All Catholic parents desire to raise up their children to be Saints. In my search to better understand what motivates parents to take one approach rather than another, I have discovered some rather peculiar and often distressing contradictions in our methods, all revealing the folly of our own human efforts. Blessed Claude de la Colombiere writes in Trustful Surrender to Divine Providence, “A rule also that God usually follows is to attain His ends by ways that are the opposite to those human prudence would normally choose.” If we are to hold on to our kids, we must take this to heart.
One of the most perplexing contradictions that's been on my mind lately is the tendency of well-meaning parents to coerce their children with fear of suffering (corporal punishment, so-called natural consequences, deprivation of some need or want) in order to make them good, and then teach them that if they want to become saints they have to embrace suffering. This is just another way of saying that punitive parenting exacerbates a child's fallen human nature, inflaming his narcissism, whereby he is conditioned to make choices according to what's in it for him, instead of making choices based on how his actions affect his relationship with God and his neighbor. We say to our children, “You do as I say so you can learn to be good, or I’ll punish you.” The child is conditioned to fear suffering in order “to be good.” But in order for a soul to become truly holy, it must be willing to suffer for love of God. It is not fear, but love of which saints are made.
Through developments in attachment theory and research into the brain we now know that a child whose self-love is repeatedly hurt will develop a habit of defending against vulnerability, whereby, in order to avoid the pain of embarrassment, for example, he will hide his faults, blame others for his short comings, or distract himself from the pain. Dr. Neufeld writes, “The brains of children who are defended against vulnerability tune out anything that would give rise to feeling it, in this case the admission of mistakes and failure. Even being mildly corrected by a teacher or parent may threaten such a child with a sense of inadequecy and shame, the sense that 'something is wrong with me.' Pointing out what they did wrong will evoke from such children brazenly evasive or hostile reactions. Adults often interpret these responses as rudeness, but they really serve the function of keeping these kids from feeling vulnerability.” On the other hand, children who feel unconditionally loved and accepted are far more likely to accept loving correction from a trusted attachment figure because their self-love is not threatened by the pain of rejection. If we thought about if for two minutes we could easily see this happening in ourselves and our interactions with others.
Since we know that grace builds on nature, it seems an affront to God's order when we train our children in habits which inhibit the efficacy of grace in their souls. I would even go so far as to say that it’s sinful, for we provoke them to wickedness, we “cause one of these little ones to sin.” When we assume the worst about our children we train them to react to us with pride, but then tell them they have to become humble in order to become holy. We provoke them when we deny them affection, physical or emotional, when they've behaved in a way that angers us, making them long for physical intimacy (I’m not just referring to sex, here, but to the basic human need for touch), then tell them they're wicked and impure when they seek physical intimacy by unlawful means. We inflame their anger by assaulting their God-given free will and then teach them that meekness is a most necessary virtue if we wish to imitate Christ. We attempt to motivate them to try harder by comparing them to others, igniting the consuming fire of jealousy in their hearts, and then teach them that jealousy is contrary to fraternal charity. We deprive them of the experience of the happiness of pure, selfless love, which is the object all men ultimately seek in every good thing, causing them to envy others for their happiness, and then teach them that envy is a sin against gratitude to God. Hoping to motivate them to improve themselves, we cause them to grow discouraged by frequent criticism, driving them to hopelessness and sloth, and then teach them that sloth is directly opposed to the love of God. (I'm not excusing our children's sins here, just recognizing that, as with modesty, we are responsible for the effects our actions have on others. This is a part of the doctrine of the Communion of Saints) There are a great many foolish things parents do to their children--I know because I have been among them.
It took me a long time to realize that the same actions of others that bring out the worst in me, have the same effect on my children when I engage in them. But now, by the grace of God, I see it so clearly. We can teach our children habits of vice just as easily as habits of virtue—it all depends on how we approach them in any given situation. Or more importantly, it depends on our view of them as unique creations of God, with a specific purpose in His plan for mankind—equal to us in dignity—not ours to do with as we see fit, but entrusted to us to safeguard as they grow, through God’s own providence, into the vocation God has called them to--as the deposit of faith is entrusted to the Holy Father, not to change, but to protect in its organic development.
When our children know and feel that they are loved unconditionally, they are open to correction, lovingly offered. They have not been conditioned to defend against vulnerability, to fear the pain of humiliation. When their relationship with their parents is in order, their relationship to the Church and to God will follow suit. They do not learn virtue by force, by being treated as if they are naturally bad--this sort of attitude does not escape them and brings out the worst in them--and us. They learn virtue by love--love for their parents, love for the virtues their parents love, love for the virtues that will make them most pleasing to the God of love.
We live in a culture founded on the ideals of the Reformation and the French Revolution—that man is depraved and that his rights and private judgments supersede those of God or the Church—distinctly horizontally orienting influences in human history. It should come as no surprise to us that un-Catholic ideas about parenting such as I have described here have seeped into our Catholic households. It’s time we reclaimed our children to Christ and the Church—for the sake of the entire world. The emerging devastation of the stagnant, self-destructive orientation of the world is our call to conversion. If we would save our children we must desire to love God with our whole selves in every single moment--even in suffering.
In A Story of a Soul, St. Therese, nearing her death, writes, “He made me to understand these words of the Canticle of Canticles: ‘DRAW ME, WE SHALL RUN after you in the odor of your ointments.’ O Jesus, it is not even necessary to say: ‘When drawing me, draw the souls whom I love!’ This simple statement: ‘Draw me’ suffices; I understand, Lord, that when a soul allows herself to be captivated by the odor of your ointments, she cannot run alone, all the souls whom she loves follow in her train; this is done without constraint, without effort, it is a natural consequence of her attraction for you. Just as a torrent, throwing itself with impetuosity into the ocean of Your Love, draws with her all the treasures she possesses. Lord, You know it, I have no other treasures than the souls it has pleased You to unite to mine; it is You who entrusted these treasures to me, and so I dare to borrow the words You addressed to the heavenly Father, the last night which saw You on our earth as a traveler and a mortal.”
"Draw me, we shall run…"