Archive for Culture and Parenting – Page 2

The Battle of the Screens

91911223I’ve had it with screens.  Computer screens, television screens, smartphone screens.  Screens on toys, screens in homes, screens in restaurants, screens in stores.  Wherever you go, the screen is never far away, threatening to lure you in and squander your time in a parallel universe where communication appears limitless even though real human interaction is non-existent.

Screens are like a magnet for our attention.  Televisions in restaurants vie for our gaze no matter how much we love our dinner date; and it doesn’t take long to observe how much power the smartphone has over the virtue of self control.

Technology is wonderful in many ways.  It allows us to keep in touch with long distance friends.  It allows my children to see their grandparents who live on the other side of the country without ever stepping foot outside our door.  It helps us grow in knowledge, and even helps us gain inspiration for more fully embracing our faith.

But how do we maintain a proper balance between the use of technology and the love of our human relationships?  How do we ensure that ipods, smartphones, and computers are not interfering with the reception of God’s voice?

 “Temperance is simply a disposition of the mind which binds the passion.”–Thomas Aquinas

We must remind ourselves often of what our real passions are.  I love God and I love my Catholic faith.  I like to read about my faith in books, and on Catholic blogs and websites.  But this is no replacement for time spent in prayer–for time spent just being with God.  I love my family.  I love my kids, and I am passionate about leading them to heaven.  I like to read books, blogs, and Facebook pages that inspire me with ways to do this.  But their journey to heaven can only begin when I spend time teaching them, loving them, and simply being with them.

Technology has its time and place.  It’s even a wonderful tool for a bit of respite from the demands of everyday life.  But it exists only to enhance what God calls us to do.  It is not who we are.

 “The things that we love tell us what we are.”–Thomas Aquinas

I am seeking to convey this truth to my children by the way we manage our screen time in our home.  We have had days when I’ve been ready to literally throw all screens out the window.  However, I recognize that technology is a part of our world, and it is up to me to teach my kids how to use it with temperance and prudence.  Hence, the “unplugged” rule.

There is now a sign hanging in a prominent place in our home that reads, “Screens Are…” and just below it, space for a sign that reads either “Open” or “Closed”.  This applies to the entire household, although some leniency is granted to adults who have legitimate “boring” work to do on a screen.

screens open-closed

This rule is simple, clear cut, and easy to manage in a household of seven.  It conveys the message that there are times to be plugged in and times to be unplugged.  It allows our entire family to be available and in tune to one another at once, rather than always having one person who is using his or her “screen time” for the day.

This rule allows us to relate to one another, to work through disagreements together, to learn who we are through each other, and to give space for God’s voice to be heard.

Establish household technology rules that work for your family’s schedule.  Monitor what your children are doing during their screen time.  Model moderation of technology to your children and they will follow your lead.  Establish your own set times that you will respond to e-mails, answer texts, and check your Facebook page.  Then shut down and turn it off.  Spend the rest of your day soaking up this glorious world God gave us.  Truly be present to your kids and spouse and show them that they are, indeed, more important to you than that screen you’re holding.  Because when the screens are closed, our hearts are open–and that is the kind of reception with which we should never interfere.

You can find some helpful resources here, including the slides from Lisa Hendey’s presentation “Raising Faith-Filled Families in the Digital Age” that I heard recently at the Midwest Catholic Family Conference.

In Conversation with Robbyn Peters Bennett

Robbyn

Robbyn

I’m thrilled to present to CAPC readers my interview with Robbyn Peters Bennett, MA, LMHC.  Robbyn is the founder of Stop Spanking.org and a board advisor for the US Alliance to End the Hitting of Children .   She is a psychotherapist, administrator, educator and child advocate.  She provides therapy to families involved with Child Protective Services, and provides parenting assessments for the Department of Child & Family Services.  Currently she has a private practice in Bellingham, Washington

Kim:  Robbyn, thank you so much for sharing your time with CAPC readers!  Can you tell us a little about your organization, StopSpanking.org:  why did you start it and what are you hoping to accomplish with your work?

Robbyn:  I founded StopSpanking as a nonprofit dedicated to educating parents and clinicians who work with parents on the current neurobiological discoveries that make it clear that we should never spank our children – ever.  There are human rights arguments and religious arguments that support the idea that we should never spank.  But as a clinician working in the field of childhood abuse and neglect, I was aware that there is an avalanche of research warning against spanking, but this research was not showing up in clinical training for pediatricians, therapists, nurses, and social workers that work with children.  So as a professional community, many of us are not up to speed on the research.  So, we are failing to educate the public.  We are also lacking any meaningful campaign to educate the public.

StopSpanking is an online resource that can help clinicians feel more comfortable educating their patients and clients and it is a website available to parents so that they can better understand the research.  There is no spanking debate in the professional community.  The research is as compelling statistically as the research on smoking with 93% agreement.  The controversy is in the general public, so our mission is to help educate the public on what is already known scientifically.

