AP & the Beatitudes: Blessed Are the Merciful

Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.

My children and I have continued our summer study of the Beatitudes.  How can we raise children who exemplify the virtues set out in the Sermon on the Mount?  Living a family-centered attached lifestyle will go a long way in helping us reach that goal.

How do children become merciful?

In a recent post I talked about AP and the first Beatitude:  “Blessed are the Poor in Spirit, for theirs the kingdom of heaven.”   When we’re poor in spirit, we possess humility and a recognition that we’re nothing without God.  Growing up in an empathic, gentle home can help our children develop an authentic self-esteem that includes humility and trust.   A modest person has a healthy assessment of his strengths and weaknesses, and recognizes that we all need others in our lives for happiness and self-fulfillment.  Spiritual modesty allows us to recognize our need for God’s care and guidance.   I think the kind of trust in, dependence on, and surrender to God that we need to be poor in spirit may be easier for adults who felt cherished and cared for as small children.

The kids and I recently studied the fifth Beatitude: “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.”  As we learned about what it means to be merciful, I couldn’t help thinking about some reading I’ve been doing in attachment theory.

Mercy v. Compassion

In Rosemarie Gortler’s book, The Beatitudes for Children, she describes the close relationship between mercy and compassion.  Mercy is similar to compassion:  they both involve a kind and forgiving disposition.  But mercy goes beyond our state of being:  it includes our willingness to act.  We can possess a sense of compassion, yet do nothing.  We can feel badly for our neighbor who’s going through a rough patch.  We can even really understand and identify with their pain.  We’re merciful when we’re willing to do something about it, even taking on their suffering in order to alleviate their pain.  So, we can think of mercy as compassion-with-action.  The most extraordinary moments of mercy are those that involve quiet and selfless action.

So how do we raise merciful children?  Well, we can’t order our kids to be merciful and compassionate.  They develop compassion only by being treated with compassion and by watching their caregivers treat others with compassion.   We have mercy on our children when we respond to their needs with a willing attitude and an open heart.   In attachment theory, a capacity for “empathy” is one of the measuring sticks of mental health.  The capacity to empathize means a person can put themselves in another person’s shoes.  When kids develop empathy, they not only recognize the emotions and needs of others, but they begin to regulate their behavior with great awareness.  Quite simply, they understand how their actions affect others and they don’t want to cause others pain.

We as Catholic Christians want our children to not only possess empathic feelings; we want them to feel compelled to act when they encounter others in need.  I read in one professional guide that when a child’s parents combine moral reasoning with acknowledgment of the child’s point of view, the child begins to develop empathy quite naturally.  Empathy continues to develop and can grow into “pro-social” actions directed toward the good of others:  “Empathy leads to concern about others’ distress or pain and generates intentional pro-social acts of sympathy and kindness.”  Douglas Davies, Child Development: A Practitioners Guide, 293.  Children who are raised in loving, warm homes in which their needs and feelings are respected and recognized are more likely to possess genuine love and compassion in adulthood.

If we want to raise children who are merciful they need to witness us treating others with mercy, too.  Children who admire and love their parents come to identify with them and absorb their values and attitudes, for good or ill. Davies, 292.  When parents model concern for a child’s siblings, relatives, and others in the community, the child will internalize the parents’ attitudes toward those in need of comfort, provisions, or time.  They see that such actions are not only important, but they have a roadmap in their minds about what you actually say to people in crisis or need, how you extend tenderness to others in pain, where you go to find supplies, and how to organize a community response to great crisis.  These are practical lessons that our children internalize:  They know it’s possible to make a difference and they have some sense of how you go about it.

Mercy v. Justice:   

In addition to demonstrating compassion to those in need, being merciful is also about extending forgiveness to others for their wrongs or debts.    Should our children receive mercy or justice for inappropriate behaviors?  Both.  Justice and mercy aren’t foes: They are both essential to wise parenting and indeed any kind of leadership.

Justice implies somebody “gets what they deserve”.   If God were only a God of justice, we’d all be in big doo-doo.  But his justice is always balanced by loving mercy.  He takes everything into consideration and tries to reach our hearts.   That’s what we need to do with our kids.  Extending mercy toward our child doesn’t mean we let them “get away with” things; it means we take everything into consideration and try to reach their hearts.

When justice isn’t tempered by mercy, cruelty can result.  I think this is where attachment parenting really shines.  Two of CAPC’s 7 Building Blocks are Empathic Response and Gentle Discipline.  Empathic response requires our willingness to understand and respond to our children’s needs better and also to accept the inescapable role of our own history in how we parent.  Gentle discipline involves looking below the surface of behavior to understand our child’s intentions when they are misbehaving.  We don’t punish; we guide.  This is mercy!!  We’re acting with mercy when we choose to go the extra step to search beneath our child’s behavior to identify his unmet needs, his frustrations, his unexpressed feelings.  We also recognize our own weaknesses, our own failures, and seeing the mercy of God for us in our smallness, we are compelled to have mercy for our children.   “For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.”  Hebrews 2:18.

In order to satisfy justice, the consequence for misbehavior doesn’t have to be physical pain (slapping, spanking) or rejection (grounding, time-outs).   Justice can be well-served through instruction and guidance.  If we fail to instruct our children in virtue and right living, we set up them for a lifetime of struggling with impulse control among other things.  Our children will never escape the consequences of their actions.  Sometimes these consequences are clear: When they’re cruel to their friends, they lose their friends; when they eat too much candy they feel ill.  Sometimes they’re more subtle:  When they resist doing their chores, they lose out on the satisfaction of being part of the family working as a team to accomplish a goal.  Our actions always produce consequences and young children need our leadership and guidance to understand this.  These consequences are part of the justice end of the mercy-justice scale.

We don’t have to wait for a big crisis to begin living a merciful life with our kids.  In small ways each day we can demonstrate mercy in our homes: bearing one another’s imperfections with love, extending forgiveness, and offering one another even small acts of compassion and kindness.  What a truly blessed life.

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