Raising Children Who Are Free

As we celebrate July 4 as a nation, I am thinking today about the meaning of “freedom.”  Most folks nowadays think that freedom means they get to do whatever they want without limits, without judgment, without boundaries, and without responsibility. In truth, this is not freedom; it’s a prison. Here is what real freedom means to me.

Freedom Is the Ability to Love

First, freedom is the ability to love generously. In fact, the more unselfishly you can love, the more free you are. Fr. Robert Spitzer explains 4 levels of human happiness in his extraordinary book Finding True Happiness:

  • First level: happiness derived from material objects and the pleasures they can provide. There’s nothing wrong with level 1 happiness, but if you spend most of your energy here, you’ll be pretty shallow. This kind of happiness is very short-lived.
  • Second level: happiness derived from achievement and comparing ourselves to others and finding we are better or more beautiful in some way. People who live mostly at this level tend to use people for their own gain, and they are not satisfied for very long because they worry that they might lose what they’ve gained.
  • Third level: happiness derived from doing good for others and making the world a better place. People who live mostly here are interested in the welfare of others. This is more robust level of happiness, but still people disappoint us at times and don’t do what we hope.
  • Fourth level: happiness derived from seeking the transcendent. They don’t want to just meet the immediate needs of other people; they see the deeper goodness in people and work for their salvation. People who live at this level have a desire for communion with God. Level four is the most perfect level of human happiness.

Fr. Spitzer explains the more you move up the levels, the more free you actually become, because you are breaking the chains of your illusions about yourself. Most people nowadays are trapped in level 1 and 2 happiness because the media and larger culture so strongly pressure them to believe that if they just have the right stuff or achieve the right accolades or live in the right house or get the right job that they will be blissfully happy.

As you begin to live more dominantly in at the 3rd and 4th levels, you become less turned in on yourself, and more open and available for love. Human beings are happy and free when they are capable of self-giving love in which they work for the good of the other, even when it means personal sacrifice (level 3).  Human beings are most happy and free when they are capable of looking for the good in the other rather than focusing on or even delighting in the bad (level 4).

The truth is, we can never really be free until we grow to a place emotionally and spiritually where we can give and receive this kind of generous love.  Holiness requires this kind of freedom. The saints display a transcendent level of freedom because of their ability to respond to God’s love with a radical self-gift and an emptying of themselves for the sake of others even when they get nothing in return, even when they are harmed in return.

I can begin to teach my kids about this kind of freedom by raising them with responsive love, by mentoring them in generosity, and by modeling self-gift in my own life. I can resist consumerism as much as possible. In the age of carefully crafted virtual self-images which are crude reflections of a person’s real self, I can teach my kids about authentic friendship and what it means to give and receive love. I can raise children who are capable of real freedom by protecting their hearts so that they are capable of real communion and connection with others. This is what intentional Catholic parenting is all about!

Freedom Is the Ability to Choose the Good, the Beautiful, and the True

Second, freedom is the ability to seek and to choose God.  God created us with a thirst for the good, the beautiful, and the true, because they light our way home to him.  We have free will, so we can choose to reject the good, the beautiful, and the true; we can choose to reject God and his love, but when we do, we will remain fractured and incomplete. We miss the mark, and we will never be truly happy and at peace.

I want my kids to know this, even if means I have to teach them lessons that would be considered politically incorrect, unpopular, and even strange. I can teach them that something is “good” to the extent that it acts in a manner that reflects its true nature and purpose. If we teach our children the basic Christian virtues in a home filled with warmth and love, they will understand what it means to be a good human being. The Christian virtues help us understand our purpose and to act according to our natures.

The world does not believe this. The world tells us that “nature” and “purpose” are unstable and evolving, so we are free to decide what they mean to us. A suggestion otherwise is presented as unjust and oppressive to the dignity of this or that person or group. I want my kids to understand that while we can make some choices about our lives and how we express our identity, human dignity is grounded in the identity God gave us, not in some identity we whip up like a milkshake. When we try to live in a way that violates our purpose, our nature, and the identity God gave us, inevitably we “under-live” – we remain mere whispers of what we could be and what we really are.