We also understand that spanking is on a continuum of violence against children, and that it is a gateway to criminal child abuse. Our goal is to prevent criminal child abuse by changing social acceptance of spanking – essentially making spanking socially unacceptable just as domestic violence between adults is socially unacceptable

Kim:  Our ministry aims to provide information to Catholic parents who are interested in attachment-based parenting.  How does spanking impact the quality of attachment of a child to her parent? 

Robbyn:  Neuroscience teaches us that the first core strength of healthy brain development is attachment.  Attachment is the ability to form a one-to-one relationship with a loving caregiver.  This ability is the foundation to all further brain development. Healthy attachment allows for co-regulation between the caregiver and the child, which builds a child’s capacity for self-regulation.  Self-regulation allows a child to manage emotion, control her impulses, recover from distress, and maintain attention and focus.

92861969Self-regulation is necessary in order to develop other skills such as social affiliation, tolerance, and empathy.  So if we want our children to be pro-social, to be able to share, form and maintain friendships, express empathy for others, problem solve and negotiate, manage their feelings, focus on learning and maintain attention – we must help them develop self regulation through their attachment to us.

When we use fear and pain to educate our children, it compromises their bond to us, because it creates confusion between love and pain.  It teaches a child that sometimes the primary person whom she relies on for love, safety, and warmth is the very same person that can hurt you.  The child can form an ambivalent attachment which interferes with the development of the child’s self regulation skills.

When the caregiver is the source of threat, the child cannot use the parent as a source of co-regulation. We know that children can tolerate a great deal of stress without experiencing a toxic stress reaction in the brain if they have a warm, safe, secure relationship with their primary caregiver.   Spanking is by definition a threat in the absence of the buffering support of the caregiver, which increases the risk for a toxic stress reaction in the brain.  Toxic stress inhibits proper brain development and leads to negative outcomes such as increased aggressive and poor impulse control.

Spanking can inhibit learning in several ways.  Spanking

  • teaches the child to fear and avoid the parent, so the parent is less available to the child to solve problems and cope with the world;
  • activates the fight or flight response (stress response) and shuts down the neo-cortex responsible for cognitive processing.  So the child has more difficulty understanding and learning from mistakes;
  • interferes with the development of self regulation, making it more difficult for the child to control impulses, manage frustration, and cope with feelings.

Many people believe that if a mother spanks her child, but is generally warm and affectionate toward her child, the spanking will not be harmful.  The fact is, science does not support this cultural belief.  We have known for some time that spanking is strongly linked to increased aggression in young children.  Recent research in a study of over 3,000 children now shows that the warmth of the mother does not prevent the negative effects of spanking.  This means children who are spanked are at much greater risk for being more aggressive – period.  A mother’s warmth does not decrease the risk.   Here is a link providing further details of this research:  Maternal Warmth Doesn’t Make Spanking Less Harmful  

This may come as a big surprise to many parents, but when you begin to understand the importance of the buffering influence of a caregiver on the child’s ability to regulate, this really starts to make sense.

Kim:  Some parents argue that we should all just do what works best for our families and not judge one another.  What would you say to those parents?

Robbyn:  When we say it is OK if other parents spank, we are essentially giving permission to parents who are more overwhelmed, victims of early abuse themselves, in unsupportive relationships, with fewer resources and greater stress to strike their children.  And they do strike their children.  The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study which is one of the largest longitudinal studies performed by the Centers for Disease Control and Kaiser Health Plan of over 17,000 middle class Americans, showed that 29% of Americans reported childhood physical abuse.  That is over 88 million people. We know that the majority of physical abuse begins with a parent attempting to physically punish a child.  Physical assault of children is an enormous problem in this country and has huge long-term consequences including increase risk for depression, mental health problems, cardiac disease, asthma, obesity, lung disease, and the list goes on.  This is what the Adverse Childhood Experience Study has taught us, that early abuse and neglect lead to major health problems into adulthood, because these early negative experiences alter brain development.  Research shows that spanking has many of the same negative outcomes and that children who are harshly spanked have alterations in brain development similar to individuals who were victims of overt child abuse.

We need to take responsibility for our own children by committing not to spank, and we need to stand up for all children and say that spanking is wrong and it is never OK to hit a child.  The negative risks are too great to have confusion about hitting children.  There is no fine line.  All hitting falls on the continuum of violence, and science cannot offer a cutoff between spanking that is harmless and spanking that is risky.  Spanking is very stressful for the child, and depending upon the frequency and developmental stage of the child, there are going to be consequences.

Kim: What about parents who spank in a way that does not qualify as child abuse as our laws currently stand.  I believe in most states spanking is permitted as long as it doesn’t leave visible marks on the child.  Is there any evidence or research which distinguishes the outcomes for children who are clearly abused and for children who are loved warmly and only occasionally spanked “lightly”?

