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Teaching them to live their best lives

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I recently enjoyed a lively conversation with several mothers of young children. We were talking about the ultimate goals in raising children and how every day is a little-by-little approach to getting from impulsive to self-disciplined. Childrearing is the work of a lifetime. Even after “children” are no longer younger than 20, one generation imparts wisdom to the younger generation. Despite being met frequently with eye-rolling skepticism, the goal of the older generation is usually a benevolent one: to share lessons learned the hard way, thereby making the path of the younger both smoother and more joyful.

Because the aim is mature grown people who seek the will of God and then pursue it wholeheartedly, in the beginning, we have to teach children to obey cheerfully. It sounds simple, but really, it’s the work of a lifetime. At first, the child needs to learn to hear what his parent is saying and then to do it promptly and with good spirits. Think about adults you know. How many of them can reliably know the right thing to do and then do it right away and without grumbling and complaining? Those few are the people who hold the keys to genuine mature happiness.

It takes patient persistence to begin in toddlerhood and continue through adulthood, explaining along the way why it’s important to know how to do one’s duty with alacrity and good cheer. Toddlers don’t necessarily need explanations about why a request is made, but they do need to know that obedience is a mutual act of love. That is, it should be understood that the parent asks something of the child for his own good and the child responds affirmatively because she knows that the request is one ultimately rooted in love. This works as the child grows.

“Don’t run in the street!” needs to be obeyed promptly. A kid who is in the habit of questioning everything before obeying could seriously put his life in danger. But a request to put away laundry neatly is no less important in the training of obedience. This one affords the opportunity to explain why personal hygiene and orderliness are beneficial habits to cultivate.

Over time, the obedient child grows into the second stage of maturity. He is able to ask, “How can I serve?” He’s tuning his ear toward Christ and seeing that to be a Christian is to serve others. He is not yet always able to discern what God wants, but he is able to ask trusted people in his life how he can do for others. The impetus changes from one where he merely is responding to requests with obedience to one where he is seeking opportunities to exercise his free will in the service of others.

Then, he moves into a stage where he is able to empathize and employ critical thinking skills to assess a situation and meet a need without a request ever being made. He moves from obedience — where he masters his will to conform it to the will of another person — to Christlike service — where he employs his will to do the will of God in the service of others.

And that’s the point. We’re put here on earth to know, love and serve God. Jesus tells us that the will of his father is done when we love the Lord Our God with all our hearts, and with all our souls, and with all our minds, and we love our neighbors as ourselves. (Mt  22:37-39)

It takes a lifetime to truly learn to live out the great commandment well. God knew that it would, and He provided for us the sacrament of reconciliation for all the times we’d fail and the grace and strength of the Eucharist to fortify us to try again and again.

As parents, we need that grace in order to not grow weary in the formidable task of teaching children how to live in his will and to be joyful in hearing and answering his call. There is no movement too early or too insignificant to be out of step with the Lord. From learning to sweep up messes to learning to follow the rules in public places to sitting quietly and answering personably when an elderly relative is speaking, children can understand from an early age that they are happier when ruled by a power greater than themselves. Then, they can grow into self-disciplined adults who are able to do challenging things in service to others. And they find that when they lay down their lives on a daily basis in this manner, they are living their best lives for God.

Foss, whose website is takeupandread.org, is a freelance writer from Northern Virginia.


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2018