Is it true, kind, necessary?

I remember it like it was yesterday. I was a young mom with a preschooler and a new baby and another mother I'd met working at a small magazine called Welcome Home invited me to her house to watch her family in action. She was a Catholic woman, a few years older than me, whom I admired greatly. She had five children at the time. The oldest was 10 or 12. In my book, that made her a veteran. I had no idea what parenting a large family looked like from the inside and was grateful for the invitation.

What happened there that day has had a profound effect on the every-day conversations in our own home ever since. I still clearly remember the incident: Her eldest, a boy, said something to her third, a girl. She came running, crying, to protest. My friend called her son and began what was obviously a well-known routine.

"Was it true?"

"Well, yeah, sort of, it was."

"Was it kind?"

"No," he said, shuffling his feet and hanging his head. "Sorry, Sis," he offered without prompting. And that was that.

"The third filter is, 'Was it necessary?'" my friend said. "But we rarely get that far. Every time one of these squabbles breaks out, every time one of them comes to me with a tale to tell, we filter it three ways: true, kind, necessary. It's a simple way to teach them to communicate with grace."

And so it is. For 18 years, I've taken that three-way filter as my own.

Is it true? This means we stop before passing along hearsay or gossip. It also means that we hold a grand story up to the exaggeration test. While I encourage flights of fancy and happy imaginings, it's important for children to learn to distinguish truth from fantasy, opinion or supposition in their retelling or relaying of information. This is also the filter that says we won't listen to gossip in our home, nor will we pass it along. Unless we know something to be absolutely true, it does not get by this filter.

Is it kind? In his classic, Spiritual Conferences, Father Frederick William Faber writes:

"Devout people are, as a class, the least kind of all classes. This is a scandalous thing to say; but the scandal of the fact is so much greater than the scandal of acknowledging it, that I will brave this for the sake of a greater good. Religious people are an unkindly lot.

"Poor human nature cannot do everything; and kindness is too often left uncultivated, because men do not sufficiently understand its value. Men may be charitable, yet not kind; merciful, yet not kind; self-denying, yet not kind. If they would add a little common kindness to their uncommon graces, they would convert 10 where they now only abate the prejudices of one. There is a sort of spiritual selfishness in devotion, which is rather to be regretted than condemned.

"I should not like to think it is unavoidable. Certainly its interfering with kindness is not unavoidable. It is only a little difficult, and calls for watchfulness. Kindness, as a grace, is certainly not sufficiently cultivated, while the self-gravitating, self-contemplating, self-inspecting parts of the spiritual life are cultivated too exclusively."

In a family, self-gravitating, self-contemplating and self-inspecting cannot be allowed to crowd out simple kindness. Familiarity cannot be allowed to crowd out simple kindness. Home should be the place where a child or an adult can feel safe from the lack of compassion and bullying so common in the world outside. Home should provide the shelter of kindness.

Is it necessary? Does this need to be said? As our communications lurch forward at reckless speed and it becomes commonplace to tweet, share and blog every time we sneeze, children have to be intentionally taught the value of silence. Without quiet, we cannot hear. Without quiet, there is no white space; there are no boundaries. Does what I'm going to share contribute to the holiness and happiness of our community? In a big, busy family, quiet is a valuable thing.

It's a simple three-fold filter: true, kind and necessary. The people who use it are happier, and the people who live with the people who use it are cradled in grace-filled communication.

Foss, whose website is elizabethfoss.com, is a freelance writer from Northern Virginia.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2011

@elizabethfoss