Robbyn:  Spanking is permitted in every state in the US with varying definitions of “reasonable force.”  The research on spanking only includes legal spanking, as opposed to overt child abuse.  Researchers are also careful to rule out things such as domestic violence in the home or maternal depression or mental illness in order to isolate the phenomena of spanking.  Some studies look at both spanking and yelling, while others specifically spanking.  Some look at spanking that includes the use of implements such as belts or spoons, which is common to 30% of American children, others only spanking with the hand.

Many of the recent studies look specifically at spanking (defined as a smack with the open hand on the bottom) with young children from infancy to age 5.  These studies show an increase in aggression and behavioral problems over time.

Each study naturally has shortcomings, so it is important to look at the cumulative outcomes.  The cumulative research on spanking has as much statistical validity as the research showing negative outcomes of smoking. It is a powerful warning.

When we imagine we are spanking “lightly,” we may lose sight of the fact that from the child’s perspective spanking is painful and frightening.  If spankings were not painful, what exactly would be the point?  Spanking teaches the child that sometimes her primary caregiver can be a threat, and so the child may have anxiety about being hurt in the future.  The threat of a spanking is also damaging.

When we use euphemisms like “spanking,” we psychologically distance ourselves from the fact that we are hitting.  When we eliminate confusing euphemisms and state the question as, “Is it dangerous to lightly and infrequently hit my child?” or “According to the research, how often can I hit my child without negative outcomes?” the question seems absurd.

The research shows that the more frequent the spanking, the greater risk for negative outcomes.  It also shows that spanking with an open hand can be toxic, resulting in increased aggression, lower IQ, increased behavioral problems, and a myriad of health problems.  Is there a cutoff between spanking that is OK and spanking that is dangerous?  There is not a clear cutoff.  The developing brain of a child is extremely vulnerable and there are developmental windows of extreme sensitivity, particularly when between the ages of 0 – 5.  It is like asking how many cigarettes one can safely smoke.  Depending on the frequency and sensitive developmental windows, even infrequent spanking could be quite harmful.  Why risk it?

Kim:  Many parents sense spanking is not the best option, but they just don’t know what else to do.  Do you have any practical suggestions or resources for parents who wish to stop spanking or who are dealing with a spirited child?

Robbyn:  Yes!  There are so many wonderful resources.  We have a resource page on our site.  There are online Facebook sites and websites that are dedicated to the concepts of Positive Discipline and Unconditional Parenting.  There is a wonderful interactive tool created by the Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt that helps you learn how to deal with aggressive children.  And there are many, many books dedicated to this subject.  Parents can feel secure in knowing that many parents are raising children without spanking, and doing so successfully.  I always encourage parents to join local online parenting groups for practical advice, and of course you can always seek professional help if your child is having difficulty with aggressive behaviors.

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Robbyn welcomes readers to contact her with feedback or questions.  Visit her on Facebook:  www.facebook.com/protectchildrenfromviolence.

RESOURCES

On-Line:

StopSpanking.org (see especially the extensive resource page Robbyn mentions!)

Books:

Spare the Child by Philip J. Greven

Beating the Devil Out of Them by Murray A. Strauss

Positive Discipline by Jane Nelsen (what to do instead of spanking)

Parenting with Grace by Greg & Lisa Popcak (copious tips on gentle discipline)

Dr. Teicher on the Developing Brain

A fantastic video interview with Dr. Teicher by Robbyn Bennet Peters.   How does early stress impact brain development and outcomes for children?  Not to be missed:

Dr. Teicher on the Developing Brain from Robbyn Peters on Vimeo.

The Family & The New Evangelization

year of faith photo

Today is the Feast of the Ascension.  At the Ascension, Christ announced the Church’s mission to the Apostles:

Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.  And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.  Matthew 28: 19 and 20.

Christians aren’t meant to sit back and cheer on the Church as she tries to spread the Good News of salvation and Christ’s love.  (Way to go guys!  Convert those lost souls! Woo-hoo!   . . .  Okay, where’s my remote?)  All Christians are called to the task of evangelization.  This truth is evident in the Vatican’s efforts to promote “The New Evangelization” at every level of society.  Ordinary Christian men and women are critical in transforming not only non-Christianized nations, but the de-Christianization of previously rich Christian communities.

But what about parents?  How can we be useful in the serious work of conversion when we have a family to care for?  Today my toddler decided to run the hose in our unlandscaped yard, creating a mud pile; she then rolled around in it until she was covered in mud from head to toe.  This morning, my teenager was having a hard time deciding whether he felt comfortable riding his bike to the middle of town to meet some pals for a movie.  He needed my attention and my ear all morning.  And I will not  mention (okay, I’m mentioning it) my nine-year-old daughter who needs gentle lessons in why growing girls need to wear clothes around the house.

Gee whiz!  I know I’m not alone.  We are busy raising our children and keeping our homes running smoothly.  How do we become part of the Church’s work of conversion?  I explored this question with Greg & Lisa Popcak on their radio show More2Life today.  The fact is, not only are we called to participate in The New Evangelization, but we have a special role to play.

