Q: You said that you had practical advice for parents. What kind of advice?
A: Parenting lessons from a priest! What next? Poetry lessons from a computer programmer? These things do not seem to fall under the category of “Father Mike’s experience”. Busted. I’m not a father of small children. But. I get to work with a lot of parents and their children. In addition, I am the spiritual father to a LOT of junior high, high school, and college-aged youth. Because of that, I get to see the consequences of different parenting styles. Here are a few things that I have observed, and a few questions that are worth asking.
Why do you have the rules that you have? I once trained with an organization called the National Outdoor Leadership School. The primary goal of this group was to train people to survive in the wilderness and to be able to teach others to do the same. The founder was a unique man named Paul Pezoldt. One of his sayings was “Rules are for fools”. Of course, for those of us in our late teens and early twenties who participated in this school, this idea was quite appealing. But thinking back, they had plenty of rules. NOLS embraced the principles of “Leave No Trace” and minimal impact camping. When it came to mountaineering, they were incredibly serious and disciplined regarding exactly how we climbed or rappelled mountain faces. They were anything but flippant with how we were to dispose of “waste”.
This school utilized rules but they prided themselves on this fact: none of the rules were arbitrary. They were based on sound wilderness and climbing safety principles and there were good reasons for their existence.
It is often easier to have arbitrary rules when it comes to families or companies or parishes. These can even be “good” rules. Having a bed time or getting homework done or rules about chores needing to be completed before playtime are all good. But at some point, those rules will come into conflict with some other good. At some point, young people will “push back” against these rules. That is only natural. But here is the issue: if you don’t know why this rule exists, you will find yourself trapped by it. First, as your child begins to think critically, they will want to know the “why” behind the rule. If you don’t know why, you can’t tell them why. Second, if there is no known “why”, when negotiation is necessary (and you have probably discovered that there are times when it is necessary, right?) the negotiation is based off how much sleep you got the previous night, not necessarily on what is best or most fair. Third, when your rules are arbitrary, it is really difficult to know why you are enforcing them at any given moment. I’m sure that every parent has had those times when you just “let it slide this one time”. That’s probably fine, but wouldn’t you rather have a reason why you enforce the rule this time and don’t enforce it another time? When rules grow out of intentional principles, they may still be challenged or broken, but you will not have any doubt about whether they should be there.
A person cannot merely parent out of their “giftedness”, they have to parent out of character.
Why are you doing what you are doing? This is one of those “personal inventory” questions. I know of a great couple who used to cuss all of the time. They were so “good” at using crude language that I even tried talking like them for a season. They could pepper their language with little dabs of expletives that almost everything they said took on a level of an Eddie Murphy stand-up routine (early Eddie Murphy, not family-friendly-Eddie-Murphy…we aren’t talking about Donkey in Shrek). They were “good swearers”. But then they had children and they realized that one of their jobs was to teach their children how to use words. It was remarkable. Their first child caused them to evaluate how they were speaking. Their next children spurred them on to change their habits.
A personal life committed to excellence and holiness. I think that all parents learn (like all priests quickly learn), that giftedness is limited. All parents make mistakes. No parent is perfect. A person cannot merely parent out of their “giftedness”, they have to parent out of character. Therefore, while there is something incredibly valuable about growing in your parenting gifts and knowledge, one’s own personal character is absolutely indispensable.
When it comes to media, this is where your example plays the most powerful role. We say that various television programs, books, songs, or movies have “adult content”. And sometimes this is accurate. There are some themes that your adult mind can process at a more advanced and subtle level. But there are some media that are called “adult programming”…and all this means is that no one should ever expose themselves to it.
I’ve said it before, and I will say it again: if a parent has given their child (regardless of age…they could be 18 and living in the parents’ house) a smartphone, iPod, or tablet…and has not activated all of the parental restrictions possible, those parents are fools. There is no way around that. “Woe to you…”if you have given your child access to all of the worst that humanity has to offer and do not do anything to restrict and monitor those devices. It is one of the many lies that parents have been suckered into. (The first was that a child needs to have a cell phone or smart phone in the first place.)
Can they disagree with you? Is there room for push-back? This is especially true for older children. Are you willing to give them a chance to agree or disagree on things that are “optional”. This strategy can even be helpful when it comes to things that are not optional, like Sunday Mass. God is infinitely creative. And while there are certain non-negotiables, there are many areas of life where God gives us permission to simply choose what we think is best. As a reminder of God for your children, do you give them the same freedom?
All parents get it wrong. But God is not calling you to parent out of fear of getting it wrong. God has entrusted His children to your temporary care. Love them like God loves them, and is calling you to parent them out of a place of humble confidence and love.
Saint Augustine wrote about a friend of his who was absolutely captivated by the gladiator fights in the arena. This man, named…, tried as hard as he could to get away from this evil source of entertainment, but it kept drawing him back in. He was an adult who had been exposed to this kind of amusement since he was young. Because of this, he wasn’t free; he was a slave. How many parents are setting up their children to be “adult slaves” because they are not willing to place boundaries on their children’s activities, friends, and entertainment.