Children watch everything their parents do. It is uncanny how much they learn simply through observation. Think of the song, "Cat’s in the Cradle" by Harry Chapin. The song depicts a father who, despite his desire to love and be with his son, never found the time to actually do so. The song ends with the stinging realization, “And as I hung up the phone it occurred to me, he'd grown up just like me. My boy was just like me.”
Parents really are the primary educators for their children. And they want to do what is best for their children. Unfortunately, most parents are unsure of what it takes to be both the first and best teacher in their family. According to both the Church and current social research, the first and most important action parents can undertake is to be an authentic parent.
To understand authentic parenting more fully, a clear definition of ‘authentic’ is needed. The word is widely defined as genuine, worthy of trust, reliable, true. This would mean that a parent who is authentic is trustworthy, credible and true. The root of ‘authentic’ comes from the word “author” which also means “creator.” We call any person or object authentic when it can be traced back ultimately to the author from whom it professes to emanate. Clearly, an authentic parent is one who can be traced back to His Creator. Thus, the core of authentic parenting is based on one’s ability to be like God.
Authentic parents do what God does – they love. The love they show is caught by their children in three ways. First, children will know love through their parent’s example (what they see in their parents). Secondly, children will know love through their parent’s practice (what they are repeatedly called to do). Finally, children will know love through their parent’s word (verbal explanations of what they see and are called to do).
The journey of becoming an authentic parent is challenging. Rest assured that children are not expecting immediate success or perfection. Rather, they want to trust that you will always point them towards what is right and good. They want to be able to easily trace who you are and what you do to God.
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In 2003, the Institute for American Families published a report called Hardwired to Connect. This study was filed by the Commission on Children at Risk - a team of 33 medical doctors, research scientists and mental health and youth services professionals. The group concluded that the rising rate of mental problems and emotional distress among U.S. children and adolescents has been caused by a lack of connectedness in two areas: close connections children have to other people and deep connections children have to moral and spiritual meaning.
These findings substantially affirm the words of Genesis “it is not good for man to be alone” (Gn 2:18) and Catholic Church teachings that we are called to be a Eucharistic People. Clearly, we need God and each other to flourish as human persons.
According to Church teaching, the family is the normal and best place for children to connect. It is the first community that a child will come to know and it is the best place to nurture the child’s God-given nature. This tenet of our faith is upheld by the aforementioned study which confirmed that the most significant attachments children make are with their parents. The second most important are those formed with extended family members and then those forged with those in the broader community. Clearly, family matters more than most of us can imagine.
Connectedness is time dependent. It is not a hit and miss activity. It implies a commitment to be consistently present in the life of the child. This means that as a parent, one has to expend more effort to participate in the life of the child than to provide for the child’s well-being. This may be a shift in thinking for Moms and Dads who are working long, hard hours in an effort to provide what they believe is best for the child. In reality, what is truly best is to give the child more of your presence and time rather than more gifts or scheduled activities.
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Parents who are authentic and who connect with their children are well on their way to developing a sense of trust and security. According to Erik Erickson’s basic psychological theory the first stage of child social development is trust. When the parents present consistent, adequate, and nurturing care, the child develops basic trust and realizes that people are dependable and the world can be a safe place. The child develops a sense of hope and confidence; this is a belief that things will work out well in the end. However, when the parents fail to provide these things, the child develops basic mistrust, resulting in depression, withdrawal, and maybe even paranoia.
The optimum way to develop a sense of trust in children is for the parents to trust each other deeply. In Familiaris Consortio, Pope John Paul II stated that the love between the parents is the foundation on which the family’s relationships are built. The deep community of the parents links the individuals not only to each other but also to Christ. In this way, the family can take on the name of the domestic church – or the church of the home.
The U.S. government program called Building Strong Families found that a child raised in a family led by both biological parents who are in a committed, low conflict marriage will experience that highest level of well-being. Why is this? The group states that the presence of marital trust provides the lowest level of stress for the child that translates into a high level of trust and security. This makes sense when you go back to the known fact that children watch every move a parent makes. When a child observes daily trust between his parents, he will be secure and view the world as a good place.
The question needs to be asked, “What happens if a child isn’t being raised in a family that is built upon a marriage between his biological parents? Will this child be able to flourish?” Many children of unwed couples flourish, but research shows that on average they are at greater risk than children growing up with their married biological parents of living in poverty and developing social, behavioral and academic problems. This means that single parents have a lot more work to do. They don't need to do it alone, though. They can turn to their Catholic community for help and support.
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A child was doing her best to be naughty and earned herself a time out. The mother escorted the child to the corner and told the child to sit on the floor. The little girl refused to sit which resulted in the mother firmly guiding the little lady into the sitting position. The girl turned and looked at her mother and said, “You can make my body sit, but in my mind, I am standing!”