Our first disciples are very near

The Church has identified the family has particularly critical to the Church’s work of evangelization.  However, you don’t need to go off to distant lands to obey Christ’s call to convert the world.  We heed the call by evangelizing our own children:  our first disciples are our children.  We can spend lots of time in Church ministries, packing care packages for the poor, and raising money for missions, but let’s not kid ourselves:  If we fail our children, we fail the call.  Our culture tells us that what we do at home in the private sphere of the family is insignificant especially socially and politically.  But family is everything. It is always and everywhere.  Every human being begins as part of a family.

ConnectionThe family is the first school of love.  Christ said we are to teach and convert our children, so what are our children learning in our families?  Are they learning fear, hate, and rebellion or joy, love, and communion?   Lisa Popcak mentioned her concern that many of her homeschooling friends assume that because they are using a Catholic homeschool curriculum, their children will grow up to become faithful, fulfilled Catholics, but the evidence does not bear this out.  One study I looked at claimed that Catholic children are more likely than not to fall away from the faith in adulthood.  We cannot assume that because we form our child’s mind with good Catholic information that she’ll remain Catholic.  We must win her heart first.  To carry our values into adulthood, our child must see us as credible authorities and care about our values.  By attending to the quality of the attachment and connection between our children and ourselves, we are tending their hearts, and drawing them to Christ.

Studies consistently show that children who are raised in harsh, negative environments are less likely to internalize their parents’ values than children raised by firm but kind parents. Quite simply, we impact the world in the way we love our children.

See those Christians, how they love

The New Evangelization calls us to reach out not only to non-Christians, but also Christians who have lost the faith.  We can do this work comfortably within the vocation of parenting.  You don’t have to stand on a street corner with a Bible to fulfill this call.  The world will see the witness of our lives and wonder what we have that they don’t have!  (See those Christians how they love!) Just in our love, neighborliness, and hospitality toward others, we can evangelize the world.  Inviting acquaintances to your home to share a meal and to experience the love of a healthy, thriving family is a powerful way to participate in the Church’s mission.

Sharing the comfort and warmth of our families in this way will impact others in more ways than we can imagine.  I believe American culture in particular is starving for the kindness and warmth that can be found in strong, loving Catholic homes.  So, invite a work acquaintance home for dinner; bring a widowed or sick neighbor cards made by your children and bring your children along to deliver them; invite a fallen Catholic to share in your Easter dinner.  You don’t have to lean into their faces and ask, are you saved, in order to spread Christ’s Good News.  Your love is the Good News.  As one of the Popcaks’ callers put it, sometimes it’s most compelling to allow others to meet Christ in us, in our merciful actions, instead of through our words.

He is with us always

As we live this noble, sacramental life of parenting our children, of evangelizing world through our families, we will struggle, we will fall, we will suffer.  Christ promised he would be with us always in this work.   Especially through the sacraments, Christ will strengthen us and give us wisdom for the journey.  We must not only attend Mass faithfully in order to take the Eucharist, but we parents benefit from the healing and direction available through the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

We can also meet Christ in prayer.   Each family has a unique path, a special mission within the larger mission of the Church, but we will never know what that is unless we are willing to cultivate our prayer life, both personally and as a family.  If you can’t imagine how you can fit in family prayer in a schedule that is already jammed, start small.  Perhaps you can just pray the Morning Offering together before you all leave for the day, pray at dinner, and then pray again with your children when they’re going to bed.  Praying the rosary is a great way to introduce family prayer even with small children.  With lots of littlies, it’s okay to just pray one decade of the rosary.  Once you have made a commitment to prayer and it becomes family habit, you will notice real changes in the emotional and spiritual environment of your home.

Christ is also with us through the fellowship of other Christians.  I can become isolated in my large parish because I’m so shy, but when I make the effort to get involved in parish activities and events, I am always glad.  I especially appreciate how my children benefit from feeling part of our parish community: they love knowing the special, pretty places on the parish grounds, the names of our deacons (and where they eat lunch after Mass!), and those small seemingly mundane details that often give us all a comfortable sense of belonging.

He is with us always as we lead our domestic church, as we convert the world one moment at a time, one conversation at a time, despite muddied toddlers and teen angst — no, it’s through those things that our evangelical work thrives!

Be Not Afraid

LoveI can’t wait to talk to my kids about sex.  Yes, you read that correctly.  I CAN’T WAIT!  I can’t wait to teach my kids how to make this world a better place by holding a reverence for the sacred and by understanding that the Original Plan for sex was never Plan B.  That God’s plan never included unchastity, infidelity, heartache, and despair.  Sex is everything we are and everything we were created to be.  In the proper context of marriage between a man and a woman, sex becomes something that gives us a taste of the bliss of heaven and a glimpse of the magnitude of God’s love for us.  We become co-creators in God’s great plan for life in this world, and we have the ability to be a beacon of hope to all who are lost on their journey to true love.

I want my children to be able to recognize the corruption and distortion of the beauty of sex in this world as it stands in stark contrast to the heavenly purity within the sacrament of marriage.

