There are some big things happening right now in the world of the family in our culture. And as much as we are sons and daughters of God, we are also children of our time, swimming in the atmosphere of our every day environments. That’s not a call to move to the mountains and become recluses, but it is an invitation to pause, step back, and observe the greater trends happening right now in the family. Pope Francis’ visit to the US was a beautiful and profound invitation to take such a reflective pause, an invitation to have an encounter with God as families, and from that encounter to go out into the world renewed.
Pope Francis high-lighted one of these greater trends of the times in his Prayer Vigil for the Festival of Families in Philadelphia:
This is a great legacy that we can give to our children, a very good lesson: we make mistakes, yes; we have problems, yes. But we know that that is not really what counts. We know that mistakes, problems and conflicts are an opportunity to draw closer to others, to draw closer to God.
How powerful it is to say that making mistakes is an opportunity to draw closer to God! Pope Francis didn’t say – don’t make mistakes, or try to avoid making mistakes, or protect your children from making mistakes. But that mistakes and problems and conflicts are moments of growth, invitations to grow together and to grow towards God.
This is precisely what many people who work with youth and family today are talking about. There is a trend in our US culture to raise children along the lines of “I will protect my child from making mistakes and problems, I will take care of problems for them, and protect him/her from the natural consequences of his/her mistakes and problems.” Julie Lythcott-Haims, former Stanford University dean and author of “How to Raise an Adult,” is one of the many such professionals writing on this issue. On a recent interview with NPR, she spoke about seeing a growing trend of parents coming onto the Stanford campus, and not just to help with move-in at the start of freshmen year, but parents consistently over-reaching healthy boundaries of responsibility to take care of things for their young adult “children”, and those same young adults consistently under functioning (in dynamic relationship with the parents). Julie mentions parents even writing their adult children’s college admission essays, and worried parents contacting deans and professors on behalf of their adult children. Julie takes a birds eye view of the how such a “helicopter” parenting style emerged in the US – for it is a primarily a US phenomenon of the millennial and post millennial generations:
Did the safety-conscious, academic achievement-focused, self-esteem-promoting, checklisted childhood that has been commonplace since the mid-1980s and in many communities has become the norm, rob kids of the chance to develop into healthy adults? What will become of young adults who look accomplished on paper but seem to have a hard time making their way in the world without the constant involvement of their parents? How will the real world feel to a young person who has grown used to problems being solved for them and accustomed to praise at every turn? (full text here)
As a parent, Julie explores the issue with compassion and understands the stress and worry behind parent’s over-reaching. But she also encourages parents to see the effects of such a style of parenting:
Too many of us do some combination of overdirecting, overprotecting, or over-involving ourselves in our kids’ lives. We treat our kids like rare and precious botanical specimens and provide a deliberate, measured amount of care and feeding while running interference on all that might toughen and weather them. But humans need some degree of weathering in order to survive the larger challenges life will throw our way. Without experiencing the rougher spots of life, our kids become exquisite, like orchids, yet are incapable, sometimes terribly incapable, of thriving in the real world on their own. Why did parenting change from preparing our kids for life to protecting them from life, which means they’re not prepared to live life on their own?
I encourage you to read the article or book on your own, and be alert to how it is relevant to you. Even if you aren’t raising kids right now, anyone who works with families and youth (teachers, youth ministers, pastors, Religious Ed teachers, counselors, etc) can benefit from understanding this trend and doing a self-examination of how you may be breathing in this same social atmosphere, and how you can be an agent of change within it. Enough books have been written, and enough commentary given (even the Pope!) that it would be hard to deny that this trend is happening. The Blessing of B-minus and The Gift of Failure touch on the same topic (my brother Chad actually picked up The Gift of Failure at the same time I was reading Raising Adults, see his blog post related to responsibility and education here.)
And as Catholics, we’re called to take this self reflection one step further, to see this trend through the eyes of faith. As Fr Joseph Kentenich was fond of saying, we must keep our fingers on the pulse of the times and our ear to the heart of God. Right now many of our youth are juggling the stress of working on college applications, preparing for the SAT/ACT, and thinking about those first big directional questions in their lives. How can we support them in their discernment journey without over-reaching? How we can educate them towards the courage of fully taking up their own responsibility for their lives? How can we encourage them to use stress and setbacks as invitations from God to grow in faith?
First, by applying the same faith in our own lives! As parents, mentors, pastors, teachers, etc, if we face our own mistakes and challenges with the faith that through them God is inviting us to grow, then all around us we will foster an atmosphere of faith, responsibility, growth and resurrection. If we consistently take this question to prayer: “How is God inviting me to grow through this difficulty?,” then the atmosphere of our families, and the children and youth with whom we are in relationship, will be encouraged to ask that question themselves. Fr Kentenich was also fond of saying that to the one with childlike faith, these experiences of smallness or weakness, and of real struggle, are not obstacles in life, but rather trampolines to be used to jump up into the heart of God. Imagine if our youth knew that mistakes and frustrations and even our own human limitations were chances to jump on that trampoline and fly higher into life with God – and that the adventure of life is hidden in the truth that each person is called to make that trampoline leap for themselves alone.
Our Holy Father gave us encouragement in Philadelphia towards this end, and he also gave us plenty of inspiring talks to help us reflect and encounter God. In another talk in Philadelphia he called families a “factory of hope,” and acknowledged both the “cross” and “resurrection” that we can experience in our family life. When we truly believe that any challenge, setback, weakness, real suffering or even just the daily experience of our human limitations can be taken up in faith on the cross – and that it is only when we take up our own crosses, honoring others, even our children and youth, as they take up each his/her own cross — then God brings us each up into the mystery of Christ’s resurrection:“But in families, there is always, always, the cross. Always. Because the love of God, of the Son of God, also opened for us this path. But, in families as well, after the cross, there is the resurrection. Because the Son of God opened for us this path.”
I’ll close with the complete quote from the talk above- let us pray for the courage to grow towards God through challenges, and may we be instruments of encouragement and growth for others, especially the young people and children who are counting on us to help guide the way.
Perfect families do not exist. This must not discourage us. Quite the opposite. Love is something we learn; love is something we live; love grows as it is “forged” by the concrete situations which each particular family experiences. Love is born and constantly develops amid lights and shadows. Love can flourish in men and women who try not to make conflict the last word, but rather a new opportunity. An opportunity to seek help, an opportunity to question how we need to improve, an opportunity to discover the God who is with us and never abandons us. This is a great legacy that we can give to our children, a very good lesson: we make mistakes, yes; we have problems, yes. But we know that that is not really what counts. We know that mistakes, problems and conflicts are an opportunity to draw closer to others, to draw closer to God. Prayer Vigil for the Festival of Families