From the Family Foundations archives.
It’s hard to find role models these days.
For starters, television families have changed. When I was in elementary school, my parents loved “The Cosby Show.” Even Grandma had to wait until the show ended to be taken home after dinner with us. The show was funny, smart, and showed a healthy African American family where both parents were well-educated professionals.
Then in middle school “The Simpsons” became the big show. For full disclosure, I enjoyed the first dozen or so seasons of “The Simpsons” and still find some of those episodes hilarious. But the more I think about the show, the more their family disturbs me: The show only really got funny after the father, Homer, makes the distinct turn to being a complete buffoon.
What is striking is that, when you look at it, many television shows of that time (and in later years) began to follow the “The Simpsons” form: clueless parents with children who are smarter, more responsible and forging their own way. Almost always, it is the father who is the butt of the jokes, as in “Home Improvement” or “Malcom in the Middle.” “Modern Family” presents three disparate ways of being a family as equal, with the fathers coming off as silly or out of touch — especially Phil Dunphy, the classic cool dad who tries too hard. In these shows, the children are often the ones teaching the parents.
Then, in our real world, there are other big challenges to our thinking. Pope Francis reflects on this in his most recent document, Evangelii Gaudium. The pope laments that “in the prevailing culture, priority is given to the outward the immediate, the visible, the quick, the superficial and the provisional. What is real gives way to appearances” (EG 62). Add to this the information-driven nature of our culture, “which bombards us indiscriminately with data — all treated as being of equal importance — and which leads to remarkable superficiality in the area of moral discernment,” and that marriage and family “tend to be viewed as a form of mere emotional satisfaction that can be constructed in any way or modified at will” (EG 64, 66). We must be on constant guard that we are not swept away by the deluge of information or too taken and formed by the media we consume. This is true not only for personal holiness but for how one forms and educates children.
As I said, there are very few positive cultural role models for how to parent in the media, and our fellow Americans are living lives more and more at odds with the Gospel. Many young couples seeking to be good parents and take the education of their children seriously may feel lost or drawn in by the culture around them before they realize what is happening. Unless parents are deliberate in how they raise their children, they can easily end up like a raft swept away by the current.
Jesus and his church, however, want to help families live their full vocation to educate their children. Education here means parenting children in its full sense: helping them to become the men or women they are called to be. This means parents are to help shape their children in body and soul, heart and mind, and even how they see the world and other people. This is why Second Vatican Council calls the family a “school of deeper humanity” (Gaudium et Spes 52).
Wisdom from JPII
Pope John Paul II focused much of his teaching on marriage and family. Many get excited about what he teaches about sex and procreation, yet very few get beyond the sex part to the real fruit of that loving union. John Paul II, however, teaches not just a theology of the body. He also wants us to have a theology of the family. In his major document on the family, Familiaris Consortio, John Paul II makes very clear that the family has its identity in shared love, and therefore its mission is to “guard, reveal and communicate love” (FC 17).
Now this love is not namby-pamby love or anything that you find in a greeting card or an ’80s power ballad. This love is nothing less than the love revealed by Jesus in his life, death and resurrection. This is the love that Christ has for the church and that spouses are supposed to have for each other (Eph 5:21-33). This is love that is characterized by openness to others and a willingness to go to the end in self-gift. A family, then, is defined by love because we as human persons are defined by love. It is why we were created. It is our deepest vocation (FC 11). It is the only thing in life that will make us happy because it is what we are made for.
Love, then, is the most basic element of educating children. It is the animating principle and the key guide to education (FC 36). Christ-like love needs to be the source and measure of all the education that parents give to their children. Further, if this education really is a “school of deeper humanity,” it should really be formation. Parents should not merely pass on knowledge and experience; they should form their children to live love by guiding them and shaping their path. This means helping children apply love to the essentials of human life.
The beauty is that when this is done, material things get put in their proper place. They are not bad and often are necessary. But a person should never be defined by what they have or don’t have. Love respects others for what they are, not what they have or do. Parents must teach their children to serve others. The self-gift of love must be expected of children every day, even in little acts of love like sharing food or helping with chores. Chastity only makes sense in the context of love. Children should see love in the way their parents engage media, converse and treat one another. Formation in love always needs to tell children about the One who created us out of love for love. Children learn about God, his love, the church, sacraments and their vocations from their parents first, even before they encounter God in prayer themselves.
Breaking it down
Now you are probably thinking to yourself, “Great, Father. That sounds nice. But what should we actually do?” ?
I cannot give a one-size-fits-all program for the education of children. Each family has its own gifts and challenges. What one father does with ease another father may struggle with. That is why keeping the general principle in mind is helpful. Take, for example, the question: should you buy a fishing boat? A better question to ask might be: Will this boat not only bring enjoyment to me but give me opportunities to share quality time with my family? Will people say at your funeral that you loved fishing, or that they loved fishing with you? Or take the decision about whether or not to have cable: Will this help us enjoy quality time together as a family watching shows that are good uses of our time, or would it be better for us to play Scrabble, Blokus or Settlers of Catan?
While there is not a set plan for education, here are some general thoughts I’ve had as I have worked with families. Consider this list as you try to become more deliberate in the education of your own children.
- Help your children discern their vocations. We are embodied for marriage. Some are called to priesthood and religious life. All are ways of being happy and living real love. Help them to listen for the call of Christ, “Come and follow me.”
- Get your children to think about careers and college while in high school. Do not let them decide themselves. That is, don’t just ask them, “What do you want to do?” You know their talents. Suggest a range of things that they should research and think about. Help guide their choice.
- Spend time together as a family. This may mean you have to turn down a promotion that would involve more money but more hours. Eat dinner together and teach your children to really talk with you and with one another. Speak of vocation, career, how to treat people they don’t like at school, love, sex, etc. Do this often. Do not let your kids get away with saying nothing even if they are a teenager. Start the precedent early.
- John Paul II is silent about public or Catholic school for a reason. The key factor in a child being formed well is the family — not the school they go to. A good family can witness to Christ even in public school. Catholic school cannot replace a good family.
- Teach your children about money. They can learn early that it does not make them happy, but being generous can. Do not pay them for chores that serve the family. They should learn to server the family out of love.
- Pray as a family beyond meal blessings. God and our relationship with him should be spoken of and experienced freely in the home. It will feel weird if you are not used to it. Get over it.
- Ask for forgiveness when you mess up. Teach your children mercy by seeking it yourself.
- You are their parent, not their friend. They will not always see what you demand of them as love. One day they will.
- Sports are not as important as many people think. Teamwork can be learned in various places. Do not succumb to the professionalization of fifth-grade soccer. Family, faith, school and many other things are more important than sports.
- Help your children develop wonder. Help see the beauty of the world by being outside. Make them read books other than “Captain Underpants.” Talk with them about what they read.
- Nobody needs a cellphone, let alone children. They can survive. Trust me.
- Do not let technology parent for you. iPads, movies and the Internet are not pacifiers.
Above all, nemo dat quod non habet — you cannot give what you do not have. For you to form your family in love, you must be striving to know love in Christ and live love in your marriage and family. Stay rooted in prayer, the sacraments and concrete daily acts of love for your spouse and you will be able to form your children well.
If your family is anchored in Christ and his church, you will know love. But you will be different. You will be strange. It will be hard at times. Love is hard. Jesus, Mary and Joseph are with you. The church is with you. Resolve to grow in love in your family, to form your children in love. “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord” (Joshua 24:15).
Love is worth it.
— Fr. John P. Floeder serves as the dean of seminarians at The Saint Paul Seminary School of Divinity in St. Paul, Minnesota.
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