As I explained to one of my teenagers recently, human beings are not squirrels; human beings and squirrels have different natures and different purposes. If I decided to go live in a tree, gnaw on wood to sharpen my teeth, and collect nuts all day, my actions would not be “good” because I would be acting against my nature and my purpose. Even if I felt strongly drawn to gnaw on wood and live in the tree, I would need a therapist and the support of my family. I would not need a parade encouraging and celebrating my confusion. Similarly, if a squirrel spent its day eating laundry detergent instead of nuts, we would recognize this behavior was very bad for the squirrel because it contradicts its nature and it will harm the squirrel in the long run. Even if the squirrel was born with a taste for laundry detergent, we would discourage this behavior.

Obviously what I’m saying here applies to many discussions, but in particular to the nature and purpose of marriage, and what it means to be a woman or a man. Our children are being bombarded by LGBT propaganda; it’s a topic we can’t ignore for long. I can teach my older kids that men and women have different natures even though they are equally valuable. Despite what The Tyranny of Hurt Feelings (otherwise known as Ivy League faculty) might say, if you are a boy you cannot choose to be girl any more than you can choose to be a squirrel; a man cannot marry a man because it violates the purpose of marriage and sexuality, and pretending that they are married is therefore damaging to to the dignity of both men involved just like gnawing on wood all day would damage my dignity even if I loved to do it.

To help them become free, I can also teach my children about the meaning of real beauty and the way it reflects God’s great love and benevolence. As a family, we can appreciate God’s creation together, and wonder at the music and art created by gifted men and women. We can talk about why we find some things very beautiful, other things less beautiful even if they hold some value, and still other things downright ugly.  For my older kids, it’s important that I help them understand that real beauty has nothing to do with the over-sexualized images they see in the media and which degrade women and men alike

I can teach them about truth by, first of all, confirming for them that objective truth actually exists! By using their power of reason, they can understand that truth is not relative; it is not dependent on their feelings, moods, or inclinations. I can teach them about the truth by catechizing them well, and by showing them how the searching part of them that asks questions and wants to understand the world was placed there by God, and as long as they seek him and the truth in good faith, he will not let them down.

This is probably crazy talk in our culture. Sometimes reality looks crazy, the truth sounds strange, and the beautiful becomes overshadowed by the blinding lights of idiocy.  But this is freedom nonetheless, and it’s what I want for my children, for you, and for this country that I love.

Explaining Lenten Sacrifices to Kids

When I returned to the Church many years ago, I had very gloomy image of Lent.  In particular, I perceived Lenten sacrifices as something very negative, something to dread. I am grateful that my spiritual director helped me understand Lenten sacrifices in a relational way.  This was a huge game changer for me.

He explained that quite often our attachments to things or behaviors are getting in the way of our relationship with others, including God. So we make a special effort during Lent to put aside these attachments so they don’t distract us from caring for ourselves and our relationships.  This dying to the self is a practice that we will continue for our entire lives, but Lent is a good time for a special “house cleaning”; we can pause and really look at where we are with God.

Of course, Lenten sacrifices are also a means to charitable giving.  Traditionally, Christians abstained from meat during Lent partly so that they could use the money they saved on meat to give to the poor, to those who couldn’t afford meat.  I think we’ve lost this original meaning in Catholic culture, so that others see us as a self-punishing, masochistic bunch.

So over the years and across many Lents, with my own kids I try to remind them of this deeper meaning of Lenten sacrifices.We sacrifice things that are hurting our relationships or are preventing us from growing closer to God, and we can also use the money we save on desserts or toys to meet a need in our community.

