It was early winter, 1987. I was 24.
I slipped into the bathroom for a blessed moment alone, just days after the birth of my first-born son. His had been a difficult birth. He was a challenging baby, not sleeping for more than an hour at a time, and fussy when he was awake. He didn’t nurse well. Or maybe I didn’t nurse well. I was an inexperienced mother and severely sleep-deprived as well as lacking confidence in my ability to care for and to raise this child whom I would have gladly died for on the spot if necessary. I loved him so much. At this moment, at this exact time, he had dozed off in his bassinet. I took the opportunity to splash some cold water on my tired face and sit on the closed toilet seat in the little peach-colored, plastic-tiled bathroom in our first house not bigger than my current living room and kitchen put together. It was a strange place for a prayer, but somehow it seemed right and the words just poured from my heart.
“Dear Lord, I don’t know if You will see fit to bless me with more children. I hope that you do, but if you don’t I want to say THANK YOU for this beautiful child. I love him so much. Thank you for entrusting him to me and David. Please help us raise him to glorify You. I dedicate him to you now. Please protect him spiritually, mentally, emotionally for his whole life until he returns to You at the end of it. If I forget to pray each day, take each breath of mine as a prayer for him and any other children you send. Let every sacrifice of mine that I forget to offer, be offered for him, and them. Please help me be a good mother and wife. Please help me know how I am supposed to raise him. ….And please, please help me get some sleep tonight. Amen.”
And that was it.
I brushed a stray hair from my face, took a deep breath and emerged from the bathroom ready to continue. Or, should I say, begin.
Twenty three years later, my husband and I are “finished” raising this first child, although he is not “finished”, as none of us are until the day we die. God saw fit to bless us with eight additional souls to raise. He took five more for Himself early on, and we are confident we will meet them in heaven some day. I’ve thought often about sitting in my little bathroom so many years ago, and the prayer that I felt so deeply, so vividly in my heart. It has been easier, and yet harder than I ever imagined, raising our Catholic kids.
Someone recently asked me, “What do I need to know, about raising Catholic children in today’s world?” I had to stop and think about it, for the answer is both “nothing” and “everything”. A new mother needs to know “nothing” in that God’s grace truly will provide. Sacramental marital graces will pull her and her spouse through many tough and dark times, with no credit to her or to him. Nothing really and truly can prepare a mother for the moment her child is first placed in her arms and she and her spouse are suddenly totally responsible for this precious little soul. Yet, parents must do “everything” they can do to raise him in the Faith and then trust that God will complete the work.
I think there is a danger in thinking that a person is “done” at 18, that a child is “raised well” (or not) by then. After all, which of us is totally complete, finally the person God calls us to be even before we hit the second decade age mark? Moving towards God and towards heaven takes an entire life’s work. In the early years, parents are critical in launching the child in this direction. Later on, the decision, responsibility and privilege will be his own. But it is a process, and we have to remember that.
That being said, what should good parents know in order to raise their children well in the Faith? And what should parents do?
What Parents Should Know
Knowing several things will help Catholic parents navigate the exciting world of raising their children well. First, parents should know that the world, generally, will not support their efforts to raise their children in the Catholic faith. That’s not being negative. It’s stating a fact, which is also nothing new. Since the time Jesus walked the earth Christian beliefs and Christians themselves have been persecuted. We need to arm ourselves with a joyful demeanor and live the Christian live fully without expecting it to be easy or to be applauded. The world will frequently contradict our desires to be modest, chaste, kind, generous, patient, temperate, and holy. We must be modest, chaste, kind, generous, patient, temperate and holy anyway. The world will tell us to pursue materialism, earthly goods, fame, power, “success”. We must reject that and reach for higher goals, and teach our children to do the same. We have to expect to be revolutionaries, of sorts, radically living in peace, for Christ. And remember, revolutionaries don’t necessarily have support groups.
Yes, there may be pockets here and there of support, of like-minded people who are striving to raise their children the way that we are, and finding these folks will be blessed relief and consolation, like cold water is to a thirsty soul. Indeed, we should seek out like-minded parents to network and brainstorm with them, but we must not expect to rely on them in all cases, at all times. God alone will be our perfect strength as we seek to do His will, well, in our families.
Second, parents should also know that children learn far more from example than preaching or formal lessons. The best way we can raise good Catholic children is to be good Catholic people ourselves. Children learn temperance by seeing us model that. They learn kindness of speech by seeing that exemplified in us. They learn to love the Mass and sacraments when we love the Mass and sacraments and bring them with us to experience them. We don’t need to preach to the children the importance of praying the rosary, although sharing stories and the Church’s guidance in this regard is good. We need to give them little plastic rosaries when they are just toddlers and snuggle with them on our laps as we recite the mysteries and pray this prayer ourselves. Our Catholic faith must be totally and entirely integrated in our lives, both for our own good and so our children can absorb it.
Third, parents should know that perseverance is essential because suffering often comes with the territory of raising children. This can be difficult to understand when one in the midst of it, especially at the beginning. We might initially address child-raising like we have other ‘projects’- We make a plan. We give our best efforts. We expect immediate positive results because we have tried so hard and done our research. Yet, raising good Catholic children is not like any other “project”. It takes more time, more faith, more trust than anything else we have ever done. Sometimes situations arise in child-rearing that challenge us to the very core of ourselves and elicit suffering, sometimes great suffering. This is perfectly normal. You see, God molds us as we mold our children. These are “growing pains”, of sorts. The growth toward holiness , in fact should, be a family endeavor. If we stay close to Him we have nothing to fear and are assured of “success”, in His time, in His way.
