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Prompt. Generous. Consistent.

When and if you step into the world of parenting, no one hands you the playbook. No one supervises you, conducts an annual performance review, or sits down in your living room and says, “Here’s the proven step-by-step plan for how to lead your children to faith within these four walls.” 

Instead, maybe you’d agree with Jim Gaffigan, father of five, who said, “Every night before I get my one hour of sleep, I have the same thought: ‘Well, that’s a wrap on another day of acting like I know what I’m doing.’”

In the daily scrum of family life, you have moments when you sense heaven is in your hands (or almost), when you feel at peace with the quiet “little way” of daily home life. And then it slips away, and you find yourself pulling back from all the needs. You blink, and suddenly you and your family are immersed in busyness, screens, extracurriculars, and work, and you haven’t truly connected in weeks.

What is essential? How am I to lead? How do I find heaven in my home? In a presentation at the recent Symposium for Catholic Family Life, “Come and Be Formed! The 3 R’s in the Liturgy of Domestic Church Life,” Greg and Lisa Popcak coach us on these questions by pointing us to what psychologists call “attachment,” and showing its connection to the spiritual life.     

“In general,” they explain, “secure attachment results when parents respond promptly, generously, and consistently to the physical, emotional, relational, and spiritual needs of their child.” When we get this right, our children “naturally” and “spontaneously” turn toward us as “the primary source for acquiring the nurturance, resources and guidance he or she needs to flourish.”

No matter where you find yourself on Gaffigan’s parenting spectrum of “acting like I know what I’m doing,” you hope that the Popcaks’ description of securely attached adults someday describes your own son or daughter: “comfortable needing others and being needed by others, giving and receiving appropriate affection, and capable of setting respectful boundaries” for “healthy relationships.”  

On the other hand, “anxious attachment,” the Popcaks continue, results when parents “respond in a habitually delayed, reluctant or inconsistent manner to their child’s bids to meet his or her needs.” With time, “anxiously attached” people are “high-risk” for “scrupulosity, neurotic guilt, codependency, fears of abandonment, struggles with basic trust, poor self-care, anxiety disorders, substance abuse (particularly opiods), and the inappropriate use of affection/sex as a strategy to foster relational security.”

I’m sorry for any discomfort I’m causing for any parents still reading, but there is one more sobering reality we need to reflect upon.   

“Avoidant attachment,” the Popcaks continue, results from “parents’ miserly responses to their children’s needs — especially emotional and relational needs.” The Popcaks explain, “Parents of avoidantly attached children may not be — strictly speaking — abusive or neglectful, but they tend to be terminally disengaged, unaffectionate, intolerant of emotional displays, and allergic to anything that looks too much like ‘neediness.’”

With time, “avoidantly attached” people “tend to be suspicious of relationships and exhibit an unhealthy sense of autonomy, poor insight and impaired empathy.” The Popcaks explain that such people “tend to be workaholics who prefer chasing accomplishment over intimacy,” “often display a selfish (e.g., ‘consumer,’ or ‘power-based’) approach to sex,” and are “prone to anger control problems, substance abuse (typically stimulants), and somatic complaints rooted in their inability to appropriately express needs and emotions.”

Sound familiar? Welcome to our current public health crisis: 40 percent of children in the U.S. are “insecurely attached,” according to studies. The “attachment style” we foster in the daily interactions with our children, the Popcaks conclude, puts into place a kind of template: It will represent their “unconscious, neurologically-based inclination to turn toward or away from both others and God.”

We actually have the playbook, the plan, the map to find heaven in our homes. Every night before we get our one hour of sleep, we can hopefully have the same thought, “Well, that’s a wrap on another day of knowing what I’m doing; of turning to the Lord and begging him for the grace to be prompt, generous and consistent; of striving to raise secure children who know, love and serve the Lord, because they are seeing it modeled in our family, first.”

Johnson is co-founder, with his wife, Ever, of Trinity House Cafe (trinityhousecafe.com) in Leesburg.


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2019