Parental Virtues

Patience has never been my strong point, but before I became a mother, I could get by without too much trouble.  Mostly I’d get annoyed at inanimate objects or at myself, so I didn’t have to deal with a lot of confrontations.  My temper hurt no one but myself.  It went mostly unnoticed.

But, as a parent, nothing about me goes unnoticed.  Every flaw I possess has an alert, and often imitative, audience soaking everything in.  This is great for my growth in humility, but I think my patience has had the opportunity to grow even more.

A case in point: the other day, I was baking cornbread with my daughter.  I gave her an egg to crack, but she swung the butter knife a little too hard, and the whole egg landed in the bowl.  No problem.  I fished the pieces of shell out, commenting, “Good, you’re not afraid to hit it hard.  Nothing’s worse than hitting it too softly; the shell splinters into tons of little pieces, and you still don’t have an opening wide enough for the yolk to come out.”

She beats the egg.  We add melted butter and milk.  Finally she picks up the bowl of dry ingredients to pour into the egg mixture and oops! she drops the whole bowl in.

I take a deep breath, reach for the spatula and scrape the eggs and butter off of the bottom of the bowl of flour and cornmeal.  I smile at her upturned, eager face and hand her a spoon.  “Okay, now mix it together until the flour is just moist while I start washing the measuring cups.”

As I turn to the sink, I wonder how I can manage to keep teaching and watching little hands attempt what my more experienced hands long to do for them — in a much more efficient and accurate manner!  I know these were just minor irritations.  The batter didn’t land on the floor; a carton of eggs wasn’t dropped or anything like that.  But every time I let my children “help,” I risk all that happening.  And I have to relax and enjoy it, or they won’t enjoy it either. 

This is where patience comes in.  It doesn’t matter whether the children have done something naughty or simply made a mistake — often their mistakes are more annoying than their faults — my job is to stay calm, to deal with them gently but firmly.  Discipline is not a vent for my anger, but a tool for teaching sensitive, eager souls.  This is not always easy.  When our time and emotions are invested, it’s hard to remain detached.

Ah!  There’s another virtue we need — detachment from worldly cares.  Yes, I have to care less about whether the cornbread turns out well than about whether my child’s feelings are hurt.  I have to mortify my own will (but I planned to have this cornbread ready in time for tonight’s dinner) and deny our own self-love and replace it with love for my daughter.  I must consider what I will teach my child today while we’re baking.  If I snap at her because she dropped the bowl, then she’s learning that things (cornbread) are more important than people (her).  If I smile and encourage her to keep trying, she learns that she can overcome her mistakes, and that spending time with someone you love is more important than the outcome of whatever you’re doing.

I think a lot of us know all this intellectually, but we are not holy enough to internalize it.  We need to practice looking at life this way.  We need to make time in our busy schedules to pray and meditate.  This helps to form that eternal perspective which our cluttered lives need so desperately. 

One big spiritual boost we can give ourselves is to read the lives of the saints who took all the virtues we’re learning — patience, humility, detachment, mortification, charity, prayerfulness — to an extreme.  When we read the lives of the saints, we realize how self-centered and worldly our lives really are.  We do penance by giving up coffee for Lent; they fasted on herbs and water.  We struggle to keep our temper when we bump an elbow; they would “use the discipline” — a euphemism for self-flagellation.  We pride ourselves on shopping for modest, but comfortable clothes; they wore hairshirts.  We try to bite back an uncharitable word; they embraced lepers.

We don’t need to imitate the extreme austerities of the saints, but we do need to acquire their virtues.  Humility, patience, detachment, mortification, piety, charity — all these we need to cultivate to be good parents — because to be a good parent is to become a saint.

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