the car. But whatever you do, make it a family event. Confusing means with ends is where we get into trouble. If there’s laughter and joy and people coming together to relate to one another in healthy ways, almost anything can be a way of keeping the Sabbath holy.”

Even baking minced meat pies.

Credit to Emily Stimpson of

Talking to Your Teens About Abstinence?

By: Gregory Popcak


It’s easy for parents to despair of teaching their kids abstinence.   According to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, 70% of teens will have had vaginal intercourse by the time they are 19 and the average age of teens’ first sexual encounter is 17.  There is some good news for Christian parents, at least.   According to the same study, among sexually inexperienced teens, the most common reason given for avoiding sexual activity before marriage is that it is “against my religion/morals”   with 42% of females and 35% of males indicating that their faith plays a significant role in their decision to remain virgins.   Of course, that’s not great news for parents of the 58% of religious girls and 65% of religious boys who’s faith does not appear to impact their moral decision making–at least as far as romantic relationships go–but one takes the good news one can get.  This last factoid leads to an interesting question, though.   Namely, what is the difference between those young people-of-faith who’s religion does impact their decision to remain virgins and those who’s faith does not appear to influence their decision to engage in premarital sex? I believe I have uncovered some of those differences in my book, Beyond the Birds and the Bees, in which I take a developmental approach to passing on the Christian vision of love and relationships to children from early childhood to young adulthood.   Let’s review some of the basics.

Abstinence vs. Chastity

In my experience, one of the most important differences between religious kids who do and kids who don’t engage in premarital sex is that kids who remain virgins tend to be raised in households that emphasize chastity over mere abstinence.   What’s the difference?  Abstinence basically says, “I don’t care WHAT you do, just keep your pants on.”   From a public health perspective, abstinence is a good message, but from a perspective Christian formation, it is seriously lacking as a means of forming a healthy moral character.   By focusing so heavily on the negative (“Just, don’t do it”) young people can often suffer in two ways.   First, despite any other positive messages one might hear about sex, it’s hard to believe that sex is good or beautiful when one is being told over and over that it can destroy your world if you have it.   This can lead to a fair number of problems in the bedroom when the young person marries and starts to wonder, “But WHY is it ok now that I said ‘I do.’”  Second, simply telling a young person not to have sex doesn’t help them understand what to do instead to avoid near occasions of sin (those situations where temptation is so present that sin becomes almost unavoidable) or even situations that have unexpectedly gotten out of hand.   Just saying “no” doeesn’t give the young person the skills they need to create a healthy, godly relationship from the ground up.   It just says, “Do what you want, just be aware that beyond this point there be dragons!”

Chastity on the other hand takes a more holistic view of sexuality.   As opposed to abstinence, chastity is a positive virtue that enables us to love the right person, at the right time, and in the right way.  Chastity reminds us that loving someone means “working for their good.”   To be chaste, then, means two things; first, that I have learned how to determine what it means to work toward the best interests (and what it means to work against the best interests) of each particular person and second, that I have the skills necessary to do that. Chastity encourages self-donation (the giving of ourselves in service to others) but it also offers prudent advice on what it means to love someone, and to love them rightly.   As far as chastity is concerned, encouraging self-control is less an attempt to keep a criminal (i.e., our sexuality) in jail until its parole date (i.e., marriage) as it is an attempt to teach an artist (i.e, a person created to love and be loved) how to wield the brush to create something beautiful (marriage) without spilling paint all over the place and making a mess of the canvass.  It is this emphasis on the development of virtue as opposed to the mere control of vice that makes chastity a real motivator.   As one remarkable young man who had decided to remain chaste put it, “I’ve had several chances to sleep with girls and I’ve even been pretty seriously tempted sometimes, but   I could never go through with it because I couldn’t bring myself to use her like that or make her feel used–even if it seemed like she wanted to be used.”

Love vs. Use

The young man’s comment leads to a second important lesson faithful kids need to learn if they are going to remain chaste.   Namely, that the opposite of love is not hate.   It is “use.”   If love means “I’m committed to working for your good as a person”  then the opposite of that would have to be, “I’m committed to using you like a thing to meet my desires.”  It’s important for parents to teach their children this definition of love early on and to point out ways that we are tempted to “thing-ify” the people in our family.   Hitting a brother because you want his toy is turning him in to a thing.   Pressuring someone to do something for you that you are capable of doing for yourself is turning another person into a thing.   Lying to someone or using them to get something you want is turning them into a thing.   In other words, anytime we act in a way that makes someone less of a person we “thingify” them–and that isn’t loving. The reason that it is so important to teach and live out this definition of love in the family is that it forms your children’s heart to know what love really requires.   The child who has been raised in an environment that encourages chastity and real love knows on a gut level that it is never ok to treat someone in any way that makes them less of a person.   Especially with regard to romantic relationships, that child will grow up to be a young adult who knows how to love the right person, in the right way, at the right time.

