Have you ever heard this (supposedly) true story? Once there was a woman who cut the front part off her ham before placing it in the oven. The woman's daughter asked her, "Mommy, why do you cut off the front part of the ham?" The mother thought for a minute and said, "Well, I don't know. I suppose I do it because my mother always did. I'm sure she had a good reason. I'll have to ask her why." The next Sunday she visited her mother, the child's grandmother. "Mom," asked the mother, "Why did you always cut off the front part of the Christmas ham? The older woman sat and thought a moment. "Well, I'm not sure. I did it because my mother always did. Why don't we ask her?" Granny was sitting by the window in the living room when the three generations of women approached her. "We have to know," said the mother, "why you always cut the front part of the ham off before putting it in the oven?" "What?" asked the old woman, moving closer to hear more clearly. "Why do you cut off the end of the ham before baking it in the oven?" they repeated. "We know there must be a very good reason. Do the juices flow better? Do you get a better flavor? Does it cook more evenly?" The old woman laughed. "Oh, no, no, no, dear," she said. "It's simpler than that. Cutting off the end of the ham was the only way it could fit in my little oven."
This story illustrates how much we are creatures of generational habit. Sometimes we do things just because they were always done that way. When we do something the way our parents did it, we feel comforted and familiar. Again and again, unknowingly most of the time, we repeat history just because somewhere in our unconscious we had something modeled to us and it seemed natural for us to do. That is why we see certain patterns repeat themselves in families — high academic or athletic performance, for example. It is also why we talk about things like the "cycle" of child abuse. The molds can be broken, and negative cycles and patterns can be changed but usually this must be preceded by conscious recognition of the cycles and patterns and a desire to do better.
Good Catholics would never dream of abusing their children, but what are we modeling, unknowingly, to them? Impatience? Rudeness? Endurance? Hope? Acceptance? Love? Chances are we are modeling a variety of characteristics at any given moment, and we may not realize the grand significance of all our actions until years to come.
Every Saturday my daughter Rachel, age 9, helps me sweep our generous front porch, and the overhang, and scrub the railings and wash the door and cement. After a soapy wash we have fun spraying off the bubbles with an attachment on the hose. My penchant for cleanliness definitely comes from my mother. Her mother used to wash her porch too, every Saturday, after the grass was cut and the yard picked up. I know from where my porch cleaning habits come.
But what about my other habits: My reaction to a surprise challenge? How I greet my children each day? Do I hum and exude an air of openness as I work, or scurry about frantically and remain unapproachable? When I was growing up my parents had the reminder, "Children Learn What They Live" hanging on the refrigerator door. I pull it out periodically to assess how I am doing and to see what my children may be learning from me. You've probably read it before, but it's good to contemplate again. Hopefully, doing so will spur on some good habits that go beyond trimming the ham or sweeping the porch. It may help secure a happy and healthy future for generations to come.
Children Learn What They Live
If a child lives with criticism, he learns to condemn.
If a child lives with hostility, she learns to fight.
If a child lives with ridicule, he learns to be shy.
If a child lives with shame, she learns to feel guilty.
If a child lives with tolerance, he learns to be patient.
If a child lives with encouragement, she learns confidence.
If a child lives with praise, he learns to appreciate.
If a child lives with fairness, she learns justice.
lf a child lives with security, he learns faith.
If a child lives with approval, she learns to like herself.
If a child lives with acceptance and friendship, he learns to find love in the world.