Catholic Spirituality, Culture of Death, Family Life, mental health, Parenting, politics, sin, Suffering

As a parent, you have one job

December 16, 2016

(I mean, aside from the obvious keep them alive/fed/clothed and try your hardest to get them to Heaven part. Does that go without saying?)

I had someone make the following bold statement to me earlier this year, and it rocked me to my core:

your primary job as parents is to provide and secure the peace in your home.

You know who I thought about when I reflected on that statement? I thought about the dad from “Life is Beautiful.” I thought about his heroic, self-sacrificing and odds-defying performance to erect a brave and shining barrier of innocence over his little boy in the midst of unimaginable horror. As the world literally crumbled around him, his father shielded him as best he could not only from physical harm (and over this realm he had very little control, truly) but perhaps even more critically in their circumstances, from emotional harm.

I feel like we modern parents tend to kind of do the opposite. Whether it’s because many of us were ourselves exposed to pain or danger or brokenness in our family of origin, or because we watched so many of our friends go through hell as kids, many of our generation of parents seem to be questing after some vague sense of authenticity or relatability with their own offspring that is going over, frankly, like a lead balloon.

On the one hand I can understand the earnest desire to be open and honest and reliable with our children, but on the other hand, my kids are going to learn soon enough about the heartache, the danger, and the sin in this world, and it actually isn’t my job to sit them down and tutor them in it.

Because the world is a cruel place. Kids get sick and die. They get abused. Their families fall apart and bombs fall on their cities and their friend’s dads leave their friend’s moms, and vice versa.

But they needn’t know every excruciating detail.

In fact, if and to whatever extent we can possibly spare them the details, I believe it is our sacred duty as parents.

Right now bombs are falling on children the same ages as mine in Aleppo. As Christians, we need to fall on our knees and pray for those affected, and give material aid to reputable organizations (highly recommend the Catholic Near East Welfare Society) who can deliver food and medicine and shelter on the ground. But my kids, at ages 1,3,4, and 6, do not need any details about the tragic circumstances in Syria. They should not be watching the bodycounts scroll by on the news, or listen to me listening to NPR within earshot.

It is essential, in fact, that I shield them from the horror of war and human cruelty as much as possible during their formative years.

Our children will absolutely learn that the world is not a perfect place. That people sin. That people hurt each other. That sometimes kids get hurt, too. But it is critical to their development into healthy, functional human beings that we don’t saddle them with that knowledge prematurely.

When my 6 year old asks why we pray for babies in mommies’ tummies to be safe, that does not open the door for a frank conversation about abortion. If he explicitly asks what abortion is (as has happened before), I deflect and say that sometimes babies get hurt, and that not everybody believes that every human being has the same rights. And then I change the topic.

(I take a similar tack with the sexual curiosity stuff, not because sex is bad in any way! But because it’s not developmentally appropriate for him nor is it necessary that he know the nitty gritty.) Allowing our children to ask questions and answering them in a way that is both honest and honoring of their developmental stage and age is a tricky line, and it’s one I’m learning to walk with some trial and error as the months and years roll by.

I had a little friend of my kids’ come to me earlier this month with a tearful story about another family’s deep pain, their disintegrating home life, and the fear this child felt about the whole situation. As I tried my best to toe the line of appropriateness with a child who is not my own, I reassured this little one that this wasn’t their burden to bear, and encouraged them to give the situation over to Jesus as much as possible and to let the grown ups handle grown up stuff. Because kids have their own work to do that is perfectly suited to being a kid.

I have no idea how effective that was, but my heart ached for the burden this child had been asked to carry, inadvertently or not. There were gruesome and salacious details in the story that could have come from a prime time drama, and this little person’s eyes were filled with tears over it.

This is not okay. And whether our kids are getting it from overhearing us having inappropriate adult conversations within earshot, or by watching programing that is explicitly not suitable for children, or even just hearing an earful from one side of a phone conversation when we think they aren’t paying attention, (they are. Ask me how I know.) we have to be so, so mindful of our duty to them.

Their innocences is our business. And maintaining that innocence requires sacrifices on our parts.

I can’t listen to whatever music I like in the car anymore. Do I still love Dave Matthews Band and Adele? Yep. But I don’t need the 4 year old asking me what does it mean to send your love to your new lover, mommy? just because I couldn’t be bothered to switch on KLove or change the CD during carpool pickup.

I can’t watch shows depicting adult themes and filled with violence and horror when they’re awake. (Should I be watching those shows, period? That’s another post for another day.)