One day when I was at Mass, I suddenly and surely felt that a distinct part of the vocation of mothers is to suffer for their children. I sincerely believe that when we unite our daily sufferings to those of Jesus on the cross, our suffering can be redemptive. Our children may be buoyed by our generosity and spirit of acceptance when they would otherwise be tempted to falter just by our offering our sufferings for them. The more children we have the more prayers we ought to be offering, and the more willing we ought to be to accept life’s little and big crosses for them. Our children’s eternal salvation may depend on it. I can’t help but think of good St. Monica who followed her selfish and sinful son to Rome, and then to Milan, literally hounding him with prayers. It is said that a bishop once said to a distraught Monica, “Surely a son of so many tears and prayers will not be lost.” And we all know the outcome of that story- St. Monica became a great saint, as did her son St. Augustine, who was also named a Doctor of the Church. . We would all do well to emulate the example of Saint Monica and be relentless prayer warriors for our children.
What Parents Should Do
There is no formula for raising good Catholic children into good Catholic adults, but we can utilize a strategy that many parents have discovered and which really isn’t that complicated. It is best remembered by thinking of the seven Rs: Receive, Read, Remember, Remain, Rely, Rejoice, Relax.
-Receive the sacraments soon and frequently. This cannot be emphasized enough. Baptize babies immediately. If Aunt Martha can’t make it for two months to see the baby, go ahead and throw the baptismal party when it’s convenient for her, but don’t postpone the sacrament to fit her or anyone’s schedule. It is most important that the child receive his baptism as soon as possible after birth. It is less important that mom is up for visitors, and more important that the baby enter the Church. On a similar note, make a family confession date every single month. Some families like to go out for ice cream afterwards or plan another little treat. The sacrament of confession is critical for the spiritual growth of everyone. We wouldn’t dream of going months without showering, which cleanses our bodies, so why should we consider going more than a month without Confession, which cleanses our souls? Last, we should take the children to Mass more than once a week on Sunday. An entire book can be written why, but suffice it to say here they will grow spiritually, learn how to better behave and we mothers will reap benefits as well.
-Read to your child. Start with simple toddler bible stories when they are small, then move on to other Catholic board books and short stories which teach the Faith in simple terms. Incorporate these into evening story time. As your child grows older, add the “real” bible, the catechism, enriching words from all sources. Take the time to teach your children simple apologetics. The complexity of the apologetics books chosen can grow with your child’s age and wisdom. Snuggling on the sofa with a good book and your child can be bonding like few things are, and will help your child grow in Faith if you choose the right reading.
-Remember that you are not alone. Your spouse is your partner in raising your child in the Faith. Daddies offer perspectives and wisdom that mommies can’t, simply because they are men and we are not. Be a team player and be open to your spouse’s ideas and suggestions.
-Remain steadfast. Endure. My husband is a golfer. He relates to life on a sport’s level. He recently put it this way: “I can control my swing and mindset on the golf course, but not the weather. It may rain. The wind may blow. I can’t control that. But I tee up the ball with the proper mindset and orchestrate the mechanics of my swing the best I can. I think positively and keep moving forward.” Life is not a game of golf, but the idea of controlling what we can and trusting the rest to God is a good plan.
-Rely on God’s good graces. Trust Him.
-Rejoice. Be thankful. Enjoy each moment, each stage and yes, each challenge. As we strive to raise our children well we will see personal growth too. God is so good.
-Relax. Give yourself a break when you need one, and find ways to spiritually re-charge. Attend a bible study at your parish alone, take time for personal prayer, or meet a like-minded friend for lunch and exchange of ideas. Try hard but don’t expect perfection right off the bat. If you falter, forgive yourself and get up and try again. Remember a fool sits enjoying a mud puddle, but an equal fool may recognize his situation yet sits and laments his fate in the puddle without trying to get out. A wise person recognizes when she is deep “in the mud”, gets up, wipes herself off (Confession) and tries again, careful to avoid the puddle the next time. An eighth “R” might also be to recognize that “success” is not measured by external cues alone. God works in mysterious ways in the deep recesses of the human soul. He is working on our children as He is working on us. Trust Him.
Prayer of Parents for Their Children
O Good God, we thank Thee, that Thou hast given us children, made them heirs of heaven by holy Baptism, and entrusted to us their training. Penetrate us with a sense of our responsibility; assist us in the care of their health, but especially in the preservation of their innocence and purity of heart. Grant that we may teach them early to know and serve Thee, and to love Thee, with their whole heart. Grant that we ourselves may carefully avoid all that we must forbid them, and may assiduously practice all that we should teach them. We commend them, O God to Thy paternal care and to the guardianship of Thy holy angels. Bless our efforts, O heavenly Father, and let our children develop to Thy honor and persevere in virtue till the end! Amen
From Handbook for Parents by Father Paul Wickens, (Neumann Press)
Theresa Thomas is the co-author Stories for the Homeschool Heart (Bezalel Books, 2010 & winner of About.com Best Catholic Book of 2010), family columnist at Today’s Catholic News and a contributing writer for the Integrated Catholic Life™.
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