One of the signs of a mature spiritual life is a stable view of happiness: an understanding of happiness that both corresponds to our experience and remains unmoved in the midst of the vicissitudes of life. Until someone reaches this understanding of happiness, he will be like “a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed about by the wind” (James 1:6). True happiness is what really satisfies the human heart in every circumstance, not just for a time or in this or that circumstance. The greatest good can’t be something that comes and goes.
As a parent, you need not only to acquire a mature understanding of happiness, but to learn the art of gradually leading your children to it. After all, this is the same method God uses with us: at first, he showers us with sensible goods, not as if they were the ultimate fulfilment of our desires but rather as signs of his love and fatherly care. As we grow in our spiritual lives and begin to trust and experience his love, God gives us gifts in human relationships and people who appreciate our gifts and talents. Later, God allows us to experience joy in prayer and the practice of the virtues. Finally, through the gifts of the Holy Spirit and the Beatitudes, God grants us a deep spiritual joy in desiring and possessing him alone.
You must do something similar with your children. You begin with the goods that they can appreciate and experience: sensible pleasures like candy and warm hugs. Next, with copious praise you encourage them to develop their talents and abilities. It is a natural tendency to correct our children for their faults but not praise them enough for their good deeds—including not just their successes but also their efforts and intentions. As my brother used to say to his children: “I want ‘A’ effort, not an ‘A’ grade.”
Of course, although we should not act as if the goods of this world, such as bodily pleasure or human honor, are the ultimate purpose of human life, they are nonetheless truly good and are meant to lead to something better and more lasting. God would never have given us the goods of this world if they were inherently obstacles to our salvation. God has given them to us as means to our salvation, not obstacles to it. We only make earthly goods into obstacles by loving them, contrary to God’s intention, as if they were the ultimate good. Therefore, once children have an experience of these lesser goods and through that experience a sense that they are loved and worthy of love, parents need to introduce their children to prayer, gratitude, and self-sacrificial love. Then they are ready to learn to understand that God is to be desired and loved in everything, and everything is to be loved for God’s sake.
Gratitude is one of the most essential dispositions a parent should model and instill. St. Bernard once wrote that God finds the grateful soul irresistible, and he showers even greater gifts upon a grateful soul. Everything we have and are is a gift from God, and unless children understand this they will develop a sense of entitlement that inevitably leads to sadness and resentment. The entitled person thinks he deserves everything he gets, and so nothing is seen as a gift and nothing comes from love. But when someone appreciates that he came into being from nothing and that his life, his body, his mind, his family, his goods, everything, is a gift, and receives these as a gift, he experiences the love of the divine Giver. Moreover, he comes to understand that everything he has from God is at the service of God, and is meant to lead us and others to salvation; that is, to union with God.
The purpose in following this path is ultimately to mediate for your children an experience of God’s love for them.
They need to be affirmed so that they have a deep and abiding sense that it is good that they exist. Even the small things, like the look of affection and approval in the eyes of their father, the loving and affectionate touch of their mother, are the beginning of their experience of God’s love. If this path of gradually discovering true happiness is derailed, or if they are deprived of the kind of happiness appropriate to their age and maturity, your children can feel as if their upbringing and faith have failed them.
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