I shouldn’t have sensitive, nuanced conversations about world affairs and politics and war and unrest in earshot of my kindergartener, who has the right to experience the world from a disposition of curiosity and wonder. Soon enough he will know of hatred, bigotry, war, and gruesome suffering. My job is to mold his little heart and soul to be receptive to a good God Who alone can heal those division and redeem that pain. And to ensure, to the best of my ability, that he grows to become an honorable man who will do his part to create beauty and goodness in this world. A child who is robbed of a childhood, who does not have the opportunity to encounter beauty and goodness, is unlikely to grow up to be this kind of adult.

We need to be so careful and so conscientious of their environments. To the best of our abilities. What they’re watching, what they’re reading, whom they’re spending time with and what they’re listening to. And, ahem – looking into the mirror – what kinds of things their parents do or say when they’re stressed, angry, overwhelmed or in pain.

I can just as easily make a chink in their armor with a careless word or an exhausted scream of frustration and anger. And then, when it is I myself who have disturbed the peace in our home, I must kneel down at eye level and humbly ask forgiveness from the little one who depends upon me to keep this space sacred, to keep it safe.

Please hear this: This is in no way an attack on parents whose children have been exposed to violence or inadvertent abuse of any kind. We live in a broken world filled with pain, and the smallest victims are the most tragic. Our little family has not been spared from heartache.

But it is our job as mothers and as fathers to help our children to feel as safe and as secure as possible while they are small. The world outside can wait, and time will ensure that it does not, not for long.

We must take up the mantel of adulthood and respect the profound dignity of the child and the sacred charge that we grown ups have to protect them from evil.

Even if the evil is becoming the norm, all around us.

In our homes, at least, let them feel safe, insulated against the harsh elements in our own little Nazareth, growing and learning and developing all they will need to navigate adulthood. Which will come soon enough.

one job

17 Comments

  • Reply Emily December 16, 2016 at 2:36 pm

    Have you read Simplicity Parenting (Kim John Payne)? He advocates for the type of protected childhood that you are describing, and the experiences he shares about kids he has treated (not those who have experienced specific traumatic experiences, just the trauma of living in the modern adult world) are mind-blowing. I highly recommend the book!

  • Reply Cami December 16, 2016 at 2:58 pm

    My husband and I have studied trauma a lot. The comment stating that children are resilient is used far too often to excuse a lack of protection. We do what we can in our family. But many parents just don’t have it on their radar.

  • Reply Jen @ Into Your Will December 16, 2016 at 3:28 pm

    This is perfect timing for me as just earlier today my 4-year old noticed the picture of an in utero baby on a memorial grave for aborted babies at church and started asking about it. I’ve been thinking about this whole protecting-our-children topic lately too since my son has been asking SO MANY questions about all kinds of things and it’s hard to know exactly how much to share. Thank you for this! I’ll be making my hubby read it later 🙂

  • Reply Jessica December 16, 2016 at 3:38 pm

    This really resonates with another blog post I read, on how a mom teaches her second-grader the meaning of the sixth commandment (thou shall not commit adultery). She doesn’t like translating it into “be pure” because 7 year olds can’t *chose* to be impure anyway — anything that happens in that realm is beyond their consent/understanding. Instead, she tells them that it is a commandment that tells moms and dads that they have to make their families the most important thing, and that God made this commandment in order to protect children.
    She explains it much better, but that’s the gist of it! http://arlinghaus.typepad.com/blog/2016/11/children-safety-and-the-sixth-commandment.html

  • Reply Julie December 16, 2016 at 3:46 pm

    Thanks, Jenny! We really need to be reminded of this (I really needed to be reminded of this!). With my kids age 22 to 5, sometimes I don’t even notice when I’m talking about things I shouldn’t be with my smaller ones! Thank you, thank you!

  • Reply jeanette December 16, 2016 at 3:51 pm

    Two comments: one on your post and one on helping Syria.

    I agree with you that CNEWA is an excellent organization, and I have contributed to them for many, many years. I also would recommend Caritas Internationalis (and they work with regions throughout the world, directly with the Church in the locale where the aid is needed to reach the people). They are actively helping in Syria.

    Yes, Life is Beautiful is a perfect example of the length to which this father went to shield his son. Have watched it a few times in English and Italian (and you have to watch it in Italian…) and love it very much.

    I agree 100% with your post. You do an excellent job of pointing out so many of the ways we potentially expose children. However, spouses are not always on the same page on this goal of protecting innocence, so the first step is for spouses to discuss the importance of it and agree to it. But if you can’t agree, you can still do your part and make your position known to your spouse.

    In our home, my husband was a TV watcher and I was not. So, the rule was, if the TV was on, the kids were not to be in that room with him. It was up to him to choose whether it was more important to sit in front of the TV or spend time with the kids. It was rare for them to watch TV, but if the kids watched something appropriate for them on commercial television, such as the Olympics, they were to turn around during commercials and the commercials were muted and we would use it as a time to talk together about what we had viewed so far. It was a simple way of handling the TV and made good use of the mute button. By the way, the worst commercials are often “news” updates.

