THE CHILD FROM
By Neil MacCarthy.
CATHOLIC TRUTH SOCIETY of OREGON No. Fam050 (1950).
The art of raising Christians requires a deft ability to coordinate and inspire the ordinary techniques of good child care with a single motive: the love and service of God. The secret of this art is simple but not easy: to raise Christian children, you must first be a Christian yourself.
To be Christian is to extend in time the life and work of Our Lord by loving God, living in grace and serving others. This has never been easy. In monasteries, it has never been easy. In lay life, it is less easy. It is even harder in a decaying and secular society like ours.
To be a Christian parent is
harder yet. The family is a group organism. Its growth demands the continual
subjugation of the individuals comprising it, lest the interplay of
personalities make the home a battlefield. Thus it must often seem that those
practices and preoccupations which for the individual prepare the way of
perfection, the ‘ascent to Mount Carmel’ — solitude, recollection, formal
prayer — are submerged when one becomes a parent in the flood of trifling,
mundane concerns which characterize the group life. Sometimes years of
resentment must be borne before parents come to see that this perpetual
self-sacrifice, far from smothering their souls, has softened their egotistic
bent for personal spiritual success with those traits of abandon, suppleness in
circumstances and dependence on the Will of God, which are the mark of truly
Christian souls. Parenthood requires a constant preoccupation with the physical
needs of one’s family and therefore a stake in the things of this world. To
organize efficiently the minutiae of daily life and yet keep alive the love of
each member of the family for the others and of all for God is indeed a
There are many ministries.
Preachers enflesh the Word in tones that quicken us to faith. Philosophers
enshrine the Word in crystal thought which error cannot cloud. Saints
materialize the Word in heroic action. Priests substantiate the Word as none of
us can by changing bread to Christ.
But parents can make the Word
flesh in a unique and almost literal sense. From the moment they conceive a
child, until his last work of degrading or ennobling the world is done, the
work of their hands and hearts can incarnate the Word as can no other ministry.
Therefore must parents live in
grace, lest their ministry be blamed.
It is so easy for them to be
wrong, to misconstrue the relation of religion to life. They can drift into
thinking of religion as a decoration, a cultural flourish to be added to “The American
way.” [This applies to the ‘Australian’ the ‘Irish’ the ‘British’ or (here
insert your nationality) way.] Or they can drift into thinking of religion as a
substitute for life, a drug to en-mist in rosy vagueness the harsh outlines of
a wicked world.
Parents who mistake
Christianity for a social grace bring up cynical and secular children who lead
shallow, undisciplined lives cluttered with movies, Television, sweets, (lollies
or candy) and comics. The failure of these parents is not always recognized.
They are reasonable people, a credit to the town, good friends and neighbors.
It is not noticed that they are not Christians.
Parents who seek “comfort” in
religion are more readily detected as maladjusted. Christianity afflicts these
people like a disease. They are full of tracts and medals and esoteric
devotions to unknown saints. They entertain the clergy often and at such times
butter their conversation with private understandings with the Blessed Mother
and churchly chitchat about ‘Father Jamey getting Good Shepherd parish after
Such people seldom concern
themselves with the merely natural aids to parenthood, like the Parent-Teacher
Associations (P.T.A.), Parents and Citizens Groups, Parents and Friends
associations at schools, (the P & F,) or parents’ magazines or the
Montessori system. Teaching Tom to use simple tools or working out a schedule
of chores and allowances for him is less important to them that seeing that Tom
‘wears a scapular’.
Such parents lack a sense of
proportion. They are somewhat silly. But they are less reprehensible than the
middle-class type. They do at least realize that there is a dog beneath the
skin and that the natural order is not to be complacently accepted as it is.
How do parents who love God and live in grace and have got straight the connection between religion and life approach the task of raising Christians?
They begin with a study of sound child care. They know that the liturgical life is neither a substitute for the world nor an endorsement of it: it is a critique. They use the love of God as a touchstone, a divining rod by which to select and transform those things in the natural order which can honor Him. Therefore, they use the ordinary means of learning how to bring up children. They have no facetious attitude toward government pamphlets like The Child From One to Six or nursery clinics or books on child welfare. They use these aids with discretion, but their approach is careful rather than critical. They have much to learn.
Wise parents begin early to
inculcate self-reliance. They allow the walking child to fall down without
comforting him. They let him cry a little if he cannot assemble his blocks to
his own satisfaction. Occasionally they encourage him with a word or a smile.
But as a matter of course, the child is expected to work things out for himself.
In doing so, he is strengthened spiritually. Can a Christian be
chicken-hearted? Is virtue a valentine of pink bows and baby talk?
Self-reliance can be
over-learned. The child trying to walk or shovel sand, wants to try it all the
time, through naps and meals and other needs. It is here, before the child is
one, that wise parents teach a reasonable respect for authority, for Mother’s
quiet work, for Father’s silent look. They do not call out at the child or give
in to his whims. They show their dignity by self-control and sensible
consistency. The infant learns that ‘No’ means ‘No’. There is no contest of
wills, no testing of the strength of ‘No’. Mother said “No” or “Bed” or “Give
it to me.” That is all. It is right, inevitable.