If our kids are too young to understand this concept, I wonder why we are encouraging them to give up desserts or their toys.  My concern: If our primary explanation to our kids for Lenten sacrifices goes something like “Jesus suffered, so we want to suffer with him,” I wonder if we are sending an unfortunate message to them. Are we saying that Jesus wants them to suffer because he suffered? I think I had this impression as a child and as a young woman and that is why my first Lent after returning to the Church was not liberating in the way it is for some folks.

While identifying with the suffering Jesus is a spiritual goal for all Christians, I am wondering whether framing Lenten sacrifices as the seeking of solidarity with the suffering Jesus is the best place to start with small children. Some of you will disagree with me here, and I welcome your opinions (but please be polite . . .).  But as I consider my own spiritual life I can see that I, even as a grown-up, am still moving to that place spiritually where I want to identify fully with the suffering Christ. That is at the top of the spiritual maturity ladder and I’m nowhere near that.

One of my goals as the spiritual director of my kids is to help them love Jesus more, to draw closer to him, to want to know him as a real person who cares about them. Yes, I hope they eventually love Jesus enough to die for him on their own cross, but they are still young. I think that first I need to lead them to love God and to recognize that he loves them so much he continually invites them into friendship. I don’t want them to think they need to seek out pain in order to be a good Christian, because right now I don’t think the pain will make them love Jesus more.  Actually that seems kind of messed up to me.

The fact is, life brings with it suffering. Ordinary life gives me plenty of opportunity to teach my kids about offering their sufferings to God. I don’t want them to seek out suffering or to think in some way that they need to want suffering in order to be a good Christian.

Perhaps I can do with my own little directees as my spiritual director did with me when I returned to the Church: I can talk to them about the things in their lives that are making it harder for them to love themselves, other people, and God. I can lead them in love, with gentleness, to practice little sacrifices in these areas. But I would still want to teach this in the context of their growing affection for Jesus.

The 3 Pillars of Lent: Ideas for Your Family

Lent begins Wednesday! The 3 pillars of Lent are prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. While we (hopefully) practice these all year round, during Lent we pause and reflect on our relationship with God, and we intensify our devotion to these 3 pillars. Here are some fresh ideas for experiencing an intentional Lent in your domestic church. If your family is new to Lenten practices, just pick a few ideas to get started!

1. Prayer

Setting aside more time for family prayer during Lent draws us closer to one another as a family and to God. Through family prayer, we begin to recognize ourselves as a family rooted in Christ’s mission, set aside for good works.

Teaching children to pray. We can teach our children to deepen their prayer life during Lent, no matter their ages. Great tips from Catholic Digest.

Family altar. This is a post from my (neglected . . . ) homeschooling blog. I explain how we set up our family altar at Lent and the symbolism of the objects on our altar.

Stations of the Cross for Children. Love this beautiful free Stations of the Cross booklet  from Feast and Feria. They also offer ideas for creating a hands-on Stations of the Cross box. You place little objects in a box that your child can hold while your family prays the stations. My favorite book for praying the Stations with kids is Mary Joslin’s beautifully illustrated picture book. However, it’s currently $50 on Amazon! Yikes. I’ll treasure my copy. This similar (and cheaper) book by Angela Burrin looks lovely, too.

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The Launching Years Part 2: Raising Kids Who Launch Successfully from the Nest

In my last post, I laid out what I consider 3 fundamental developmental tasks of the late teen years:

1) moving toward interdependence

2) clarifying identity, and

3) grieving the loss of childhood.

Not all teens transition successfully into adulthood. Some fail to develop the capacity for true interdependence, which requires an ability to both give and receive loving aid and mercy. Some fail to achieve true autonomy: they remain tethered by what their peers or parents expect of them. They never figure out what it is they really want for themselves, so they drift from job to job without real focus, or they do what is expected of them but lack passion and satisfaction. Others never face their mixed feelings about growing up; they never grieve the loss of childhood so they are left with nagging sadness or dis-ease, or they do self-destructive things to keep themselves from leaving their parents.

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