As parents, we are called to lead our children on a path of purity and holiness.  This is no small task, as the very core of their beings — their sexuality — is bombarded with all of the wrong messages from the time they are born.  But God has blessed us with the tools we need to combat lust with love and perversion with dignity.  The Theology of the Body gives us everything we need to live God’s message of love and purity every day in our homes.

Be not afraid!  Study this great work and impart its infinite wisdom to your children.  Don’t just have “The Talk”.  Live the message of the Theology of the Body in your marriage, your friendships, and your relationships with your children.

The Theology of the Body is not just for married couples.  The Theology of the Body is a lens through which we can view how to better live every aspect of our lives.  It points our hearts to the love of God in heaven and allows our bodies to follow.  It gives us the gifts of self respect, dignity, and purity.  It allows those in the celibate religious life to remain faithful to their vows, and elevates a good marriage to an extraordinary marriage.

Most importantly, the Theology of the Body lifts the veil of deceit that the devil has lowered over the radiance of the true meaning of sex.  It allows our children to see the devil’s lies for what they are and realize their choices are not limited to those of this world.  Sex is sacred!  It is not something to be “protected”, “safe”, or “freely” and shamelessly given away while trapped in the fear of disease, emotional turmoil, or an unplanned pregnancy.  Sex is meant to be experienced with wild, passionate abandon within the context of marriage.  Through the grace of this sacrament, we find the ability to turn back time to the Garden of Eden–to experience a relationship with no shame, no fear of being used, and true freedom to love.

We are called to impart the joy of living the beauty of sex in this way to our children by living authentic, Catholic marriages.  Study the Theology of the Body, take a Natural Family Planning class, pray for your spouse.  We are all called to be saints, and as parents we must take this calling seriously.  Our children are depending on us.  They want to know the surest way to experience the love we all long for while still in this world.  I can guarantee you they will not find it if we don’t fill their hearts with the antithesis of what the rest of the world is teaching them.

Be not afraid!  We will all stumble as our humanity attempts to convey such a heavenly message, but I firmly believe the Holy Spirit will assist us generously in our efforts.  The message of the Theology of the Body is what God desperately wants for us because He loves us.  Let us seek Him with the same desperation by living out His plan for sex and marriage so that we might be filled with the grace and passion to teach our children well.  For it is within this school of joy that our children’s hearts will find peace and purity by resting in the love of God.

Theology of the Body Resources 

Websites:

www.christopherwest.com

www.thetheologyofthebody.com

Books:

Beyond the Birds and the Bees by Dr. Gregory Popcak will help your raise sexually whole and holy children.

The Theology of the Body for Beginners by Christopher West is a great place to start learning about TOB

The Theology of the Body for Teens programs are excellent.  The parents’ guides for both the high school edition and middle school edition list many other fantastic resources and provide great conversation starters for parents and their children.

The Domestic Church Images the Last Supper

The Last Supper, Duccio

The Last Supper, Duccio

I was scheduled to be on “More2Life” with Dr. Greg & Lisa Popcak this  morning, but Dr. Greg is sick and has lost his voice!  Prayers for you, Dr. Greg.  We all hope you recover quickly.  I  thought I would briefly explore the topic we were going to discuss on the show:  “The Domestic Church Images the Last Supper.”

Today is Holy Thursday, the first day of the Triduum, and the day we recall the Last Supper.  At the Last Supper, Christ instituted the Eucharist as a supernatural banquet that nourishes believers spiritually. He also washed the feet of the 12 Apostles in an act of profound humility.  How do we, as Catholic parents, live in concrete ways the significance of the Last Supper in our own homes?

The Domestic Church Images the Eucharist 

The Second Vatican Council called our families “the domestic church” because we image and participate in the work of the Universal Church.  In fact, families are critical to the mission of the church.  Just as the Universal Church repeats Christ’s sacrifice on the altar at every Mass for the benefit and unity of all believers, so we parents as heads of our domestic church feed our families spiritually through the sacrifices we make as parents.

Parents have the grave duty to form their children’s spiritual lives.  It takes time and planning, but as heads of our domestic church, we have to recognize our supreme role in leading our children to Heaven.  Our families need to pray together and live a Christ-centered life within our homes.  In addition, we feed our children spiritually when we treat them with dignity and respect.  Children are made in the image and likeness of God: they have the capacity for self-giving, selfless love.  But when their parents scare them, hit them, ignore them, or focus only on their external achievements, children are distanced from that capacity within themselves.  John Paul II exhorted the domestic church to become “communities of love” as witnesses to the world.  When we take that extra moment and go that extra mile to understand things from our child’s perspective, to discern their true needs not just what we assume they need, to guard their hearts, we are building up our communities of love.

Gathering our little flock at family dinners is one of the most beautiful ways we image The Last Supper in our homes.  As we sacrifice our time and energy to present a beautiful meal to our children, and often extended family and friends, we are providing an opportunity for communion. Communion is an exchange of gifts, not just mom or dad doing all the sharing and giving.  We can provide opportunities for our children to share their ideas and talents at the table, and to work with us to present the family meal.

