Is It Time for a Catholic “Tenderness Revolution” In Parenting?–Updated

Disturbing new research suggests that by the time they reach age 18, about 12 percent of American children are maltreated: neglected, or abused physically, sexually, or emotionally.

Researchers at Yale University say the numbers are even more sobering for black and Native American children, with one in five black children and one in seven Native American children experiencing maltreatment during the time period studied. The results are published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics.   The authors estimated the cumulative prevalence of confirmed childhood maltreatment by age 18 using the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System Child File, which includes information on all U.S. children with a confirmed report of maltreatment.

Analysis of data between 2004 and 2011 showed that over 5.6 million children had experienced maltreatment during this time period.

“Confirmed child maltreatment is dramatically underestimated in this country. Our findings show that it is far more prevalent than the one in 100 that is currently reported,” said first author Christopher Wildeman, Ph.D.   READ THE WHOLE ARTICLE HERE.

Time For a Tenderness Revolution in Catholic Families

Reading this study in light of comments in the press about Pope Francis’ “Tenderness Revolution” really drives home–for me–what a radical witness it would be for Catholics to take up the challenge of gentle parenting and launch a Tenderness Revolution in family life.

Parents are afraid that gentleness equates indulgence, but it doesn’t.  Indulgent parenting means surrendering standards.  Gentle parenting, on the other hand, maintains high standards, but uses gentle means to achieve those standards.  Indulgent parenting simply ignores misbehavior.   Gentle parenting, by contrast, directly challenges misbehavior using powerful tools like relational guidance, encouragement, catching kids being good, skill building, virtue-training, and logical consequences.

Gentle Parenting:  Too Hard?

Obviously, gentle parenting requires more effort.  Honestly, that’s the biggest objection most Catholic parents I encounter have to gentle parenting.  “It’s too much work.”  But that has always struck me as a silly argument.  After all, what about being a Christian in general–and a Catholic Christian in particular–isn’t “too much work?”  If that’s really the standard, why bother with any of it?  For the Christian, the question isn’t, “Is it too hard?”  The question is, “Is this means of achieving my goals more consistent with the witness of Jesus Christ?”    If it is, we do it.  If it isn’t, we don’t.  Period.  It doesn’t matter if “it’s hard.”  Put on your big kid pants.  That’s the everyday martyrdom of Christian family life that perfects us and makes us saints.

Gentle Parenting:  What if My Kid Doesn’t Respond?

The second objection is that “all kids are different and need different things.”   While there is truth to this, parents who trot this out usually mean “some kids just need a beating.”  Taken in that way,  this statement is nonsense.  Of course all kids need different things, but no kids need to be treated harshly or with anger, scorn, or violence.  None.  No one flourishes in a relationship defined by these qualities.  Moreover, for the Christian, I can’t see how it’s possible to reconcile these qualities with the gifts and fruits of the Spirit.   I’m going to let you in on a secret that a lot of people pay me a lot of money to learn.  If your kid isn’t listening to you, it isn’t because you aren’t being hard enough, angry enough,  mean enough or haven’t let them fail enough. It’s because there is something wrong with your relationship with your kid.  Fix that, and the listening issue will solve itself.

Distance =  Demotivation

Now, when I say this, parents usually assume I think the problem is that they aren’t being “nice” (read, “indulgent”) enough to their kids.  I don’t mean that at all.  The truth is, neither the children of  authoritarian nor indulgent parents believe their parents really care about them–just for different reasons.  Kids of authoritarian parents doubt their parent’s love because they’re distant and mean.  Kids of indulgent parents, on the other hand,  doubt their parent’s love because they’re distant and neglectful.  That said, both types of parents are experienced as distant and that’s the problem.   The more distant the parent (whether due to either an authoritarian or indulgent style) the more demotivated the kid.

Which leads to another important point.  When it comes to your relationships’s ability to generate good behavior in your kids, the closeness of your relationship to your children isn’t determined by how close you think you are as a parent.  It is determined by how close your kids feel they are to you.  Every parent thinks they have a great relationship with their kids. Fewer children actually feel like this is really true.   Here’s a good rule of thumb, the more your kid misbehaves, the less your kid feels connected to you.  Incidentally, I’m not telling you this to make you feel guilty.  I’m telling you this to empower you.  Now that you know what the problem is, don’t sit around mooning about whether or not you’re a bad parent. That’s what bad parents do.  Good parents take the information and do something about it.   There have been plenty of times where, perhaps because I have a busier week, my relationship with my kids isn’t what it needs to be to get either the behavior or the quality of interactions that I want.   Realizing this enables me to be intentional about carving out the time it takes to set things right again.  And that’s–as Martha Stewart used to say–a good thing.  Being an effective gentle parent means learning to read the barometer of family intimacy that is represented by your children’s behavior.

