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An Error in Christian Parenting

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Dear friends,

St. Augustine and St. Monica, by Gioacchino Assereto (d. 1649).

As a father of ten, with children entering into adulthood (my eldest are 17, 19 and 20) , there’s no question that I look back with regrets, aware of errors I have made as a father.  I thank God that I enjoy good relationships with all of my children, we discuss these things regularly, and their salvation is not dependent on my parental perfection.  After all, I have given them much more, spiritually and intellectually, than I received as a child in a non-Christian home.  Nevertheless, I had to learn to be a Christian father by raising children, and there have certainly been some mistakes I wish I could go back and fix. 

One mistake in particular bothers me.  In our relationships with our children, we are eager to have them as Christian brothers and sisters, but we soon realize that the faith that has developed in us over long years of experience is not in them in childhood.  It’s not reasonable to expect it to be in them, but we do.  Instead, the children are often acting contrary to God’s will and we are correcting them.  Religion becomes something of a tug-of-war between the child and the parent.  Christianity belongs to the parent and the child feels that choosing to follow Christ meand surrendering to the parent.  I believe many parents feel the weight of this daily wrestling.  I know I have.

I remember St. Augustine describing a similar experience in his Confessions.  I am paraphrasing this from memory.  He spoke of a dream his mother told him of, in which she (the faithful Christian) was standing on a board, which represented the faith, and he (the wandering son) came and joined her.  He joked that she would one day join him, and she corrected him, saying, “No, but you came to me.”  Here, we see in the mind of Augustine that Christianity appeared to belong to his mother and he would need to admit his error and join her be right with God.  This is the image in the mind of children that I believe makes embracing Christianity difficult for them.  The relationship between Augustine and his mother was unique, and there is a fine balance in such a relationship that I believe very few parents get right–myself included.

This situation can be avoided, I believe.  It seems to me that the cause is the way in which we present the Christian faith, in the context of children and their relationship to us as their parents.  I believe this needs to be corrected and we need to avoid making it appear that Christianity is our religion that we are seeking our children to submit to–as if a matter of obedience to parents.  After all, it is too much to ask our children to follow the Christian way for our sakes.  I believe many Christian parents, especially wealthy Christian parents, try to play the role of God in their children’s lives and maybe this is necessary (to a degree).  When the children do good, the parents reward them.  When the children do evil, the parents punishe them.  When the children face a challenging situation the parents promise them help and rewards if they choose God’s way.  This attempt to reward and punish our children into obedience quickly goes too far and we find ourselves no longer to promise or punish enough to control everything.  We find that their Christian life is between them and us, rather than between them and God, who alone is sufficient for these things. 

Consider the different interpretation in this painting by Ary Scheffer (d. 1847).

The remedy, I believe, is for parents to imitate the priest in the old liturgy who, with the people, faces the Lord and offers worship for himself and for all present with him.  The priest does not represent God to the people, but represents the people to God.  It’s obvious that in a modern parish where this image is reversed, it is easy for parents to reproduce this image at home–and it’s not good.  Christianity must be presented to children, and to our neighbors in general, as a relationship between them and God, a relationship which we ourselves are working to live out rightly.  

If I had a chance to go back and raise my older children over again, I would spend much less time speaking to them about their Christian duties and would spend much more time attending to my Christian duties.   I would seek much more to lead them to fear God by allowing them to observe my fear of God, to pray by watching me pray, to worship by watching me worship, to study by watching me study, to serve by watching me serve, and so on.  I believe that, unintentionally, I often made them feel as if Christianity was a system of morals and beliefs for them to offer to my wife and me, rather than to God.  

This error is a subtle one but it is easy to amend.  We need, as parents, to lead by example as individual Christians, with our eyes on the Lord, as His servants, rather than on our children, as their Lords. I am not proposing an either/or false dilemma here, but I think it’s more likely for us to err on the side of hypocrisy and, consequently, we need to lean further to towards the opposite extreme.  We have in Our Lord the perfect example of this way of living and teaching.  In the Gospels, we read His disciples’ accounts of His prayers, teachings, works, etc.  They watched Him live and He invited them to join Him, saying, “Follow Me.”  

Perhaps this is a unique fault of mine, I don’t know.  I do see, however, many parents wrestling with their children and I assume that this error has something to do with the relationships I see in others.  I am working to make this right as, thank God, I have the opportunity to fix these mistakes while my eldest children are still young adults still close by, and I have a house full of children still growing up.  The chaos caused by COVID came during one of the most important years of my family’s life as my eldest children were in the midst of great life decisions and lacked the stability and direction of regular church life.  May God grant that 2021 is free from these obstacles.

I’d love to know whether you’ve had similar experiences in parenting and if you’ve been able to find that right balance between leading children to Christ vs. trying to push and pull them there.

God bless,
William C. Michael, Headmaster
Classical Liberal Arts Academy


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