The Washing of Feet: We Kneel Down to Exalt Our Children

At the Last Supper, Christ kneeled down and washed the feet of the disciples in an act of humility that has reverberated through history.  If you attend Mass tonight you will see your priest imitating this same action on the altar:  He will wash the feet of 12 men (sometimes men and women).  Well we parents imitate this action daily in our parenting vocation.  Pope Benedict XVI pointed out that in this moment of the feet washing, Christ was taking on the task of a slave.  It shows that “God doesn’t want to trample on us, but kneels down before us to exalt us.  The mystery of the greatness of God is seen precisely in the fact that he can be so small.”  He kneels down before to exalt us.  Wow.

We parents image this action every day.  We literally wash our children’s feet.  We wipe their dirty bottoms, clean their boogery noses, and clip their toenails.  Parents are willing to make themselves small in order to keep their children clean and healthy.  But this extends to our child’s emotional health as well.  Creating an atmosphere in our homes that fosters strong bonding and connection usually means parents have to make themselves small in some way: Dad has to do the dishes so Mom can nurse the baby, both parents have to sacrifice achievement outside the home in order to do what’s right for their family, we let our kids put capes and wigs on us so they can be in charge of play sometimes.  Making ourselves small in these ways raises up our children in dignity.

When we’re having a tough day, I hope we can remember Benedict’s wisdom.  When we kneel down in order to exalt our children, we are imaging Christ at the Last Supper.  We all hope our homes will become holy and peaceful; we all hope we will have the wisdom and charity to create an atmosphere that reflects what the Holy Family’s home might have looked like.  But we’re dealing daily with the effects of sin and the hand of the Devil trying to muck up everything we do.  We move toward conversion through grace, with our families resting in the hand of God.  Conversion in our homes doesn’t happen all at once.  God offers us small opportunities for conversion as we walk our path together as a family. When we make sacrifices and surrender our own needs in order to help our children become stronger emotionally, physically, and spiritually, I think we are participating in a very real way Christ’s work of conversion.

Have a blessed Holy Thursday with your families, the domestic church.

From Pope Francis’ First Angelus Message

pope francis

We parent today in a strange world that tells us little things are everything and that truth, goodness, and faith are nothing.  We parent today in a world that tells us to do our own thing, to fulfill our own needs no matter the cost to others, because we deserve it and we’re number one.  When children get in the way of our plans, the Modern Parent is told to have a clear plan of action, to count to 10, and keep those kids in their place.

But what is on the hearts and minds of those children?  Are they lonely, scared, confused, or angry?  What does the intentional, conscious Catholic parent do in those moments when our culture bumps up against our Faith?

Our Church has always looked to the virtue of mercy in responding the chaos of others, whether its financial, social, or emotional chaos.  These words, from our dear Pope Francis in his first Angelus Message, stay with me today, especially as I think of you parents who feel called to love your sweet babes with gentleness and mercy even in the face of cultural pressures to ignore, neglect, or even physically strike your children:

God’s face is that of a merciful father who is always patient. Have you thought about God’s patience, the patience that He has with each of us? That is His mercy. He always has patience, is always patient with us, understanding us, awaiting us, never tiring of forgiving us if we know how to return to him with a contrite heart. “Great is the Lord’s mercy,” says the Psalm. . . A bit of mercy makes the world less cold and more just. We need to understand God’s mercy well, this merciful Father who has such patience…  (Emphasis mine)

You, Mamas and Papas, have a calling.  I know it seems unlikely in the average moments of parenting, when your little one is crying for a second glass of juice or your big kid asks to have a body part pierced, but you are called to deliver to the world Christ’s message of love.  The way we respond to our children in these very real moments will influence the world beyond our doors, because our children will go out and love the way they were loved.

When we love our children gently and mercifully, when we take those extra moments to understand their pain and fear, we are building up the Church.  Don’t doubt it.  Seek to know your children on a profound level.  Look past their actions to their hearts.  Seek to change their hearts first through mercy and love.

Pray for Our Cardinals

st peters basilicaThe College of Cardinals will come together tomorrow at St. Peter’s Basilica to recite the Rosary followed by Adoration of the Blessed Sacraments, and then Vespers.

They have called upon all of us, the universal church, to pray with them tomorrow, Wednesday, March 6, at 5:00 pm Rome time (that’s 11:00 a.m. EST, 8:00 a.m. PST), for the upcoming conclave as they enter the process of electing a new Pope.

This is an historical moment, and the powers of light and darkness are at battle.  Especially for faithful parents who witness daily the insults to decency, love, and humility, we must join together to pray for our Church leaders.

Friends, let us pray for our Cardinals, that they will be strengthened by our love and support, that they will be empowered by their faith and commitment, that they will be undeterred by the Great Divider who seeks to destroy the Church and its Truth.