Obviously, there can be a world of difference between what a child does and what a child thinks. For this reason, it is critical that parents work on moral development or what is referred to as heart work. Moral development encompasses all activity that helps a child learn, choose and do what is right.
Morality is mostly concerned with the workings of the will. The will involves what a person chooses in his or her heart, and that is much more important than a person's actions. For example, let's say you are getting ready to go to Mass on Sunday, only to find out that you are snowed in. You miss Mass, but you had chosen to go to Mass. Because your will was directed toward what is good, you have not committed a sin by missing Sunday Mass. The goal of parenting for moral development is to encourage our children to choose what is right, good and beautiful. If you get your children to obey you only because they fear punishment, your children may be acting good, but they may not actually be choosing the good (like the little girl who was sitting on the outside but standing on the inside).
There is a difference between having a strong will and being willful. Willfulness is the exertion of the self over the needs of others. Here are some things to keep in mind when your child displays willful behavior:
Virtues assist you in training your children to have strong wills without being willful. This will require a conscious plan on your part. We recommend the following:
Focusing your discipline on character development can prevent disciplining out of frustration.
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One of the first questions most parents ask is, “Which is better, praising a child for doing what is right or punishing a child when he misbehaves?” Answering this question correctly will be the difference between raising a child who is defensive and oppositional or one that is competent and accommodating.
The most current research on affirmation vs. punishment clearly shows that timely and specific praise is preferable. This is not to say that parents should forego any correction of behaviors that are wrong. Rather, parents have to focus on what they want to see and then systematically reinforce that behavior until it replaces the behavior they don’t want.
Affirmation and support includes several steps. First the parent should demonstrate the desired action and specifically praise the child when she replicates it. Next, the child should be given opportunities to practice the new behavior so that it takes. Next, the parent has to set up situations so that the desired actions are likely to happen. Finally, the parent should be flexible – ready to course correct if the program isn’t working well.
Affirmation and support is a kinder and gentler way to reinforce desired behaviors and extinguish misbehavior. It is the exact opposite of negative reinforcement that requires a parent to get serious, deliver strict punishment and tougher standards. Committing to positive reinforcement parents and children are drawn to a closer bond and the creation of a more loving family.
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The way parents communicate with children profoundly impacts how they develop. Sensitive, give and receive conversations nurture a child’s sense of security, and help children to do well in many areas of their lives.
Communication serves as the main connection between parents and children. According to Dr. Daniel Seigel, author of Parenting from the Inside Out, the quality of communication between a parent and child determines how the brain of the child will develop, how learning will progress and how relationships will be viewed. Seigel states:
Learning to communicate and listen with empathy is a vital part of parenting. Caring communication supports the development of a healthy attachment that is especially important in building a trusting parent-child relationship. …a common element in healthy attachments is the ability of the parent and child to have a reciprocal give-and-take of signals. This is called contingent communication and means that the signals sent by the child are directly perceived, understood, and responded to by the parent… This contingent communication enables a vitalizing sense of connection that may be at the heart of nurturing relationships across the life span.” (pg 80)
Establishing respectful communication is the responsibility of the parents. Children learn how to be considerate and civil from their parents – not the other way around. It is important for parents to learn and practice effective communication basics like active listening, I messages, and conflict resolution and commit to the following foundational standards:
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The second greatest commandment given to us by God is to “love others as ourselves.” Parents who care for and love their children fulfill this command day in and day out. By being authentic individuals, spending time developing Christ-like relationships with their children and establishing a loving family environment, parents demonstrate sacrificial love. Children who are privileged to be raised by selfless parents grow to be generous, responsible members of society.
Loving and serving others is a form of honor. Honor is a word that is frequently used in the bible to show distinction, uprightness of character, recognition. In general terms there are three aspects of honoring that apply to this principle. First honoring implies high respect. To honor means that you treat the person as special – deserving of recognition. Secondly, honoring includes doing more than what is expected. When you honor someone, you want to do more for them than you normally would. Finally, honoring involves being sincere – having a positive attitude. When you honor a person, you maintain a heartfelt demeanor.
We are called to honor those around us – first in our family, next in our neighborhood and then outward to our community, state, country and the world. Establishing a sense of honor and service in the home strengthens the family, which in turn strengthens the neighborhood, and the greater society. Conversely, losing honor weakens the family, the culture and humanity.
Strong and vital societies are built upon a common belief that citizens need to honor each other rather than be concerned mainly about themselves. A sense of interdependence - of pulling for one another - adds vigor to the culture and to the life shared by its members. That is why it is so important for parents to instill in their children that service to others is critical to their own well-being.
