Parenthood made simple? - Cardinal Newman Society

Parenthood made simple?

Many of my former students are now raising young (and rapidly expanding!) families. My definition of whether we are successful as a Catholic school is not what college they get into, or how much their annual salary is, but how are my graduates as adults. Are they active in their Faith? Are they faithful to their vocations? Are they still joyful?

The first generation of graduates are doing well, it seems. They are doing those good things. They are thoughtful Catholics, whether as priests, religious or parents. That means they are moving forward purposefully and fulfilling their vocations in a thinking manner. Not highfalutin philosophizing, but thinking in terms of wisdom.

Since this article is about parents specifically, this might be thought of as an open letter to my alumni who are in the stages of child rearing. I have good news for them – parenting is much easier than they might think.

Here, then, is my letter to young parents:

Dear alumni who are now parents:

Good news. Parenting is simple. There are only two basic rules.

  1. Love your spouse first. Give your children a good marriage.
  2. Your second duty as a parent boils down to this, determine your child’s chief natural virtue and their principal vice. Help them understand their responsibility to use the former to lift all as they go through life. Then, spend your entire parenting years helping them develop habits which they can draw on to overcome their principal natural vice.

Other than that, lots of love, some food and changing diapers, and you will be in good shape.

Have fun!

Your favorite headmaster.

P. S. Simple, right?

Well, as always, the devil is in the details.

The details, it seems, continually go back to the food, changing diapers, stopping bickering, trips to the ER, making the mortgage, who does the dishes on Wednesday, and a myriad other “daily duties.” Yet, these daily duties are in many ways the sum and substance of our vocation. It is important, therefore, that we not dismiss them or consider them unimportant. If we do so, we ignore the basic human elements and responsibilities of our life. As Padre Pio is famous for saying, “duty above all else, even something holy.” Or, in the wisdom of St. Jose Maria Escriva, “first the man, then the saint.”

Yes, these are important, even essential. For without being attentive to all those small, human, daily duties our lives can drift into becoming disordered and haphazard, just managing each and every need and crisis as it comes along. There is enough of that that forces its way into our lives anyway, so we need to be purposeful about all the other regular duties.

And yet, we do have to keep an eye on the purpose of it all. The reason we do change those diapers, head to little league or teach our teen to drive is because we are raising them to become good, responsible, healthy adults. And there is that rub.

For my whole career in school administration, I have had a plaque on my desk that reads, “It is better to build children than to repair men.” Many prospective parents have signed up for the school based on that sign, and countless of my graduates have recalled that quote to me in later years. It is a philosophy which should not be ignored – especially for a Catholic parent or educator.

Our “end” for raising children is to get them to heaven. Every other item, while necessary to human life on this planet, is only subservient to this greater goal. Therefore, parents of babies, young children, teens, and emerging adults need to see the importance of raising and forming them to get to heaven. This means that parents need to, from the earliest of ages, be attentive to their child’s actions and disposition and see the natural virtues and vices that bubble forth from them. The entire rearing of children, then, needs to be guided by this information such that the child’s virtues are built up, for it is these gifts from God that he will use to bring other souls to heaven. And, of equal importance, although it is probably a bigger challenge, the child needs to be aware of his weaknesses and the parents need to spend years helping build habits in the child that will help them manage what will likely be a life-long battle with his fallen nature.

As adults, all we need to recall is how many times, for how many years, we seem to confess the same or similar sin. It is our life’s challenge. We can, and should give our children the best gift of childhood, and that is habits needed to battle that weakness. They may stray, like us. But, to paraphrase Proverbs, train them up in the way they should… and they will come back to it.

This basic parenting help is also a powerful weapon of honesty in giving our children the best chance when considering them in school, too. Parents who are keenly aware of their children’s virtues and vices are refreshingly honest and helpful when it comes to troubles in school. When parents come in to discuss their child, and they have this basic parenting skill, immediate and great results happen. My wife, who teaches the children in grades K and 1, has uncanny accuracy in helping me deal with middle or high school students – because she taught them! She has this skill in spades, and she is able to hone in on a child’s natural gifts and challenges keenly. She also knows that much of that stays with a child. That does not make them destined or doomed, it just means that is their general package of gifts and challenges. That is what will make them a unique saint, as they traverse life with their own God-given talents and natural faults that they can manage. St. Jerome turned his anger issues into the Latin translating of the bible. A quick read of most saints will show how they did similar things.

This basic, simple rule of parenting is just that, basic and simple. And this is what God has in mind for us as teachers and parents as we work together in the effort to create saints. Just don’t forget it when you come out from the laundry room and see the new Sharpie-bedecked wall art from your toddler and four-year old.

MICHAEL J. VAN HECKE, M.Ed., a seasoned headmaster and educational speaker, is also the founder and president of The Institute for Catholic Liberal Education and the Catholic Textbook Project. In their spare time, he and his wife farm avocados.

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