    As for the radio, I didn’t use the radio in the car, but he did. So with Daddy, you were going to get to hear the songs he loved and all of the associated commercials and get your ears filled with things mom never would expose you to because of your tender age.

    But yes, there are those outside your secure home who don’t get it. Such as the school. When the Gulf war started, my son’s public school kindergarten teacher decided she was going to talk about it to her little 5 year old students. Didn’t ask us first, didn’t tell us what was said. Who knows. And I wonder if what she said affected him enough to later on join the war in Iraq. Who knows. What I do know is that it shocked us that he joined to serve in a war (and he became a medic, because as he said at the time, he didn’t want to kill anyone…). And he was not unscathed by that experience.

    So, we can do our best to shield their innocence, and rightly so, but others can be pretty unaware of what they are exposing children to or flat out undermine your effort. At least we can try to minimize it in whatever way we are able to. We can pray for the shielding of their innocence, too.

  • Reply Veronica December 16, 2016 at 4:15 pm

    I actually struggle with this quite a lot. My kid are media-sheltered to the point of being little eccentrics.

    However, when I see “the right to experience the world from a disposition of curiosity and wonder,” my kneejerk reaction is, “Well, why do my kids have that “right,” when children in Syria or the Philippines or Thailand or Somalia clearly don’t?”

    I think that The Walking Dead and Grand Theft Auto is probably bad for the average person, child or not. But there is something to be said for allowing in some *real world* situations to filter in, even for the very young. And to allow some dragons and witches into your fairy tales.

    My son got a board book as a gift when he was a baby. “This Little Piggie.” But one of them “had fun,” instead of “got none.” When I heard about the college students needing coloring books and puppy therapy, all I could think about was that little piggie.

    • Reply Bernadette December 16, 2016 at 6:03 pm

      Veronica, I agree that it is heartbreaking that so many children aren’t and cannot be sheltered from the evil in this world … But I still have to feeel that, as much as is possible, it is still important and worthwhile to shelter our children from that evil. A similar example might be that there are many malnourished and starving children right here in my city — but I am still feeding my children an abundance of healthy food. There are children here, and all over the world, without access to proper medical and dental care — but I still take my children in, and am grateful we have insurance. It doesn’t mean we tune out the sorrow of the world, that we don’t pray, volunteer, donate, etc. — but I very firmly believe the way to rise compassionate children is to introduce them to things in an age appropriate way, preserving that wonder, innocence, and trust, as much as possible, so that they believe in goodness and want to work toward it, rather than being jaded by horror by the time it would be appropriate for them to be learning about it.

      I totally agree with you about dragons, etc., because it is exactly in story format (and preferably not accompanied by illustrations, at least not gruesome ones), that children can and should encounter these sorts of things. Stories give shape, resolution, the “knowledge that the dragon can be defeated” (to paraphrase Chesterton.) And our little piggy definitely gets none here 😉

      I really recommend the book mentioned by an earlier commenter, Simplicity Parenting that talks about this. He puts it better than I can!

  • Reply Caroline December 16, 2016 at 4:34 pm

    I agree- they will find out soon enough. Definitely do not let kids listen to immoral stuff on the radio/TV. We always make my kids turn away from the TV when commercials come on when we watch the one and only TV show on TV (AFV).

    However, one of the many things for which I am grateful to my parents is that they did speak of world events, even bad ones. For certain I was at least about 7 or 8 when I heard about wars, organized crime, the spread of communism, and the horrors it brought. It did give me a sense of good vs. evil, and the awareness that I was indeed very fortunate to be living in the good Catholic home my parents provided for us. It also helped me (I believe) develop a practical sense of what kind of people are to be avoided.

  • Reply Laura December 16, 2016 at 10:12 pm

    Building this shelter within the family is a beautiful thing, because soon our kids *will* have to learn about our confused world, and a strong, Comforting framework will already be in place. My oldest is 8 and asking some big questions- why is Donald Trump bad? (lots of election chatter at school) Does he hate Mexicans? He’s wondering about how the baby will emerge from my stomach. If he can read Harry Potter. Why a boy at the play cafe is wearing a shirt saying “i love my two moms.”
    It dawned on me this summer that if I don’t start to cover some these topics, and instead ignore them, he will learn from somebody else first. It’s a tricky place to be. But if the framework is in place and you can introduce tricky topics in bite-sized pieces, all the better.