Parents can teach service to others by first requiring each child to pull her own weight within the family. Children and parents should have a list of developmentally appropriate household chores for which they are responsible. As the children grow, these duties can increase. Finally, when the children are ready, parents should provide opportunities for service outside the home. This can be as simple as helping a neighbor clean the yard to joining a service club. Parents should also consider involvement in civic minded groups within the political arena. These types of associations (Parent-Teacher groups, School or County Boards, Parish Councils) help build up society and ensure its humane development.
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In today’s society it is common to see that parents are giving their children too much and expecting too little in return. The most obvious evidence of this is in the realm of materialism. Children today have a lot of stuff – toys, electronic gadgets, credit cards, clothing – the list goes on and on. Many parents give these gifts with good intentions thinking that this stuff will make the child happy and that will ensure a responsible, caring adulthood. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Overindulgence goes beyond materialism as well. Many parents think it is good to allow a child to grow and develop without consistent rules and limitations. This “learn as you go” or “crash and burn” parenting style is based on the idea that if the child gets hurt, he will learn not to do it again. Unfortunately, the outcome is quite the opposite. Children raised in a free and open lifestyle learn how to manipulate their environment, avoiding the pitfalls to get what they want without regard to others.
In his book, Too Much of a Good Thing, Dan Kindlon, PhD. outlines the outcomes of over indulgent parenting. His research shows that the lack of limits (whether in material or behavioral excess) results in what he calls the seven deadly syndromes. In order, the outcomes include; self-centeredness, anger, worry, non-motivation, eating disorders, self control problems and becoming very spoiled. Kindlon equates these syndromes to the seven deadly sins of pride, wrath, envy, sloth, gluttony, lust and greed.
If these child outcomes are NOT what you want as a parent, then set reasonable limits with consequences you are willing to enforce. Limits and consequences hold a family together and establish what is expected of every family member. They provide purpose, meaning and direction to every family member. And limits and consequences help develop commitment and determination in both the children and the parents.
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Perhaps you’ve seen this demonstration. A person picks up a number of small sticks. He shows how easy it is to break one stick in half. Then, he takes a group of sticks and bundles them together. When he tries to break the bundled sticks in half, he is unable to do so because, when the sticks are together, they have more strength.
It is much easier to parent when you are connected to parents who are committed to the same Christian principles. Let’s face it; no family is trouble free – even healthy families have their share of misery. Certainly, the Cosbys and the Waltons had to deal with mischief just like the rest of us. It’s a myth to think that any family will achieve a lasting plateau of complete and utter joy and perfection.
You might think of networking with other families as either “misery loves company” or “strength in numbers.” Truly, networking provides both a place to find empathy about the hardships of family life and a way to seek solutions on how to get back on track. We need other people to help us on our parenting journey. Taking the time to talk with parents who are in the same stages of family life (raising pre-schoolers, dealing with teenagers, empty nesters) provides comfort, support and new perceptions about how to raise godly children.
Think about the visitation. Mary, the mother of Jesus, needed Elizabeth as much as Elizabeth needed her. The two of them joyfully prepared each other for the miracle of birth and family life. Even though we know that Mary was to raise a child who would be without sin, she was still anxious about the entire parenting scenario. Remember, she didn’t know what Joseph was going to say or do and she was only still a very young girl. Elizabeth was able to assure Mary that all would be fine – that God would provide. That is what networking can do.
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If this were a countdown to the #1 principle, then hold tight to the truth that the most important principle in effective parenting is practicing your faith. As the parent, it is your privilege to listen to and welcome God’s presence into your family. You are the sign of His love to your children. If you reflect God’s love well, then your children will come to know Him, love him, and trust in His ways.
Social scientists agree that children raised in families where there is a spiritual and religious development have better outcomes than children who are not. Researchers at the Institute for American Values and Search Institute agree that children have a spiritual nature that needs to be nurtured by their parents. Pretending that children don’t have a spiritual connection to God or that they don’t need to have it encouraged and cultivated is to deny their very being. Ignoring or rejecting the spiritual nature of a child results in low self-worth, depression, anxiety and a host of other mental illnesses.
Specifically, practicing your faith includes prayer (individual prayer, family prayer and with your parish community), reception of the sacraments and the development of the spiritual formation of your children. Applying the principle of honor to the practice of faith, parents should see and accept the Catholic Church as worthy and distinct, should demonstrate involvement that is more than the minimum and should be filled with hope and joy. Translated into real life, this means there is a daily commitment to prayer, a weekly commitment to receive the Eucharist, frequent reception of the grace of reconciliation and constant attention to the spiritual needs of your children.
After combing the research and unearthing parenting strategies that don’t work, it is time to identify what does work. Our efforts came up with ten time tested parenting principles that drastically improve your chances of spending your golden years with a joy-filled, virtuous adult that you raised. In the secular world, these principles are called “evidence-based.” In the Church, they are called the tradition of virtue. No matter what title they receive, these principles have been found effective both in the secular world of social science as well as in Catholic Church teachings.