After the Show: What Is Conscious Catholic Parenting?

On August 30th I joined Dr. Gregory and Lisa Popcak on their radio show, More2Life, which helps us understand how the Theology of the Body can help us live fuller and more abundant lives.  You can listen to the whole show here.

I’m honored to announce that I’ve been invited to be a regular guest on the show: I’ll be visiting with the Popcaks every other Thursday to talk about some aspect of Catholic attachment parenting.   To make these discussions even more fruitful, I’ll be following up each show with a CAPC article summarizing what we discussed, including adding necessary clarifications and helpful resources.

So with this article, I’d like to discuss the main point we were exploring on More2Life on August 30th: What is conscious Catholic parenting and what does it have to do with the Theology of the Body?

Conscious Catholic Parenting:  Meeting the Needs of Children

Conscious Catholic parenting is an approach that depends upon a loving responsiveness to what infants, children, and teenagers need.  I used the term “conscious parenting” on the show, because apparently the term “attachment parenting” is controversial in the media world, but that’s what I’m talking about.  Attachment parenting, conscious parenting, connection parenting, empathic parenting, natural parenting: These are terms used by different folks to talk about a similar concept, namely parenting with an awareness of the optimal conditions in which children thrive.

Our goal is that our kids don’t merely survive childhood: We want our children to discover their value and unique identity, and to connect with others on a deep and profound level.  Now, any parent will say, “Of course that’s our goal. Who wouldn’t want that for their kids?” But the sad fact is that, despite their hopes, many parents parent without a real awareness of what kids really need and they often parent the way they were parented without exploring whether that approach or those parenting decisions are wise.  I say this without any judgment whatever.   Parenting is hard, life gets complicated, and if somehow you are led to a place where you begin to question what kind of atmosphere you want to provide for your family, then you are blessed and the Holy Spirit is working.

So, again, conscious parents seek to understand what our children actually need physically, spiritually, and psychologically to thrive.  We hope to create a home atmosphere that can best meet these needs.  The Theology of the Body brings so much to this discussion.  Science confirms what the Theology of the Body announced: Human beings are designed for relationship and interdependence, not radical independence.   One of the central gifts of the Theology of the Body is that it reveals to us the ideal way for people to relate to one another, including parents and children. John Paul II calls us all to “self-donation” –using our bodies, minds, and spirits to meet the needs of others with love and tenderness.  Well, goodness, this is conscious parenting, folks.  And guess what?  Through self-donative love we not only help children thrive, but we discover our true identities in Christ, because it’s only through love that our true selves are revealed.  Awesome!

Needs Are Not Static

Of course, what children need changes over time depending on their developmental stage and their temperament.  Needs are not static.  What a 3 year old needs to feel safe, inspired, and loved is very different from he’ll need when he’s 10.  And if you have more than one child you know that what one 3 year old needs to feel safe, inspired, and loved is frequently different from what another 3 year old needs!   On the show I shared the example of my third child, Dominic, who had me tapping my forehead trying to figure out what he needed from me when he was a little tyke.  After about 8 months, he didn’t want to co-sleep, didn’t like to be cuddled, kissed, or even held very much, and he was very “serious” and quiet.  My first two children were cuddly, cooing bundles of slobbery kisses who wanted nothing more than to be close to me.

The book The 5 Love Languages of Children by Gary Chapman helped me to understand the significant differences in the way we all prefer to give and receive love.  I realized that Dominic became more animated and talked a lot more when we did puzzles together, built block towers, or something of that nature.  Now, at 6, he becomes very talkative and warm when we go on private outings together.  He rarely sits on my lap or holds my hand, but on these outings he naturally does this.  Dominic feels most loved by spending one-on-one quality time with Philip and me.  That’s how he feels valued.

It’s this sensitivity to our child’s heart and mind that makes the difference.  In addition to learning how they most feel loved, we learn to understand the fears and needs underneath their behaviors and we prioritize our connection with our child over other commitments.  We do what’s right for our child even when it’s hard, inconvenient, or unpopular.  Children need to know that they’re valuable and their needs matter to us.  That’s an extraordinarily Christ-like way to parent.

Needs and Wants Are Two Different Things

One of the myths about attachment/conscious parenting is that it’s a permissive parenting style, in which the child controls the household and gets whatever he wants.  Conscious parents set limits and boundaries.  While we always try to meet a legitimate need, we often have to say “no” to a child’s wants because we can’t afford it or it’s just a bad idea for some reason.  The fact is children need these limits to thrive.  However, we can set and enforce these limits with tenderness and love, always protecting our child’s dignity.

Conscious Catholic parenting is not a big give-a-thon.  As Catholic parents we are called to lead our children to mature into empathic, loving adults.  In the daily life the family, all members of the family learn to respond to the Church’s call to self-donative love, including children.  As their maturity level permits, they join the family in keeping up the house, cooking, washing and folding clothes, and meeting the needs of younger children or those who are sick or in need.

Finally, it’s important to remember that none of us is perfect.  Despite our best efforts, hopes, and dreams, we all make mistakes with our kids that we regret.  We are learning about ourselves as we learn about our children and what it means to be a loving parent.  When it’s hard, we can struggle alongside one other; when it’s joyful, we can celebrate together.  We can all create a more abundant family life by learning from one another’s experiences and calling on one another for prayer and support.

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