The highlight of a recent camping trip was meeting a Hungarian dinosaur-enthusiast. He wasn’t scared of our three small, crazy children. In fact, he and my four-year-old daughter became fast friends, playing tic-tac-toe and pretending to be T-rexes. What I most appreciated about him was his authenticity. He said, “These are the best ages, when they are little. They like you and follow you everywhere. When they get older they start having… problems.” I noted some pain in his eyes. He has two teenaged boys. Even though I don’t have teenagers, I understood him completely. People usually tell me the exact opposite: when they are little there is a lot of hard work, then you just sit back and relax with the great job you’ve done!
There is no Formula for Parenting
From the little experience I have in parenting, four years that is, I believe our Hungarian camping friend much more. I had no clue, not the faintest, what I was getting myself into when I signed up for this parenting gig. I was completely overconfident: I’ve always had a way with kids, even with teenagers in youth ministry, I’ve been a teacher for all age levels, and I’ve got this covered.
For the first year or two, I followed “formulas” as author Sally Clarkson says, and it was all working out great. If they weren’t sleeping, I’d buy another book or two, ask a trusted friend or read a blog post and the outcome would improve… they would sleep better. Recently I started running into more serious behavior problems and the books were proving useless. Not only did they not help, they made me more anxious. I noticed a common pattern: You want your kid to be ABC, right? If your kid is XYZ, then do this… and the “this” was the constantly changing factor.
Pope Francis says in his latest Apostolic Exhortation:
“Humility can only take root in the heart through humiliations. Without them, there is no humility or holiness. If you are unable to suffer and offer up a few humiliations, you are not humble and you are not on the path to holiness. The holiness that God bestows on his Church comes through the humiliation of his Son. He is the way.” (Gaudete et Exsultate, 118)
This excerpt reminded me immediately of my life right now. There are glory moments, beautiful moments of pride and joy, but they are hard to focus on when your four-year-old completely embarrasses you in public or worse, in front of someone you really wanted to impress. How do they always guess who you want to impress?
I liked Christopher West’s trailer for his short film “The Cry of the Heart” about the masks we wear. It was easier for me to wear masks before. People might have seen through them, but I believed in the masks I wore. With my children now, I am vulnerable in ways I never thought possible. I understand the stripping of Jesus’s clothes and his wounds for all to see much better.
Walk in Faith
I don’t have much or any control over the outcome my kids’ lives right now as toddlers. I doubt I will have more when they are teenagers or adults. I only have control over my own sin and virtue, my own walk in holiness. Why did I think all other areas of life I had to hand over to God, except for parenting, where I could rule with a clenched fist and by the supreme power of my will and ideals?
Thankfully, the Holy Spirit spoke softly to me through Sally Clarkson’s books, which didn’t present just another formula of solutions for delinquent kids. “If God had wanted us to follow a formula, He would have made it easy and given us one. Instead He asks us to trust one step at a time.,” she says in a recent Instagram post.
God doesn’t care if my kids are polite or if they get into Harvard. God cares about the measure of my love in caring for them. God doesn’t care if 3/4ths of my kids discern religious vocations. God cares about the measure of my patience during a tantrum.
Enjoy your family
I am convinced there is way too much focus on the development, cognitive stimulation and psychology of children nowadays. What is more important than loving your children? Loving your spouse. Let’s focus more on the disintegration of the family, and on ways to affirm those who are brave enough to even have children and not compare our children with others’. What’s more important than having kids who turn out to have tremendous worldly success or to be canonized saints? Enjoying our family. Let’s find out what makes us tick individually and as a family and build on that, which is again very personal and of no use to compare our family to another.
If anyone else tries to sell me a formula for success in parenting, I will not believe it. I might go to conferences about how to “produce” great teenagers, but I will be wary. I have no idea how my kids will turn out, if they will go to college or to prison. I know I am called to love them either way. I know I am called to love them especially when the going gets rough, because that is what makes me a better person. I know I am called to love them especially when the outcome is not what I desired, or if I can’t see the outcome yet. I am called to walk by faith and lay it all down (“Lay it Down” by Matt Maher) in God’s hands.