I’ve gotten several e-mails recently asking parenting advice. I don’t know if I’ll ever be comfortable answering those requests. I’m learning as I go and I don’t presume to know enough to comment on someone else’s home situation with an authority at all, particularly when all I know is what I read in an e-mail.
All I can do is offer observations from experience gained in more than 20 years of parenting a large family. From my own experience, in my own house, my overriding parenting principle is to stay close to your children and to stay close to God. It’s simple advice, but not easy advice.
In the excellent book, Hold On to Your Kids, the authors write:
“No matter what problem or issue we face in parenting, our relationship with our children should be the highest priority. Children do not experience our intentions, no matter how heartfelt. They experience what we manifest in tone and behavior. We cannot assume that children will know what our priorities are: we live our priorities.
“Many a child for whom the parents feel unconditional love receives the message that this love is very conditional indeed … unconditional acceptance is the most difficult to convey exactly when it is most needed: when our children have disappointed us, violated our values or made themselves odious to us. Precisely at such times, we must indicate, in word or gesture, that the child is more important than what he does.”
There are two aspects to staying attached to children that I want to unpack from that quote. And then, I’ll look at staying close to God.
The first aspect of attachment is that we absolutely have to be honest with the way we spend our time. If our families are our first priority, then we need to devote more time and attention to them than anything else (except Our Lord — but I think we serve God when we serve our families). That means that every time we are presented with a choice about how to spend time — and there are countless times every single day — we choose according to priority. It’s not a stretch to say that most parents don’t do this. They choose work. They choose adult social relationships. They choose hobbies.
“But I need to work to support them!” goes up the cry. “But I need friends, too!” “But I need to pursue a creative outlet or a sport of my own.” Of course you do. So do I. It’s disordered, however, to ignore our children in order to support them. It’s ridiculous to spend more time developing and nurturing relationships with our neighbors, while our precious child gets the leftovers of our social attention. It’s silly to devote time to creative or athletic endeavors to the neglect of the children we co-created with God. It is up to each of us to discern if we truly manage our time according to our professed priorities.
The second aspect of attachment addressed in the quote is the idea that we love our children even when we don’t love what they do. This seems so simple and every parent I know would affirm that they do, indeed, love their children unconditionally. But many a child would tell you that they don’t know that.
I was in a fast food restaurant the other day. I spoke with six of my children at the table before leaving them to go order our food. I made my expectations for behavior clear. This was one of those times when all the stars lined up and every single one of them was good as gold. Sometimes, it happens. Actually, often it happens, and it has very little to do with the stars and everything to do with how hard we work as a family at behaving well so that we can all enjoy each other. The man in the booth next to them was not enjoying his children. And he told them so. He pointed to mine and asked his why they couldn’t be more like mine. Then, he looked at me and said, “You’re really lucky. You have good kids.”
I caught the eyes of his children and I wanted to cry. His implication was that he did not have good kids. I am certain that this man loved his kids, but if I had been his child at that moment, I would have asked myself if my dad valued me at all or if he valued some stranger’s children more than me.
One thing is certain: I wouldn’t be inclined to go out of my way to be particularly well-behaved for him. If he acted that way often enough, I’d just give up, resign myself to never “winning” his love and move on to other relationships. The best case scenario would find me flourishing in a relationship of well-expressed unconditional love away from my father. The worst case scenario would find me in a string of hurtful relationships. Chances are good I’d not be inclined to behave well.
The point is that everything we say and every behavior we manifest toward our children has an effect on them for good or ill. They feel and absorb our every action. We need to act with them in mind, every single time. Parenting with empathy is good parenting. Period.
We need to stay close to our children and we need to stay close to God. Attachment parenting requires sacrifice. God is the expert at sacrifice. There is no mentor better than Christ on the cross. We are good parents when we embrace our vocations with our whole beings; when we see that there is no greater privilege than to be someone’s parents; when we love wholeheartedly, unabashedly and with the self-donation of the Savior Himself.