When the child is twenty and Mother says, “I want to talk to you, Tom,” Tom will come. Mother is probably right. In any event, she is Mother. If Tom gets it into his head to chase women or drink liquor or do any of the things that young men think makes them a real man, Father can call Tom aside and talk sense to him. But only because the event was prepared for in the playpen and the sandpit.
Thus, good Christian parents
develop the child from one age to the next. As he grows older, physical
problems diminish, moral and spiritual ones increase. Less time is needed for
physical projects like bathroom training or throwing a ball or sewing a sock.
More time is given to discussion of the ethical situations arising in school,
of the nature of the earth and the universe, of basic religious concepts,
prayer, faith, grace. But there is no separation of physical and spiritual.
When Father shows Tom how to hold a bat, he may slip in a word about the place of play in the imitation of Christ. Tom will not pay attention, of course, if he is any kind of a boy. He is too interested in learning the game, in hitting a ball. But there will be hundreds of similar opportunities for Father to make his point.
An occasion will present itself to tell the story of the child saint who was playing with a ball. He was asked what he would do if he had five minutes to live. He replied that he would go right on playing with a ball. Tom will unconsciously dovetail this with the other things Father has said. When Tom is older, he will understand the relation of sports to sanctity without knowing how he knows.
Mother is teaching the girls to
bake. Little Joan is in tears — her cookies turned out badly.
Did you read the recipe carefully, dear?
Yes, Mommy — but it seemed like such an awful lot of sugar, I just thought. . . .
Mother makes a few, casual remarks about the value of following rules, of paying attention to details.
The mailman arrives with a package. It is a beautiful blanket for the new baby. The girls interrupt their cooking to admire the gift. Mother smiles as she reads a motto on the label: “Quality is never an accident.” “What is quality, Mommy?” Mother explains. She relates the principle to Joan’s cookies. Joan is beginning to learn a lot more than just making cookies. . . . .
But this moralizing in situations will seem false and will not be accepted by the children unless, from their birth, they are brought up in a home that radiates affection, idealism and a common life of grace. The infant in his highchair cannot talk yet, but he watches his parents pray before meals.
He wonders what they are doing. Later he imitates the position of the hands. It doesn’t matter that he doesn’t know what he is doing. It matters only that prayers are as much a staple of existence as diapers or oatmeal.
The Germans have an expression for this principle. They say, “He does not know the words, but he understands the music.” That is, the child grasps in an intuitive way, many attitudes and meanings. Wise parents utilize this principle in teaching everything.
They listen to music and read poems and look at sunsets and pray at Mass, and the child understands only the music. Later, he will learn the words more rationally. But if there has been no music first, the child rightly suspects that what he is being taught is affectatious, not lived out, said for his benefit. Consequently, he learns unwillingly and superficially. He does not learn by the blood but by the tongue. And he forgets as soon as he can get away with it — which is often tomorrow. If a child is taught grace before meals with self-conscious airs of piety and coy talk about being a little soldier of Christ, he senses the insincerity of his parents and is led to believe that the whole rigmarole is a gag to fool little kids into being good.
Sincere Christian parents do not produce this reaction. Their children cannot remember a time when Mother and Father were not going to daily Mass (or Sunday Mass and any extra Masses they can manage) or reading spiritual books to each other or discussing current events in the light of Our Lord’s teaching. As children grow older and study religion formally, they see they are merely receiving explicit instruction in the facts and attitudes they have always lived by.
Even after catechetical age,
the greater part of the children’s spiritual instruction goes on at home.
Public affairs, heard on the radio, seen on television, and discussed at
school, are rehashed at home. What is communism? Why are they after Cardinal
Mindszenty? Why do they want to stamp out religion? What is happening to
Catholics in China?
A Maryknoll magazine arrives. It features a full-page photo of a ragged Indian peasant sitting on the ground, crying like a baby in despair and grief. His bony horse stands beside him. There is nothing to eat. Nothing at all. The picture is tacked up on the family bulletin board in the kitchen. The children ask about it. It is explained to them. Why we should pray for the poor and hungry. Why we should eat our own good food with thankfulness. A copy of Life magazine lies on the living-room table. Mother fetches it, turns to the section: “Life Goes to a Party.” She shows the children the pictures of the well-dressed guests, stuffing themselves with delicacies, laughing too much and doing foolish things. She compares them with the Indian peasant. Is this right? Is it Christian?
Needless to say, wise parents
do not sicken their young with an overdose of piety. They take the attitude
that God made the world and it is fundamentally good. They inculcate a
“relaxed” piety, which presumes a Christian viewpoint without tiresomely
insisting on it all day long. It is not necessary to evoke the saints hourly,
to collect holy pictures, to deck oneself out in the paraphernalia of piety. To
follow Christ is to love God and to do everything for His sake — that is
enough. God is everywhere: parents need not feel that He can only exist in
virtue of their personally planting Him about.