    • Reply jeanette December 19, 2016 at 5:05 pm

      I really don’t envy parents these days. The topics you have to address as your children grow older are in many ways more difficult than ever before and often arise before the age where it is appropriate. But with God’s grace, you can do it.

      It is always best to respond to a child’s questions in a way that is simple, direct, and concise (i.e. don’t give more information than they are asking for). If they are asking, they are thinking. If the situation is such that the conversation should be postponed so you have time to think through your answer first, do it. Tell them, “We will talk about it tonight when I tuck you in bed” or some other definite time. And follow through (or ask them to remind you!). And throw in a little prayer for the Holy Spirit to guide you. Sometimes the best way to answer a question is to ask a question. You can probe their knowledge first and also help them think through an answer based on what they already know about the world.

      One child may have a lot of questions about babies, for instance, and another have more questions about something else . So each child has a different set of questions. If you make a habit of answering their questions, they will make a habit of asking you what is on their mind rather than turning elsewhere, as you said.

      You are right that sometimes you have to get things going. If they don’t ask, you can find gentle ways to bring things up that are age appropriate. “Have you ever wondered why…have you ever heard about…do you ever hear people talk about” are all good openers.

      I think it is okay, too, to tell your child when you don’t think something is an age appropriate topic. You can suggest that understanding a particular thing is beyond their ability at this age, but as soon as they get a little older, they will understand it much better. You can still try to answer in a brief way that satisfies their question without going too far over their heads.

      I think it is also okay in moral areas to tell them what you believe without trying to explain what others may believe…simply let them know that not all people believe the same things because not all people have learned about how God wants them to follow His ways. Letting them know that your beliefs are founded on doing things God’s way is important. Older children are the ones who really need to understand the difference between how you think and how others think in moral areas. Little ones are content to know the simple answer.

  • Reply Lyssa December 18, 2016 at 5:13 am

    This is so beautiful! Just like everything else you write. Yes yes yes! To all of it!

  • Reply Michele December 18, 2016 at 9:20 am

    Sooo good, Jenny! (As always.) We do the same thing. With abortion, we usually say, “Some Mommies are scared or nervous about having a baby. We pray for them not to feel scared!”

  • Reply Bley December 20, 2016 at 4:04 am

    Couldn’t agree more!

  • Reply The English Major December 20, 2016 at 11:46 am

    I think one could draw a distinction here about what it means to preserve peace in the home. Children are often irrepressibly curious, especially about those things we really don’t want to tell them. I totally agree that they should be sheltered from overheard conversations and personal adult strife, but I’m not so sure about sheltering them completely from things of the world. When abortion comes up, I tell them a bit about it and we pray for mothers and their babies. While I don’t go out of my way to talk about current events, we don’t ignore them, and we talk about the political scene, about not believing everything the media says, about seeing things from more than one angle. And we pray for our politicians and the government. We don’t watch the news with them, because they truly don’t need to know every terrible thing that happens–frankly, neither do we adults–but I would rather they talk to me about what they do encounter or hear about, and in my experience they ask me because they know I will give them a straight answer, according to what they can understand. For the average child in a healthy home, knowing there is evil in the world does not disturb him so much as the uncertainty generated by a sense that mom and dad are trying to hide something. As they grow up, they should have a well-developed sense of good and evil. This they get from stories, fairy tales, catechism, and, yes, learning about the world, our fallen broken world, as it is. If you start with the reality of the spiritual–the battle of the angels, perhaps?– the confidence of a child will surprise you. They are much better than we are at trusting God and speaking truth.

  • Reply Marcy December 20, 2016 at 7:44 pm

    Thanks English Major! I completely agree. Sadly my children know evil exists, even if its just from Bible stories such as Pharoah or Herod killing all the babies. And they know babies are still killed today. My children are afraid of pooh bear episodes, so they aren’t desensitized to violence, but they know evil exists and to stay the heck away from it.

  • Reply Mandi December 29, 2016 at 6:06 am

    Reading your first paragraph made me sad because my husband and I are about to be certified as foster parents and yeah, for many parents it doesn’t go without saying to provide for their child’a basic needs.

    We’ve thought about this a lot since our children will most likely be exposed to a lot of things they wouldn’t otherwise through the foster children we bring into our home. We are only open to taking small children partially for this reason but a 3 year old in foster care usually has a lot of stories to tell anyway (no one is trying to protect these kids from evil, unfortunately). Even just the idea of children who have to stay with us because they can’t be with mommy and daddy is a foreign concept to my Lucia is who very much loved and protected. We feel very called to do foster care and to do it now instead of waiting until our children are grown, but we are concerned about how it will affect our babies. We may have to be more selective about our placements as we see how it all shakes out in our home in order to protect our kids.

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