The neighborhood pool is filled to almost overflowing. Chairs are scrubbed and arranged neatly on the decks; everything is at the ready. It’s nearly summertime. And just as surely as the pool will open on Memorial Day, family schedules and routines will all change with the changing season.
The time is ripe for character building. Summertime seems a natural time to me to work a little harder at instilling and refining good habits in ourselves and our children.
I’ve noted a perplexing trend in child-rearing of late. Parents, more and more, are consciously deciding that it is important to orchestrate a child’s life toward happiness. Everything a family does is directed at one goal: ensuring that the child is happy. All the time.
The problem with this parenting philosophy is that it does absolutely nothing to prepare the child for real life. Under this philosophy, a child chooses to do chores out of the goodness of his heart; he is not required to do so. He is allowed to choose how to spend his time and if he is homeschooled, what and when to study.
It is alarming to me that many Catholic parents are enthusiastically propagating this style of parenting. These parents are pursuing temporary happiness for their children but forgoing long-lasting joy. There is a big difference between happiness and joy. Joy comes when we walk in the will of God, no matter whether it makes us immediately happy or not. It surprises me that so many parents have bought this philosophy, hook, line and sinker.
It is important to train our children, to teach them what to do when every minute of the day is not fun. As parents, we need to instill a work ethic and sense of duty in our children. We can trust ourselves to makes good choices, even unpopular ones, for our children. We do this because we love them and know what is best for them. We use our perspective and maturity to make some choices for our children, even if they are unpopular choices in the short-term.
There is great value in patient persistence. And parents need huge measures of patient persistence to instill good habits in their children. Not all children are naturally inclined to be obedient, honest, loving, hardworking and courageous. But all children need to grow into adults with those virtues.
Childhood is when we can lay down the rails of good habits for our children to travel along as adults. Nineteenth century educator Charlotte Mason writes: “‘Habit is 10 natures.’ If that be true, strong as nature is, habit is not only as strong, but tenfold as strong … “But habit runs along the lines of nature: the cowardly child habitually lies that he may escape blame; the loving child has a hundred endearing habits; the good-natured child has a habit of giving; the selfish child, a habit of keeping. Habit, working thus according to nature, is simply nature in action, growing strong by exercise.
“But habit, to be the lever to lift the child must work contrary to nature, or at any rate, independently of her.”
Not all children naturally choose what is right and good for them. Very few children can stick with a task (even if it is a task they have chosen) when it becomes boring or difficult. It is a wise and observant parent who will notice and encourage the child to see it to the end. The parent might even need to require the child to complete the task. The child will learn, over time, the value of patient persistence. With the guidance of a firm and loving parent, he will learn the habits of virtue.
I have eight children (actually, I have nine, but I won’t meet one of them until December). Some of them obey rather readily. Others have had to be trained to obey. If I don’t require obedience of all of them, some of them will have no experience in obeying even when it’s not pleasant. How then, will they know how to answer cheerfully and promptly when the Holy Spirit asks them to do something they don’t want to do? They will have no practice in it. Better to require small things of small people and develop a habit of cheerful first-time obedience, than to allow them to get to adulthood and have them fail to obey when it’s a big thing God wants of them.
This summer, I’m making a list of habits we need to cultivate. I’m thinking longterm. I know what adulthood requires. The greatest gift I can give my children is to equip them to answer in holiness those requirements of a mature Christian. We have no time to waste. The time to train up a child is now.