Christian parents, therefore,
explain natural and mechanical phenomena reasonably. They discuss the anatomy
of rainbows, how radios work, the hydrologic cycle and how babies are born, in
a matter-of-fact way, using such aids in the way of blackboards and encyclopedias
as they can afford. They are careful, however, to avoid the scientific ‘spirit’.
The explanation of ant-hills and bee-hives is complete only when it directs the
attention of the child to the wisdom and humor and engineering skill of God.
Yet the eternal aspect of material things is shown with such a fine sense of
proportion that the children are able to talk freely of the things that
interest them — frogs and hockey and what Natalie Hubbard did in school — without
fearing that the conversation will inevitably veer around to the Ten
As the child enters puberty,
all that has gone into his formation is put to a crucial test. The contrast
between the ethical pattern by which he has been brought up and the cynical
values of the “outside” world becomes more and more obvious. He goes to school,
visits the homes of his companions, sees advertisements and billboards and
hears the radio and watches the television, and everything he does and sees and
hears shows him plainly that while the rest of the world is “having fun,” he is
restricted in a thousand ways by the dictates of religion.
He has been led to believe that kindness and gentility and love of one’s neighbor are natural and expected virtues, and he has behaved accordingly. Now he is called a “sucker.” And as he looks at his friends with their pockets full of coins, their movies and soda pop and comic books, he wonders if he is one. His friends don’t do chores or go to weekly Mass (let alone daily Mass). They can see Neptune’s Daughter. He is not allowed. Why not? Is he being taken in? Is Catholicism real? Or are the values of the world around him “real”? [Please note: Neptune’s Daughter was a 1949 movie starring the bathing beauty, Esther Williams. If good Catholic teenagers were not allowed to see it back then, what should our attitude be in guiding Catholic teenagers with this year’s crop of Hollywood movies?]
Many children are lost forever
to their parents at this age. The instinct of the child is to pull away from
his elders, to become emotionally independent. It is psychologically necessary
for him to do so. If the attitude of his parents is sympathetic and honest, he
is enabled to detach himself from them emotionally without rejecting their
spiritual pattern. If his training till now has been Christian, his struggle
for personal identity will not unduly alarm his parents. They will not try to
fetter him with idiotic demands for affection and blind obedience. They are
confident they can hold him with the silken threads of love and respect for
their example — threads which may have an elasticity, which give but never
snap, struggle though he may. Let him thrash his wings a bit.
Thus, wise parents handle this
fight for identity, this youthful war, on the outcome of which depends the
success of all their efforts, with tactful understanding. They adjust
themselves to a granting of concessions, a paying out of slack in the silken
and silver cord. But this is never done on a bargaining basis: you do this and
I’ll let you do that. The loosening of the ties that bind presumes the idea of
equity — adult behavior meriting adult privilege. And in keeping with this, the
conflict between the child’s two worlds, his home and his outside experience,
is honestly faced.
There is a difference between life in a Christian family and the pleasure-seeking existence which is the “American way.” (Or ‘Whoever’s’ way.) Our neighbors do things which we may not do. There are things our secular friends see and say and think which we may not, and still be Christians. This does not mean that our friends are not worthy people, better perhaps by their lights than we by ours. But they live differently than we do, and the difference is important.
Christian parents gain nothing
by glossing the facts, by narrowing the chasm between the following of Christ
and the following of self, as though secularism could be sanctified and
Christianity “humanized” (as they call it) and the two somehow be made to
appear the same. They are not.
And the time has come for a frank appeal to the child to embrace the life of grace and reject the life of self-seeking, knowing the implications of both.
Wise parents give this appeal a
positive statement by stimulating a sense of vocation. They teach their
children the use of the Missal and a real participation in the liturgy of the
Church. They develop an understanding of the Mystical Body, a sense of living
the life of Christ by extension in time. The saints are introduced as models of
behavior. Their achievements are studied in preparation for feast-days and
name-days, first in the little introductions in the Missal, later and more
completely in books given as gifts.
The children are led to see that saints are people, that a saint is not a special kind of person, but that every person can be a special kind of saint. Here is a saint who was a farmer, this one a mother, that one Chancellor of the Exchequer, here a philosopher, there the founder of an Order.
What are you going to be, dear?
— I want to be a nurse, a wife, a doctor, a sheep farmer.
Do you? Why?
Will it help you to serve God and people?
You don’t know, you just think it would be fun?
Think it over, dear, think it over. . . .
Thus, with piety and patience,
good parents raise Christians from one to heaven — that the Word may be made
Flesh. A hard apostolate, but can they wish less?
Can they wish to raise Quiz
Kids, brilliant with the fantastic values of television, atomic physics, jazz
and ‘beanies-with-propellers-on-top’? Or culture-worshippers, prattling smartly
of Picasso, Rouault, Hemingway and Waugh?
Eric Gill asked it rightly: “Do you think good taste can save us? Only one thing can save us. We must desire to be saints.”
The achievement of holiness is the work of grace, of Him Who made us and knows what He will have of us. We need not see the fruition of grace in ourselves or in our children. Enough that we try.
But to wish anything less for
us or for them is to cheat them of their birthright, deny our vocation, and
degrade the sacrament of marriage to the status of an obscene playing with