My family will pray tomorrow morning and I hope your voices will join ours!

Are We Done Yet?

The Tierney Family of 6, soon to by 7!!

The Tierney Family of 6, soon to be 7!!

I think it started in earnest when I was expecting our third child.  Questions like, “So is this it?”,  “How many do you plan to have?”, and  “Are you done after this one?” almost always seemed to follow close behind the initial congratulatory remarks once family, friends, and even complete strangers learned of my pregnancy.  When I first heard these questions, I often fumbled for words.  The curiosity of others seemed so far removed from my husband’s and my way of thinking.

When I was once asked how many children we plan to have, I simply and honestly responded, “I don’t know.”  The person who asked me the question appeared shocked and exclaimed, “You mean you haven’t talked about it?!?”  I nearly laughed out loud.  If there’s one thing faithful Natural Family Planning practicing couples do, it’s talk!  We revisit the question of whether or not we are being called to conceive another child at least once a month.  The subject has already come up between my husband and me as we enter the last few days of my pregnancy with our fifth child.  The truth is, we still don’t know for sure how many children we will ultimately have–and it is the very essence of that uncertainty that blesses our marriage and spiritual lives with riches beyond compare.

Our humanity can never fully comprehend the plans God has laid out for us as we make our earthly journey to heaven.  He, along with the Church, is our compass, our map, and our guide.  For this reason, we are called to seek God’s will in all that we do.  We are incapable of choosing the correct road to follow all on our own.  Our judgment is too often clouded with sin, internal spiritual warfare, and self doubt.  But if we surrender our will to that of our heavenly Father, He will protect our souls from being corrupted by the lies and deception of the evil one.

This way of life, of course, carries with it a degree of uncertainty.  But earthly uncertainty has the potential to evolve into divine surrender, and our great gift of fertility cannot be excluded from this.  Choosing to ignore the devil’s attacks on this most sacred and holy part of our marriage is not always easy.  Seeking God’s will does not come without trial and tribulation.  A heart open to God is especially vulnerable to the stealthy ways of the devil.

 “…if you come forward to serve the Lord, prepare yourself for temptation.  Set your heart right and be steadfast, and do not be hasty in time of calamity.  Cleave to him and do not depart, that you may be honored at the end of your life.  Accept whatever is brought upon you, and in changes that humble you be patient.  For gold is tested in the fire, and acceptable men in the furnace of humiliation.  Trust in him, and he will help you; make your ways straight, and hope in him…Consider the ancient generations and see:  who ever trusted in the Lord and was put to shame? …For the Lord is compassionate and merciful.”  Sirach 2: 1-6, 10, 11

How quickly our plan to serve the Lord becomes an issue of trust.  Do we trust that if we seek God’s will alone that He will give us the strength and self mastery we need to faithfully practice Natural Family Planning in the midst of a serious medical condition?  Do we trust that God will answer our prayers for a conversion of heart in a spouse resistant to adhering to the precepts of the Church?  Do we trust that God will provide us with the means to faithfully raise another child?  Accepting our fertility as a gift affects so many facets of our lives and of our faith.  We find ourselves continually assessing how God wants us to embrace this gift at any particular point in our lives.  Are we being called to bring another life into the world, or do we have a just reason to postpone pregnancy?  It is only through the discipline of prayer and proper conscience formation that we will be able to discern God’s will.  We can be certain that God will never ask us to do something that is in direct conflict with the teachings of His Church.  We can also be certain that God will never ask us to do something that will not ultimately lead us to a great sense of joy and peace in our lives.  So we must pray, educate ourselves in the faith, and communicate with our spouse what God is saying to us in the depths of our hearts.

 “Such discipline bestows upon family life fruits of serenity and peace, and facilitates the solution of other problems; it favors attention to one’s partner, helps the spouses to drive out selfishness, the enemy of true love; and deepens their sense of responsibility.  By its means, parents acquire the capacity of having a deeper and more efficacious influence in the education of their offspring; little children and youths grow up with a just appraisal of human values, and in the serene and harmonious development of their spiritual and sensitive faculties.”  Humanae Vitae  21

This responsible acceptance of our gift of fertility is a key factor in our children’s “just appraisal of human values.”  They observe us viewing the gift of new life through the eyes of God.  They see the love of our marriage emulating the blessed Trinity as the love of two begets physical and spiritual fruits.  They see that accepting the responsibility of conceiving a new life is neither a decision to be taken lightly, nor one to be forever cut off from the grace of God.  A mere five times for them to observe all of these truths through the tangible miracle of a tiny baby suddenly doesn’t seem like enough!  Our children live in a world where they are bombarded by the snares of the devil.  His subliminal messages often appear more glamorous and appealing than God’s truths of what will truly make us happy.  Our children need to see us surrendering our bodies and souls to God with complete trust.  This will nurture their sense of trust and discernment, which will in turn fill us with a sense of peace as we learn to give our children back to God.

Is this not where Catholic Attachment Parenting begins?  With our attachment to God and His will–only then can we discern properly what He desires for us and our children.

