Program Notes (the podcast presentation contains more content than appears in these notes.)
A debate is raging on social media because of the comments made by a Catholic writer. The writer, who is a mother, came from a family of 9 and in her comment she stated that all of her sibling and she are practicing Catholics. She then went on to outline what her parents did which led to the outcome of having 9 adult children who are still practicing their faith.
The raging debate seems to be focused mostly on the second paragraph of her comment. That's where she begins by outlining a few of the things that her parents didn't do. And she is right, you don't have to check a bunch of boxes in order to form your children properly in the faith.
My problem with the comment. Well, I don't really have a problem with her comment. She was right to share her experience and encourage parents to recognize that there isn't necessarily a list of boxes that must be checked. But, my issue is with the fact that great parenting does not automatically equate to great results and we need to keep that in mind when we have these discussions.
I've listened to many distraught mothers as they poured out their hearts, telling me how they did everything humanly possible in raising their children. They created loving homes, worked hard at their marriages, instilled the basic tenets of the faith in their children...and still a child or children have gone astray. Someone got involved in drugs, another is living with a girlfriend, still others don't go to Mass, the list goes on.
I know the trouble personally, too. Embarrassed, I was informed of something a child of mine was engaging in and exposing someone else's child to. I stood there rather speechless. I had addressed this issue with my children MANY TIMES, there was no way on earth that the offending party did not know that this action was AGAINST our family's beliefs and standards. But, still it happened. And what smarted all the more was that the informant offered a parenting lesson to me. I got told that I needed to be proactive in forming my children! I bit my tongue thinking about the implications of that comment and the myriads hours of my existence I'd dedicated and continue to dedicate to properly forming my kids.
I've got to say that as a young parent, I read the child-rearing manuals, I attended parenting talks, I intently weighed advice and studied other successful families. My husband and I made it our priority to set good examples and instruct our children in the faith. We believed wholeheartedly that a solid formation would net good results. That is, of course, what the books promise, right? Do this and this will be the result.
Time and experience, however, turned that notion on its head. My husband and I have learned that sometimes, in spite of our best efforts, a child will run headlong in the opposite direction. Sometimes they make heartbreaking mistakes regardless of thorough training in the virtues.
This reality is perhaps the most agonizing part of raising children. Because as parents we tend to have great expectations of and for our children. We want to hold fast to the conviction that diligent, thoughtful, loving parenting will result in productive, virtuous, obedient progeny.
We generally hold to the idea that we have the ability to harness our children's free will. That is to say, we think that our right formation of our sons and daughters will prevent them from exercising their wills in ways which are destructive or expressly forbidden.
Remembering that it was the same mother and father who brought up both the prodigal son and his dutiful brother, I imagine that perhaps those parents stood wringing their hands when that son demanded his inheritance and then fled the cocoon of their family home.
Maybe they felt like failures when the prodigal son used their hard-earned resources to finance his life of partying and debauchery. Maybe they asked, “Where did we go wrong?” Maybe, the neighbors whispered, “You, know, if they'd just done X,Y or Z then that prodigal son never would have run away and burned through all that money. He would have been a good son and stayed in the family business.”
Whatever the reason was for the prodigal son's revolt, home is where he ran to once he'd lost it all. Though he wasn't expecting the welcome he got, he knew that home was still the place he could go to repent and to heal. For all of the anguish his father suffered during his absence, the prodigal son's father experienced overwhelming joy at the sight of his return. And this is a very important point to make. The prodigal son wasn't disowned. On the contrary, his father kept hoping and praying for him. And when he repented his father welcomed him with open arms.
St. Monica modeled that kind of mercy and unending love for her stray son, Augustine. She never quit praying and begging for his repentance. It's said that he resisted his mother's attempts to correct him for 17 years. St. Monica wait 17 years for her son to finally listen to her!
I found this little detail about St. Monica which I have reflected on from time and time when I'm worried about my own children. “Monica did not lose faith. She continually fasted, prayed, and wept on his behalf. She implored the local bishop for help in winning him over, and he counseled her to be patient, saying, 'God's time will come.' Monica persisted in importuning him, and the bishop uttered the words which have often been quoted: 'Go now, I beg you; it is not possible that the son of so many tears should perish.'”
In the course of raising our own brood, my husband and I have shed tears over the fact that all of our best efforts have not always been enough to counter the temptations of a secular world. So, if you've shed tears too, you are not alone. Your tears matter, but so too do your continued prayers, fastings and sacrifices.
Just like the parents of Cain and Abel, of the prodigal son and his dutiful brother, and of Joseph and his plotting siblings, we can only do our best to form our children well, to love them unconditionally, stand firm in the Truth and to pray for them without ceasing, but at the end of the day they are individuals, as are you and I.
Though, as parents, we'd prefer obedience over rebellion, my husband and I have come to the conclusion that growing up sometimes requires hard lessons and painful trials. Children are not automatons into which we can program our expectations. And out pop our desired results. I know that we'd all like the book, conference talk, podcast or prescription that can insure the end results, but it simply does not exist.
While we may think we've harnessed our children's juvenile will by following this or that bit of advice or program, before long we need to release the reins and not every son/daughter is going to stay on course. Even great families who seemingly do all of the right things still suffer prodigal sons and daughters. I will say it again, that's an important fact to remember.
What then is a parent to do? Throw up our hands in despair? Throw caution to the wind and allow children to raise themselves? Hand them over to the village? Or maybe find a nice wolf den to deposit them in?
As parents, we're obliged to mold the hearts and minds of our offspring. We must cultivate their roots in a stable foundation, so that even if they wander the seeds of Truth will remain embedded in their conscience; capable of blossoming in due time.
What are 5 concrete things we should try to do?
I take no pleasure in learning some fault or indiscretion a child of mine has committed; however, I do take comfort in knowing that my children are free to exercise their wills. They are not constrained by me or my expectations. Because as C. S. Lewis so wisely pointed out, “...free will, though it makes evil possible, is also the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having.”