Programming Our Children

Amy Welborn is a columnist for Our Sunday Visitor and Catholic News Service and a regular contributer to the Living Faith quarterly devotional.

I happened to be in one of the definitely upscale stores in this slightly upscale mall the other day. It’s the kind of department store in which they individually wrap each of your purchases in tissue paper, all in the name of “customer service” while you're wishing to heaven they'd just throw the stuff in the bag and let you and the seemingly-hundred pound baby on your arm the heck out of there.

Such stores are not my usual haunts. I was there looking for a birthday gift for my about-to-be ten year old daughter, hoping I could find some clothes for her that were a) on the clearance rack and b) not inspired by Britney Spears.

I found what I was looking for, and while I was waiting for the tissue paper to be folded just so and trying to contain the increasingly impatient baby, I couldn’t help but notice the woman being waited on by the other clerk. She was tall, with stiff blonde hair framing her face, well-turned out (of course), a couple of years older than I (at least she looked to be in her mid-forties), with a husband and a little girl who seemed to be around three.

She was buying. And buying and buying. She was also taking in the clerk’s compliments about her daughter.

“She is such a … little girl, ” the clerk was cooing. We all know what she meant by that, right?

She meant, “She’s obviously already extremely conscious of her appearance, and geared towards making others aware of it, too.”

“Oh yes,” the mother agreed, “And I'm trying to make her that way on purpose. I want her to love frills and lace. She loves make-up and all that stuff. I had one of the cosmetic clerks give her a little makeover downstairs – she loved it! I'm so relieved. I'm really trying to program her to love it all.”


Can we take a vote?

How many of us, hearing this story, would pay money to be present the day, fifteen years hence, when this little girl, hair cropped short, face washed clean, symbolically burns the frills of her girlhood before packing her overalls and leaves for a mountain commune, leaving her mother wondering what she spent all that time and money on – including the (get ready) $318.00 she spent back on a morning in September, 2001.

On some level, many of us dearly wish we could program our children. Program them not to “forget” to pick up their towels from the bathroom floor. Program them to be perfect students. Program them to be Catholics forever and ever, amen.

We think we wish, that is.

For to see the folly and even the darkness in any desire to “program” children, we need only turn the tables, and consider our own grown-up selves.

Are we, as adults, exactly the people our parents wanted us to be?

Did we not, at one time, give as good as we’re getting now? Haven’t we surprised our own parents, followed paths they warned against, shaped our lives in accordance to what our own consciences tell us, rather than what the other voices in our head demand?

How many people do you know who’ve spent a lifetime trying to undo the damage of parental “programming?”

Anyone who’s tried to walk it knows that the line between responsible nurturing of a child’s character and “programming” is a fine one. We owe it to the little unformed souls given to us by God to share His love and truth with them. That vocation is about preparing the ground of a child’s spirits and sensibilities so that they can recognize the voice of God, calling them to be the people He wants them to be.

But “programming” is something different. It’s not about the child, and it’s not about God – except to the degree that we put ourselves in God’s place, determined that our child should be in our image, not God’s.

As I write this, my six-month old is sitting in the seat that hangs from the doorframe, jumping merrily, gnawing on toys, stopping only to squeal in delight at this new game of bouncing, bouncing, bouncing. There are many things I know I must teach him, and I will, and every morning I pray for the grace and wisdom to parent him and all my children as I should, as God would use me to work in their lives.

But “program?” The look in my baby’s eyes, twinkling, and fully his own self, dare me to just try it. He won’t be bought.

Not for anything – not even for $318.00, I daresay.

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