Gentle Parenting:  How Does it Work?

Gentle parenting isn’t about being a helicopter parent who never leaves your kids alone, but it is about being engaged, not just in your children’s lives, but with their hearts.  What does that mean? It means taking the time to identify what their needs are and teaching them how to meet those needs in a godly and effective way.   The thing is, most parents simply assume they know what their kid needs (or they think they can tell their kids what they should need) but most parents really don’t know.  The gentle parent takes the time to ask questions of themselves and the child that help them ascertain what motivates this particular kid and what that specific child was trying to accomplish (however clumsily) by doing X, Y, or Z.  For gentle parenting to work, a parent must buy in to the idea that bad behavior is the result of a child either not knowing how to meet a certain need appropriately, or not knowing how to use what they know in a particular context.  Solving the problem behavior means giving the child the missing skill or information and providing the support and structure the child needs to succeed.

A Call to Action:

The point of this post, however, isn’t to teach parenting skills.  It’s to get you to reflect on the way you parent in general–and why–and to suggest that, as Catholic parents, the way we parent is not just about raising our kids.  It’s about changing the world’s attitude toward children in general.  I think that too often, we say, “Well, my kids are just fine. So, I guess I’m doing just fine.”  But I don’t think the Catholic parent can really get away with this especially in light of the study that began this article.  We are called to be salt and light.  How does having the same attitudes toward our kids that every other parent does accomplish this?  Catholic parents–especially in light of Pope Francis’ “tenderness revolution”–need to ask themselves, “What kind of witness will my family be?”  Are we going to be the kind of family that just bitches about our kids over coffee like everyone else and complains (however jokingly) about what a chaotic mess our lives are, or are we going to be the kind of families that make other people want to get to know their kids better, hold their kids a little closer, treat their kids with a little more gentleness and dignity?

Catholics have been given a special insight.  We know how precious life is. We know what a treasure our children are.  Isn’t it time we started doing more than paying lip service to these ideas? Isn’t it time to take up Pope Francis’ example and start a Tenderness Revolution in Catholic parenting that can bear witness to these truths and show the world how it is possible to use gentle means to accomplish terrifically high standards; to parent our children just like God parents us–with standards that reach to the heavens (literally) supported by a love that knows no bounds?  I think so. How about you?

If you’d like more ideas on how you can start a tenderness revolution in your home, pick up a copy of Parenting with Grace:  The Catholic Parents’ Guide to Raising (almost) Perfect Kids.

UPDATE—I’ve been discussing this post with several of my Patheos colleagues.  Jen Fitz, in particular, asked some especially helpful questions that, I think might be useful for clarifying some point on this post. 

–First, I want to be clear that I am not equating spanking parents with abusive parents. My only point is that Catholics have an obligation to evangelize the culture. One of the ways that Catholic parents can do this is through gentle parenting, which bears witness to the gift of life and the treasure that children are. 

Abusive parents aren’t abusive because they are mean, evil people. They are abusive because they don’t know what else to do and they are at the end of their tether. But if, as a people, Catholics led the way in showing the world how to achieve great parenting ends through gentle means, we would be able to show parents who are struggling with their children that there truly is a better way. And we could do it by example–without judgment or shaming. 

To paraphrase Tertullian, it would be a case of, “Look at those Catholic families, see how they love one another!”

–Second, regarding the attempt to articulate a “Catholic position on spanking.” It is my understanding that in moral theology, Catholics operate from first principles, not from situational ethics.  I never claim that Catholics can’t spank. I just apply the same theology of punishment to spanking as Catholics apply to punishment in general. Where a lesser intervention can correct an offense, Catholic moral teaching obliges us to prefer that intervention to a harsher intervention.   I can tell you that there isn’t a situation I have encountered–clinically, personally or empirically–where spanking was either necessary or superior to other more gentle methods.  Regardless, for the Catholic, punishment is permissible, but at all times we must consider punishment in light of the dignity of the person, the proportionality of the intervention to the offense,  and the overall call to live lives of virtue.

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