By: Dr. Gregory Popcak
When it comes to parenting, I see a lot of Catholic moms and dads falling back on, “Everybody has to do what works for them. We all just have to do what works best for us.”
Of course this is true on a certain level. All we can do is our best. But that begs the question, “What does doing our best as Catholic parents really require? What does ‘doing our best’ mean?” Does it mean, “do what comes naturally?” Does it mean, “do what’s easiest or most familiar?” Does it mean, “Do what my parents did?” How do we know what doing our best as Catholic parents really entails, and how do we know if we’re really doing it?
EMBRACE LOVE: LEAVE GUILT BEHIND
Here’s the thing. I don’t ever want any parent to feel guilty about the choices they make in good conscience. But I do want parents to make choices in light of their mission to bear witness to the Catholic vision of love. We should all want that. As Catholic parents, we can’t just settle for getting through the day. The Church counts on us to show the world that there is more to family life than mere survival. The Church counts on us to show the world that life is made joyful through heroic acts of self-donative love. Granted, some days, all we can do is survive, and we should be proud of what we’ve managed to accomplish even on those days—because, sometimes, that can be a powerful witness too—but we can never forget that, for the Catholic, the goal isn’t just getting through the day however we can. The goal is getting through the day in the way that allows us to be the best example of responsible, self-donative love to our spouse, our kids, and yes, the world.
Again, the point is not to flog yourself because you didn’t do this and you didn’t do that. If that’s you’re approach to personal growth and walking the path to spiritual perfection, then you’re looking at it entirely the wrong way. The truth is, God loves you just the way you are—but he loves you too much to let you stay that way. There’s nothing to feel guilty about in that. Likewise, God may be grateful for the parent that you are, but he loves you too much to want you to settle for that. However good a parent you are, God wants to give your family even more love. As parents we’re going to have to stretch our arms wide to even begin to receive it all. Asking your self if you can do better as a parent isn’t about guilt. It’s about opening our arms wide to receive the love God wants to transform our homes with.
PARENTS: MORE INSECURE THAN EVER
I once read an excerpt on parenting that reads as follows,
“we are more insecure about parenting these days because most of us have so little experience with children. We grow up in smaller families, where olders aren’t often expected to care for youngers. No self-respecting teenager spends much time babysitting. They have social, sport, and academic pursuits to fill their ore college resume. In college, we train to become professionals, doctors and lawyers and such. On the whole, we don’t think about children until we are pregnant—and then, as you note our thinking of ourselves, a significant part of our worry is our own bodies. In the end, when our first child won’t sleep or throws her first tantrum, we have little perspective to figure out if this is a typical tantrum or something of deeper significance. So we fret and are susceptible to every expert theory. We have to figure everything out from scratch.”
That’s a terrific point. But here’s the good news. Catholic parents don’t have to figure everything out from scratch. The Church gives us a beautiful vision of family life rooted in a radical example of self-donative love. All we have to do is keep that vision in the forefront of our minds and strive for that. Some days we’ll hit it, some days we won’t but we can never take our eyes off the vision.
CLING TO THE CATHOLIC VISION OF LOVE
We especially need to keep that vision in mind when we choose what expert theory to follow. As Lisa and I point out in Parenting with Grace, there’s a reason every parenting expert says that their way is the “one, right way” to parent and then goes on to contradict every other parenting expert who says that their way is also the “one right way to parent.” The reason they do this is that each parenting author is spelling out the methods that have been shown—through research and just good old fashioned, life experience—to be most likely to raise a kid that matches that parenting author’s value system and worldview. Dobson teaches parents to raise kids with an Evangelical Protestant worldview. Brazelton teaches you how to raise kids who have a typical suburban, middle-class American worldview, and so on and so on. They’re all “correct” ways of parenting because they are all catechetical programs for passing on the author’s unique views about life, morality, relationship, and values. In Parenting with Grace, Lisa and I spend the entire first chapter presenting what the Catholic vision of family life is and why we think our methods have been shown to serve that vision. You don’t have to agree with us, but at least you know where we’re coming from. Other parenting authors aren’t so honest. They’ll tell you theirs is the “right way” to parent, but they won’t tell you what value system they think is the right one to parent toward.
PARENTING STYLE IS CATECHESIS FOR LIVING
In choosing the experts you listen to, as a Catholic parent, you can’t just settle for asking, “How will this expert help me solve the immediate problem in front of my face right now.” You have to ask. “How does this expert’s views of family life mesh with the Catholic vision of self-donative love I am called to be an example of?” Why? Because, presumably, you want to raise a kid who will grow up to be a faithful Catholic. If that’s your goal, it makes no sense to teach your kid Catholic prayers and Catholic catechism but raise them to exhibit the values and worldview of an Evangelical Protestant or secular American capitalist.
Cardinal George once made the observation that Catholics in America are “Catholic in piety but Calvinist in worldview.” Why? Primarily because families are the crucibles of culture and Catholic parents keep turning to Protestant and secular parenting experts to learn how to create their family culture. Then we wonder why our kids—who were taken to Mass, and served at the Altar, and went to Catholic school, and said the rosary, and did all those other pious, Catholic things—grow up and toddle off to the First Evangelical Church down the street or don’t go to church at all. It’s largely because Catholic parents teach our kids Catholic piety, but raise our kids according to the values and worldviews espoused by protestant and secular parenting “experts.”
LOVE GOD AND THE CHURCH FIRST THEN DO WHAT YOU WILL.
The point is, Catholic parents are certainly free to parent however they want. But by buying into the “we all have to do what works best for us” line, too many Catholic parents raise kids with a vision of family life that is almost completely antithetical to the Catholic vision of self-donative love we are all called to be examples of. Doing so, we pay the price by creating families that don’t look any different than our neighbors’ families and by raising kids who wonder what all the Catholic fuss is about when our home doesn’t actually function differently than the neighbors’—except for how many more rules we have.
So yes, by all means, choose those parenting methods that “work best for you.’ But be sure that what you mean by “works best” is “helps me create a family that does the best job possible living out the Catholic vision of self-donative love” and not, “helps me get through the day with the least effort possible.”