Monday, August 19, 2013

All Hot and Bothered

People have widely diverging views of my parenting. Non-Catholics assume I'm a tough disciplinarian, since I'm a strong Christian; Catholics tend to think of me as lenient. I tend to think they are both wrong. I have spanked; I spank rarely. I like what St. John Chrysostom says about this, that spanking is a sign of failure, a last line of defense, more or less.

Well, I was pretty sweaty towards the end of mass yesterday, let me tell you, watching a little boy, about 6, pummel his father, yes, repeatedly strike hit and kick and bump his father, who seemed not to notice most of it. His mother noticed and said a few things, totally ineffectually. After a few'minutes of this with my blood pressure rising, hoping to make disapproving eye-contact with the boy, I turned to my 5-year-old and said, "See that little boy in front of us? He deserves a big spanking from his father for the way he's behaving. Don't you think?" Stephen hadn't noticed the boy till then, but looked, and then nodded in agreement. I thought, if that father wasn't going to bring good out of this, I would in the small way I could.

It was good that I was angry. It made me think of my own deficiencies as a father. A sign of good moral conscience is that injustice bothers you. When you see indignity, it should bother you. The dignity of fatherhood, of a father, was being attacked here, it should make one mad, just as to see poverty and abortion should make you mad.

Then I went one step further, and said a prayer for this father and his family. I don't know how someone with even my degree of 'patience' could take something like this. Gosh, this man must have been doped up on anti-depressants to be able to ignore this. maybe he was. I felt even worse for him considering that this was so. Many people are, after all.

You might get the impression from the name of my blog that I think I am a parenting expert. If you read my posts, you will know I do not. I have seen a lot of bad parenting, usually what I would consider too lax, too indulgent. But I have seen too severe too. I think it is interesting that I would not put any of my close friends in either category. Parenting makes too important a statement about your character to be friends with someone who varies too greatly from you on this. Perhaps more on this point later.

The one bit of advice, my one opinion on parenting is this: it must be directed to the good, not to anything else, not to ego-formation, not to success, not to obedience. Let me elaborate. I think I share Plato's mind here, his essential position vis a vis pedagogy. Now, what about my list of alternatives?

Light-handed parenting is often said to be aimed at ego-formation, that is to say, building confidence in the young person. Thus, heavy-handedness is deemed ego-suffocating. Now, that might be the technical interpretation for this error, but I don't believe that is why people light-handedly raised their children. It's not about their theoretical acknowledgement of ego-development. It is about their fear of inflicting pain and the fear of loosing their children's love. A brute will loose his children's love, but it is not necessarily brutish to discipline. It is a matter of considering the good.

Not to success. I have seen a bit too much of this lately in Ottawa. Parents directing their disciplining not to moral goodness per se, but to material advantage. This often masquerades as directed to moral goodness, but it is not. Aristotle kind of made this mistake. While he must have thought that he was in agreement with Socrates and Plato about orientation to the good, Aristotle made the mistake of assuming that the actual state of the world allowed success in the state to coincide with moral goodness. Too often he described a virtue according to its effectiveness in the world. His predecessors made no such mistake. Now, it's a fact that most people don't look at the world very philosophically. They don't feel like they can stare at the Forms all day and contemplate goodness as a prolegomena to their parenting. They think that too much abstract thinking and reinventing of the wheel would be a disservice to their children's well-being in the world. It's better to teach them French, piano, give them math and spelling drills ad nauseum... Thus they discipline with long-term material success in mind. A shabby performance on a test is a greater sin than a proud word said. Ultimately, stepping over others, despising their weaknesses, become part of life; parceling out time to serve oneself rather than others as well; volunteering not for love of neighbour but as a shrewd  way to beef up one's profile becomes not only tolerated, but praised. This is as morally bankrupt a way to raise children as the light-handed above, perhaps worse. Children need their parents' love more than the impartation of skills and they need to value the good more than to acquire skills. The fact is, virtue can inconvenience talent acquisition, and good parents will let it.

Not to obedience. This is the mistake that it seems to me many serious Christian parents make (well, Catholics, I can't speak to more than that). I've seen soulless robotic children. What kind of adults will they be? If you have disciplined them out of the belief that teaching them to obey their parents immediately and fully will make them solid Christian adults, what have you taught them? Only to obey. They will not be effective Christian witnesses in the workplace, for, after all, who are they to question authority? Questioning authority has become, and will become more and more, at the heart of living the Christian life in the world we see developing. Obedience should take a far distant second place to loving and seeking the good, to accustoming oneself with a heart and mind to discern this. Much more important than obedience are the intellectual virtues that St. Thomas Aquinas spoke of as the parts of the great virtue of prudence: shrewdness, circumspection, foresight, etc. (For instance, ST, II-II, q.49)

Now, back to the father in question. I don't know what his 'problem' was. Maybe the boy had severe ADHD, maybe the father felt unworthy, distracted, upset, I don't know, and it's not my place to know. That's why I would never intervene even when I felt just so enraged at the boy and disappointing in the father. Archbishop Prendergast taught me long ago that you never know what is really going on inside someone, so be careful to judge and act. It is a father's right to try and to fail. That father doesn't not have me to answer to. But he deserved my smiles, prayers and encouragement.

What would I have done? What I do: take the child out, reprimand him or her right then and there, and then punish them when we got home. This does not ensure it never happens again, but it does ensure that the child will be conscious of what awaits them if they do it again.

But teach, teach, teach. Not during episodes, but when there are no episodes. Help them to love the good: God, mercy, honour, fatherhood, motherhood, femininity, masculinity, nature, joy, peace, holy places, work, rest and play, life itself.

Dear Lord, please bless fathers and mothers who struggle to know and will the good and who struggle to teach it to their children. Please help grandparents, uncles, aunts, older siblings and godparents to bring all the best out of our children, so that they may be blessed in this life and in the next. Forgive us all for our failures, and give us grace that we might love children with the heart with which You love them.


  1. Great post, Colin. Lots of food for thought. I tend to use bribery a lot in my parenting -- more than I thought I would. But as someone once told me, you have to use either a carrot or a stick. We prefer to use the carrot, most of the time. But yes, there are times when we have to punish (not an actual stick, but you get the idea).

  2. There is nothing wrong with bribery per se - especially with very young ones. Reward is the other side of punishment. Encourage good, discourage bad behavior, but do that with our words most of all by explaining why we do what we do - the carrot (better yet, chocolate) is simply a manifestation of our praise of good behavior. A bribe is a reward paid in advance ;-)

  3. If you direct attachment to a thing, reward, form of technology, or peers, expect it will be there you'll find a child's attachment. "Johnny, if you do your chore, you can have half an hour of computer time." I see parents direct attachment away from mom and dad all the time. Later on the older child ends up thinking about, whining about, and focusing on when they'll get the reward. They'll fixate on computer time and "perform" for an hour of TV time etc.
    I believe the best formation directs attachment in the right order to God, mother, and father. "When you are finished making your bed, you and I can have some fun reading together." Relationship is reward enough, and much more meaningful.
    Leave computer time, treats, etc as random surprises.
    With strong bonds of love, discipline is rarely needed. :)
    Not meaning to sound preachy...
    I work with parents on a daily basis and see the good fruits of healthy attachment and the disaster that comes from directing attachment to things, toys, treats, tricks and activities.
    I like the comment you've made about reasoning with a child and explaining things to them.

    With sincere respect,