When Is My Teen Ready to Date?

By: Gregory Popcak


asain couple dating

“Dad, when will I be old enough to date?”

“Not ‘til you’re 40.”

It’s a common enough sit-com exchange, if only it were that easy.   Kids want real answers to their questions about their readiness for dating relationships and parents often feel at a loss for how to guide them.   This is especially true if the parents’ own dating history was unhealthy or  unchaste.  Of course there is a wide variety of opinion among parents about when children can date, or even–for those parents who advocate courtship–whether children should date at all. But regardless of where individual parents’ opinion falls on this topic, there are a few things that parents should keep in mind for evaluating whether you are adequately preparing your young person to have healthy, chaste, adult relationships.

1.   What do they stand for?

In the document, The Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality, the Pontifical Council on the Family (the official group within the Church, instituted in the early 80’s, which desires to respond to the expectations of Christians everywhere regarding the family and all issues that pertain to it) reminds parents that sex and relationship education isn’t just about teaching mechanics, it’s primarily about conveying values and character.   Preparing teens for the world of healthy romantic relationships has to begin with helping teens own their own values and beliefs–the building blocks of identity.     Healthy relationships inspire a young person to be stronger in their values and beliefs, while unhealthy relationships cause a young person to feel awkward or ashamed of their values and beliefs.   The more the youth owns his or her values (as opposed to simply parroting what mom and dad say) has the best chance of evaluating what relationships are good for them and which are not.

There are two things that a parent can do to foster this sense in teens.   First, parents need to make sure that the teen is getting individual prayer time as well as participating actively in any family prayer.   It is impossible for a child to learn how to become a godly adult unless he or she is spending time alone with God allowing his or her heart to be instructed by God.   Secondly, it can be useful to help the teen develop his or her own mission statement that enumerates the core virtues and beliefs by which he or she wants to live.   Then, in helping the teen evaluate choices in general and relationship choices in particular, the parent can ask the teen, “How does that possible choice affect your desire to be a (responsible, faithful, loving, generous, etc) person?”   This gives the young person active training on how to use Christian virtue as a tool for discerning appropriate choices.   Research has shown that young people who have a strong personal prayerlife and a strong internalized value system are much more successful at remaining chaste and having healthy adult relationships.   For more tips on developing your teens spiritual life and sense of mission, my book, Parenting with Grace:   A Catholic Parent Guide to Raising (almost) Perfect Kids is a helpful resource.

2.   Can they be friends?

Whether your child is 15 or 50, your teen is not ready to date if he or she does not know how to first be a friend to a member of the opposite sex.   While boys and girls are different, the idea that young men and women are entirely different species (say, Martians and Venusians) whose ability to get along extends only as far as their potential to make each other weak in the knees is simply false.   The more young men and women are given the opportunity to socialize with each other in platonic groups and form healthy friendships with the opposite sex–with the respectful supervision of faithful adults–the more they realize that their differences can be strengths for partnership, not obstacles to understanding.   If your son or daughter doesn’t know how to be a friend to the member of the opposite sex, he or she isn’t ready to date a member of the opposite sex.   Why?   Because dating is not supposed to be a testament to the fact that two people have the hots for each other.   It’s supposed to be a testament to the fact that a young man and woman have achieved a friendship that is truly unique.

3.   Are they well-rounded?

Beginning in late elementary school and certainly by middle school, your children should have identified certain interests and hobbies that give them joy and in which they are happy to invest regular time and energy. In high school, friendships should revolve primarily around those activities and interests as opposed to just hanging out.   Teens who do not have interests and activities to which they are committed are at significantly higher risk for seeking their identity in destructive, sexual relationships.   Teens who have interests and commitments and goals tend to have too much going for them to want to jeopardize it with foolish relationship choices.  Likewise, teens who have strong interests tend to have more experience balancing school, activities, and friendships which enables them to avoid the trap of getting so absorbed in a budding romance that they shut out everything else.   The more compelling a teen’s life is, the less they will be tempted to seek all their excitement in the arms of some crush.

4. Are they connected to you?

Even if you are doing all of the above, your teen will still need some one-on-one guidance.   Despite what they may tell you and what you might think, teens need you just  as much as they did when they were little.   Make sure you make one-on-one time to work, play, and build relationship with your teen.   Adolescents do terribly with serious “let’s talk” time, but questions, concerns, and reflections are more likely to be shared by a reluctant teen when mom and dad are willing to put in the time and do things with their son or daughter.   Your ability to guide your young adult is directly proportionate to the strength of your relationship with your child.   Build the rapport, and your influence will increase.

For more suggestions to help your child–regardless of his or her age–discover the Catholic vision of love, check out my book, Beyond the Birds and the Bees.   The teen years don’t have to cause you to quake if you have the tools to build a solid foundation for your kid’s future relationships.