Thursday, October 11, 2007

The Moral Formation of Children

This is one of those times I have left-over thoughts in my mind from School of Community, and I need to dump them out as one dumps out a purse, to sit and sort and discover. And possibly get grossed out (if the purse analogy is to prove accurate.)

We were discussing the next section in Why the Church this morning, on why the Church does not exist to answer our problems for us, but rather presents the principles by which we are to solve (or try to solve) our own problems. We discussed, somewhat indirectly, the application of this concept to raising children.

We discussed how so often our desire is for "the right decision", even more than the knowledge of our complete dependence upon God. Giussani points to the gospel passage in Luke where a man comes to Jesus and asks him to settle an argument with his brother over just division of their inheritance. Jesus doesn't act as judge and dispense justice. He points him back to freedom; let possessions stay in their proper place, which is not at the center of your life.

So,what is left in my thoughts is how these things apply to us as Christian parents, responsible for the Catholic education, formation, of our children. Are we so focused on "right" outcomes that we lose track for true formation? Not to have a cavalier attitude towards sin or moral failing, but are we afraid of our children making mistakes, morally? Do we worry and react in ways that are perhaps developmentally inappropriate when they tell falsehoods, take things that aren't theirs, lash out at someone, get involved in questionable things? If I don't loose it when my toddler falls down when learning to walk or run, and worry that this will shape and scar her entire life, do I feel that way when she does something that is objectively sinful, even when her level of moral culpability is questionable? In other words, are moral failings part of every good upbringing? Is there sometimes a "happy fault" for our children, by which they really come to own their salvation?

I look at my life and I see that I lacked certain moral failings in my teens years. But Giussani points out, that there is such a thing as "the condition of man's heart without which the justice of this world could have the same root as injustice." My lack of failures really had the same root as all sorts of troubles I could have gotten into. It was only much later in my life, say about age 26, when I was stuck alone in a foreign country that garbage in my heart came to fruition. I remember looking around my apartment filled with religious "stuff" and realizing how hollow it all was. I saw that I was no different from all those "bad people" in the world. It was like childhood happening out of sync. I guess what I am saying is that I could really have done with a safe moral practice ground where I was helped to understand by the adults around me that failure and weakness are parts of growth, that sin is not to be feared but repented of, and that God's mercy is much, much bigger and is to always be our joyful focus, and that I could find help when I needed to understand the "dark side". I think I could have had more freedom, and less of a concept that being holy was about wearing a moral straight jacket, and more about expressing the Life that God gives me.

Stepping back again to the bigger picture: What I sense is that sometimes Christian parents are worried that moral failings or struggles of their children somehow reflect badly on them, and that is what is bothersome. People will think I'm a bad mom if they know my child has done xyz. Doesn't matter if that child is 6, or 9, or 3 or 17.

I know that it has been a struggle of mine -- I'm not so concerned with breaking God's law and offending Him (whatever that means), I'm concerned with looking bad.

Now, I don't have a teen (yet), and I haven't faced too many times where behavior has gotten close to the truly scary in an objective moral sense. So maybe those whose kids face a real possibility of becoming addicted to drugs or other deathly dangers might think I am whistling Dixie. But maybe the little dramas of childhood are the training ground (for parents) and the fodder of learning (for children) to educate us toward moral uprightness.

Are we (am I) too anxious about being good parents? Are we (am I) too severe in our reactions to childish mistakes, or even sin? Does fear of the Lord and hatred of sin grow from feeling or communicating guilt, shame, error, mistake? How do we (I) do anything different? (Here I am back to the field of question marks again.) Is modeling virtue "enough"? Is this why communication is so vital in relationships with our kids?

Here's another big question lurking in my mind: is this radical, even dangerous parenting, an irresponsible attitude towards moral formation? Is this the heart and essence of Radical Unschooling? Is this the essence of what Christ and His Church truly calls us to? Is the answer different for my family than for your family and different again from the family down the street?

Well, I don't have all the answers, but I like the discussion.


Leonie said...

I liken the idea of a moral training ground - if we meet our "demons", so to speak, in childhood, we have experience that is invaluable for moral formation and for adulthood. As C.S. Lewis says about "scary" literature or faiory tales - by meeting the so-called darker side in a safe environment, the child learns something about herself and about the world, something that helps them when they are adults....

Interesting discussion!

LH said...

Good points!

Marie said...

Ok, so I'm starting to think that I just think too hard over these things some times. I realize that thinking in the abstract about theories of child-raising is ... well, can be a waste of time. What we really need is to look at what to do in the real life situations before us.

But if I had to have a theory, I'd say, live virtuously with your children, communicate openly, do not harp, be merciful. If I do the honest effort to walk with my God and meet the moral challenges that are struggles for me, I'll be able to see and help my dc do the same. And maybe the top piece of parental wisdom I come back to is to stop living for the eyes of other people. Live for the eyes of God. Live for the heart of Jesus, repent and convert daily, and I think each day will have the light it needs. However, others are free to make their own decisions, and I can't force anyone want to love God.

Does that make more sense?

Anna said...

I have pondered much of the same recently. Maybe I tend to overthink things as well. My dilema right now is - do you force your kids to say prayers. I want them to learn the prayers, but more so, to have a relationship with God... like you stated, not to have them grow up and find these 'rituals' shallow and meaningless. I struggle with the fine line of forming good habits with freedom of will and the desire to choose good.
I don't know the answers either. I think this is where we have to step back and trust God. After all, I feel like I turned out 'fine' despite my parents. I would like to have a better relationship with my own kids, but I can only live my life... and hope they choose to live theirs well - but it is their choice ultimately. And that is sooooo scary to think about!!

Leonie said...

I like the living honestly comment - John Holt, while not a Christian, said something similar. My friend Cindy calls this "living the authentic life".

Marie said...


We have had this question about rosary participation. We've done an evening family rosary for about a year. Ds (now 6) for the most part has either been playing in the room with us, or sometimes grumping, or often not even in the room. However lately, when the mood strikes at least, he leads the rosary, which he pretty well knows fluently, just from listening. Last night he stopped dh from leading so he could lead Of course, we have company, so he has a different 'audience'. Not quite at that 'living for the eyes of God' thing yet, LOL! But for a 6 year old, I think he's doing ok.

We have taken the advice I heard to pray for the dc to love praying on the days when it becomes a big grump-fest to participate in prayers.