Are You Being Scraped or Scrubbed?
Seven ways your kids can help make you holy.
© 2002 by Paul Thigpen
The gerbil was loose again, leaving a tiny trail of droppings on the white carpet. I was livid, and I spoke sharply to my twelve-year-old for letting him out. But soon after, I was even more angry at myself for losing patience with my son.
"Lord," I said quietly, "much more of this, and I may never get out of purgatory."
It's a story all too familiar to parents: Our kids push us to our limits. We react in less-than-charitable ways. And we're left wondering whether we might have been better off in a monastery. Is this any way to become holy?
Obstacles to Spiritual Growth?
At times like this, we may well be tempted to conclude that kids are obstacles to growing in Christ. Wouldn't it be easier to become a saint if we didn't have to deal with temper tantrums, sibling spats and broken curfews?
Vatican II answered that question with a resounding no. "Children," the Council fathers declared emphatically, "contribute in their own way to making their parents holy." The vocation to marriage, like the vocation to the religious life, has its own distinctive path to holiness, and along that path our children help lead us along.
What a startling notion! We can strive for holiness, not despite the trials of parenthood, but through them. Our children can teach us to be holy.
The key to the process lies in recognizing that some of the best opportunities to grow spiritually emerge precisely at those places where we encounter the most difficult challenges of family life. How can we turn such trials into triumphs of spiritual growth? Here are seven practical tips.
1. Let your children's needs and shortcomings drive you to pray. If the parenting road were always smooth, you'd be tempted to forget all about God while you busy yourself with dirty dishes and soccer games. This is one way He gets your attention. So when times at home are tough, don't let them drive you to drink-let them drive you to your knees.
Get alone with God first thing every morning and ambush the little bandits with prayer before they ever even get out of bed. Take it all to the Lord-not just the big problems. Jesus said that our Father in heaven has every hair on their heads counted (see Mt. 10:30). If so, then He's also concerned about your toddler's toilet training and your teen's crush on the kid who wears the spiked dog collar.
Don't forget to ask the saints for help as well. I especially like to ask St. Benildus, who was a schoolteacher, to intercede for my family. One of his recorded remarks about kids lets me know he understands how I sometimes feel. He once observed: "I imagine that the angels themselves, if they came down as schoolmasters, would find it hard to control their anger. Only with the help of the Blessed Virgin do I keep from murdering some of them!"
2. Let the challenges of parenting drive you to read the Scriptures and the lives of the saints. Meditate especially on Ephesians 5:21 through 6:4; this is St. Paul's beautiful admonition to families about how to live together. Take a careful look at 1 Corinthians 13:4-13, where St. Paul tells us what it truly means to love. How does a love that's patient, kind and not irritable (and all the rest of the traits St. Paul notes) help a child, and help us, to mature?
You can also learn from the successes and mistakes of parents in the Bible. Read about how our Blessed Mother and St. Joseph cared for Jesus (see especially the early chapters of the Gospels of St. Matthew and St. Luke). Ponder David's conflict with his rebel son, Absalom (2 Samuel 13:1-18:33); Rebekah's domestic trickery (Genesis chapters 27 through 33); and Eli's neglect of his sons' spiritual training (1 Samuel 2:12-17, 22-236; 4:12-18).
Study as well the lives of the saints who grew in Christ through their role as parents. Read about St. Monica's struggles with her wayward son, St. Augustine. Learn all about St. Rita of Cascia. She's called "the saint of impossible situations." When you find out about her family life, you'll know why.
3. Let your children's questions about spiritual and moral issues drive you to learn more deeply about God and His will. When my daughter was only three, she asked one evening how Jesus could be God and God's Son at the same time. "That would mean," she observed coyly, "that Jesus is His own Son!"
No answer I offered easily satisfied her. But in my struggle to respond to her query, I found that her question drove me to think much more carefully about the mysteries of the Most Holy Trinity.
4. Let the battles of parenting drive you to seek fellowship with other Christian parents for mutual support and advice. Don't be embarrassed to talk and pray over your parenting problems with other Catholic parents who are strugglers like you. Think of them as comrades in arms.
Look around. Whose children demonstrate the kind of attitudes and behaviors you want your own children to have? Ask them how they do it.
Share your concerns with other members of an adult religious education class. Older couples with grown children can provide a healthy, long-term perspective. Parents with children the same age as yours have recent experiences sill fresh in their memories. Adults who know your children well may be able to help you see them in a different light.
5. Let parenting struggles drive you to the Sacraments for grace and strength. The grace we receive in the Eucharist fortifies us for the task of parenting as it does for every other duty of life. Receive it with gratitude as often as you can.
Meanwhile, recognize that parenthood is one of God's secret strategies for getting us into the confessional. Go regularly to be cleansed of your parenting blunders and refreshed for the next round of challenges.
6. Let your kids teach you some basics about the spiritual life through their example. Though St. Paul said we should give up "childish ways" (1 Cor 13:11), at the same time, there are child-like ways we should imitate. Jesus said: "Unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven" (Mt 18:3).
Become a student of your children. What can you learn from their holy example of simplicity? honesty? trust? zeal? faith?
One night as I passed my five-year-old daughter's bedroom door, I could hear her crying. I went in, took her in my arms, and asked, "What's the matter, honey?"
Through the sobs she finally blurted out: "I just … I just want to see God!"
Then it was my turn to cry. Here was one so young who had already figured out, at a deep intuitive level, what the finest minds of theology across the centuries had all worked hard to figure out: We've been created to see God face-to-face, and nothing will ever satisfy us until we see Him.
"Love Him with all your heart," I answered my little girl softly, "and one day you will see Him. That's His promise."
What a profound spiritual lesson I learned that day from the tears of my five-year-old!
7. Learn from your child's spiritual insights. Surprising gems of wisdom often come tumbling from a youngster's lips. Sometimes the very simplicity of children's thinking allows them to penetrate to depths that have been obscured by the clutter of the typical adult mind.
I still recall the day my four-year-old son asked me thoughtfully: "If Jesus knew everything, why did He ask His disciples questions?" Quickly falling back on the delaying tactic known to all parents who find themselves under the gun, I shot the question back at him: "Well, why do you think He asked them questions?"
"Because He wanted to test them," he said matter-of-factly, and walked away. I realized that I'd just been tested in the same way. And though I didn't quite pass the test, I learned something important from my son.
No wonder Pope John Paul II said in his Letter to Families that raising children "is a process of exchange in which the parents-educators are in turn … educated themselves."
Scraped or Scrubbed?
When all is said and done, perhaps the most important way we can let our kids help us grow in holiness is to view the hassles of parenting as scouring pads: They can either scrape us raw or scrub us clean.
If we resent our children's needs, demands and shortcomings, they'll forever be rubbing us the wrong way. But if instead we embrace the frustration and heartache as part of God's plan to polish us into saints, in time we'll find ourselves shining in ways we've never shone before.
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