There’s an old joke that fits me well: Before I got married, I had eight theories about raising kids; now I have eight kids and no theories.
When I enrolled my first child in a wonderful Catholic elementary school many years ago, I marveled at all the large families I encountered. I remember seeing one mother of eight come onto campus one day with all her little ones in tow. Her youngest, a two-year-old, was barefoot and had peanut butter smeared around his mouth. I remember thinking, smugly: “If I ever have eight children, I will never get to the point where I’ll allow that!”
Now, I roll with laughter as I think about all the times my own eight children have gone out barefoot and with dirty faces!
I share this because I understand that being a parent is hard work, and I don’t have any complicated or magical “parenting theories” to offer. What I do have is the guidance of Christ, his Church, the witness of the saints, plus the next best teachers—humility and experience. I respect that parents know their own children better than anyone else does, and so I simply want to give parents, or anyone who interacts with young people (like aunts, uncles, grandparents, and even youth ministers) some tools that have helped me in my own vocation as a Catholic mother hoping to raise saints.
Friend, Parent, or Friendly Parent?
There are two extremes we need to avoid when raising children: permissive parents who ditch rules in order to be their child’s “friend,” and authoritarian parents who crush their children under harsh rules. Ironically, these different parenting styles often lead to the same kind of child: one who has low self-esteem and makes bad life choices.
A better approach is to be an authoritative “friendly” parent.
Unlike permissive parents (who seem to operate from fear or neglectfulness), we aren’t merely our child’s “friend,” and we lay down the law when necessary. We know, as the Bible says, that “all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant; [but] later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.” (Heb. 12:11). But unlike authoritarian parents (who seem to operate from anger and pride), we don’t teach our children to disdain us or be afraid of us through cold, harsh punishment. We follow St. Paul’s instruction to “not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph. 6:4).
One study of college students showed that while children with permissive and authoritarian parents got advice from their peers, children with authoritative or “friendly” parents were more likely to get advice from them.
This reminds me of a time I had lunch with my friend’s lovely teenaged daughter who said she went straight to her open-hearted mother when she wanted to know the meaning of a sexual term she heard. Her mother gave her a clear answer, placed in the context of Church teaching, and the young woman was satisfied.
“My mom always tells me the truth,” she told me, “and I would never think to go to my classmates or friends with that kind of question.”
That is exactly what we want our children to say about us, and being a parent who is friendly gets us to that point.
My children have always come to me with difficult moral questions precisely because they know that I will not shame them, nor give them evasive “non-answers,” nor tacitly approve immorality.
However, the answers I give will always be tailored to their level of development.
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