Let Them Be Little

I have been reading The Complete Spiritual Doctrine of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, by Fr. Francois Jamart, OCD, and what is clear is that what I call embracing suffering St. Thérèse referrs to as loving one's littleness. This, she says, is what one must do in order to by sanctified and transformed by God, Himself.

It is clear that traditional, authoritarian parenting in which the outward expression of love and acceptance of a child depends on his ability to perform actions deemed desirable by the parents, even going so far as to rush and force his emotional development (something most parents would consider ridiculous with respect to a child's physical development!), inflicting physical and emotional pain on him for his failures and foibles, causes children to despise their littleness, dependence and vulnerability--the exact opposite of the spirituality of Thérèse, who is called by the Church "The Greatest Saint of Modern Times."

Attachment Parenting, on the other hand, provides us with proven successful means for preserving in our children a love for their littleness and their vulnerability by respectfully fostering their dependence on us until they are mature enough to depend on themselves and ultimately God, and demonstrating to them, in ways which they are able to understand, our love and acceptance of them exactly as they are right here in this moment--weak, ignorant, vulnerable, little.

It is precisely this lack of unconditional love and acceptance between husband and wife (for better or for worse, in sickness and in health, for richer or for poorer) which is the cause of the failure of so many marriages. How much more devastating is this kind of selfish love for a child!

We have all heard the saying, "Idleness is the root of all evil." Well, did you know that St. Thomas defines idleness, or acedia as "the despair of weakness," of which Kierkegaard said, that it consists in someone "despairingly" not wanting "to be oneself."

Given the present and dismal state of affairs of the world, particularly amongst our youth, and the predominance of authoritarian parenting (permissive parenting, though less common, has the same effect only in a more subtle way) I would have to say that it is misguided, or "conditional" parenting which is the root of all evil.

And the remedy, from Billy Dean and St. Thérèse, is that we "Let Them Be Little" and love their littleness so that they can too.

Ways In Which We Teach Children To Despise Their Littleness

Rushing or coercing them to:
  • emerge from the womb
  • sleep through the night
  • sleep alone (in the dark)
  • wean from the breast
  • potty train
  • hold back their tears
  • overcome their fears
  • walk
  • talk (say "please" and "thank you")
  • swim
  • sit still
  • be quiet
  • share
  • care
  • play
  • pray
  • apologize
  • show respect
  • clean up after themselves
  • dress themselves
  • feed themselves
  • eat food that is distasteful to them
  • read
  • write
  • calculate
  • cooperate
  • excel at academics, sports, music, art, etc.

Punishing them for:

  • feelings
  • mistakes
  • reluctance...
  • refusal...
  • failure...

...to live up to any of the above mentioned parental expectations.

(Please add to these lists in your comments.)

To teach our children how to "be in the world and not of it," we must create in our homes an environment in which the worldly law of penalties and incentives, violence and power, cruelty and luxury, is foreign and unwelcome; in which the Beatific Vision is glimpsed in the face of the child and reflected back to him for his adoration.


Anonymous said...

How about handle young adult or adult themes - in movies, books, discussions. I think we burden our children with an awful lot of info in an attempt to prevent the world from doing it first. I say make life as beautiful for them as you possible can.

jill said...

Love those song lyrics!

Anonymous, yes, the well-intentioned effort to help them deal with the world pushes them to "grow up" too fast, before they're ready.

Robynn, great list. Respect, contrition, and maturity, all good things, can't be forced or coerced.

HOTYK lays out why the child-parent relationship is the key to the child's maturation.

The book also explains some troubling cultural phenomena: youth's lack of respect for parents and authority in general, teens (and tweens) separating themselves from their families and wanting to be as different as possible from their parents, and unmotivated (and unmotivatable) students.

Erin said...

yes, i'd love to hear ideas on the above comment. i have an almost 4 yr old who has been very verbal and perceptive from a young age. i would love ideas on how to keep her focused on childhood rather than adult concerns! i usually say, "don't worry about that" or "this is a grownup discussion/choice/whatever" or "we'll talk more about this when you are older."

also, how to do this in light of out faith? i want to teach my children what it truly means to be catholic... but at the same time, i wonder if it's a good thing for my 3 yr old to be fascinated w/ the crucifixion... but i don't want to not take her to our parish's stations of the cross. any thoughts?

MedievalMama said...

The idea here is not to "force" them to remain little (not that anyone has suggested that), but to show them in every exchange that we love their littleness--especially their spiritual littleness--at whatever stage of development it is. Their fascination and curiosity about the world, even about "grown up things" is a natural, essential, good characteristic of their "childness." Of course, some curiosities cannot be indulged (at least until the child is more mature), but there's never any need to give a child a reason to suspect that you think he's not being a perfectly normal, natural, good chlid, whatever activity he's engaged in--whether it be wonderment, curiosity, playing "grown up," playing "baby," etc.

As I said, some curiosities cannot be indulged, in which case it's perfectly acceptable for a parent to gently explain to a child that something about this interest or activity may be hurtful, or harmful, or dangerous, etc., and it's best he wait until he's older to learn about or engage in it. The parent who has a secure attachment to the child is in the best position to discern how to handle these situations. The operating principle, again, is to do it in such a way as not to give the child a reason to despise his littleness, which is what happens when he is made to suffer for it, physically or emotionally. It is parents' own insecurities and unwillingness to accept their own littleness that causes them to react harshly or dramatically to their children's vulnerability.

As far as instructing our children in the practice of the faith, look at your child. Trust in him and trust in the Lord. "To everything there is a season." If a child shows interest in a certain mystery of our faith, entrust it to God and do your best to answer his questions. If a child is afraid of a certain mystery of our faith, now is not the time.
We can't keep them from growing up. But true maturity consists in one's ability to accept with courage, serenity and wisdom whatever life brings--to embrace suffering. This is only possible through the loving acceptance of our own littleness--our weakness, vulnerability and dependence on One greater than ourselves. Our children are born with this awareness and acceptance--we don't need to teach it to them. As it is the job of the Holy Father to protect and preserve, and never to change, the deposit of faith as it was entrusted to him, so it is the job of parents to protect and preserve, and never to change, the divine goodness that is naturally within each of our children as they have been entrusted to us. It is by virtue of our littleness that we are exhalted in Christ. Our littleness is our greatness!

Catholic Attachment Parenting

A philosophy of parenting modeled after the self-donative love exemplified in the relationship between Mary and Jesus.

1 Jn 4:18

"There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and he who fears is not perfected in love."

Luke 1:17

"...to turn the hearts of the parents toward their children..."