So are we done yet?  I don’t know if God will bless us with any more children, but I do know we are not done trusting in Him.  I know we are not done seeking His will.  And I know we are not done reaping the graces that He will continue to shower upon His faithful followers until we are one with Him in heaven.

Reactive Attachment Disorder

Giving hands

If you’re having a hard day today and wondering what the point is of all this gentle, responsive parenting stuff, please read this chilling article about RAD or Reactive Attachment Disorder by a therapist who treats children who have it.  Children with RAD are very poorly attached to their parents, “show contempt for adults and authority, a terror of abandonment, and hatred for siblings and anyone who compete with them for mom’s affections.”  How we treat our children from the first days of their lives matters.

Children need warm, loving care from their mothers in infancy.  They deserve it.  Infants deserve their mother’s arms more than their mothers deserve a promotion, a raise, or a pat on the back.  This view is unpopular.  In fact, I should probably check my tires in the morning especially given the political climate I inhabit in the San Francisco Bay Area.  But I’m doing to say, damn it.  Babies have rights!  Their rights take precedence over the rights of the adults who have been blessed with their births.  This is called being a grown up and taking care of the people who have been placed in your care.

The author of the article, Dr. Faye Snyder, writes that:

RAD children were not born RAD. They were born to love and be loved. Every child I ever met with a propensity for violence was the natural product of extremely painful treatment, usually beginning with being left in daycare too young (perhaps as newborns) and too long (daily, throughout their first years).  It was so painful the child drew a conclusion that they were alone in the world, and they gave up on the deepest drive and hope of all, love. They gave up on loving and being loved and cherished. They were not loveable. They decided they were on their own and there was no adult in the world they could trust. They decided never to be vulnerable again, because it hurts too much.

Dr. Greg Popcak commented on RAD in this blog post.  Dr. Snyder and Dr. Popcak are not suggesting that if you work outside the home when you have an infant your child will grow up to be a murderer.  What they are trying to push back against is the message in our culture that what babies experience early on doesn’t matter because they’re brainless blobs who don’t notice anything.  They notice and it goes right to their hearts.  They are pushing back against the societal pressures on parents to neglect their children in the name of “success”.  How could any parent really feel self-fulfilled when their children are suffering?

Why is it okay for women to give 100 percent to their careers, but not to their children?  Why is the latter looked upon with suspicion, like we’ve been brainwashed into it by evil patriarchal forces?  The force that moves a mother to respond to her baby with tenderness and availability isn’t patriarchy but love.  Love is the force that moves and animates mothers in those early months, but some moms aren’t given permission to name it, to honor it, to live it.  When they sense it, they’ve been brainwashed into thinking, “What’s that?  I think that’s oppression.  Can somebody take this baby while I go to the office to save myself?”

Now, I know some moms have to work.  This is understandable and gentle parenting isn’t only for stay at home parents.  However, I am angry with the view in our culture that a mother is “weak” if she doesn’t return to work two weeks after delivering her baby.  That’s not only stupid, it’s inhumane.  For the sake of all of us — not just the family in question, but our entire population — if it’s at all possible, in the first months of an infant’s life it’s much better that Mommy is there for that baby.  I didn’t say Mommy can’t have people caring for her or helping her care for baby, but babies want their mommies. Even in cultures with extended support systems for infant care, the mothers are still the primary caregiver for their infants.  Mommies, take all the leave you can get from work, even unpaid leave.  When you have to return to work, can you return part-time?  If you’re returning before your baby is two or three years old, a single caregiver is usually preferable to commercial daycare where the staff turnover is high. (I know there are exceptions.)  Babies thrive better with a consistent primary caregiver who is warm and open than a whole staff of people who come and go.  And if you work, when you’re with your baby, strengthen that bond through play, nursing, and co-sleeping.

As Catholic parents we are always seeking to love our children “mercifully”.  Mercy requires us to identify what it is our children actually need, then to meet those needs as best we can.  Science is clear that little babies need consistent, warm, nurturing love.   Is it hard sometimes?  Yes.  But it’s a lot easier than dealing with the fall out of a child who is emotionally scarred or even psychotic because of our choices.

Thank you for loving your children even when it’s uncomfortable and even unpopular.  Not only does it help your children, but it’s a way of loving every human being your child will ever encounter!

A Blessing in Disguise

God had a plan for my son Owen on that sunny fall day during his second grade year.  That was the day he came home from school with an invitation to a classmate’s birthday party.  These invitations are a fairly common occurrence when one is in the second grade, but this one was especially enticing as it was being held at the local roller skating rink.

I looked at the invitation and felt my heart sink in the way that only a mother’s heart can when she knows she has to be the one to bring disappointment to her child.  The party was scheduled for September 25, which is my sister Natalie’s birthday.  Tears were shed, and my heart ached for my little boy’s disappointment in something that seems so important in the second grade.  The ache was soon replaced with pride, however, when we came to the conclusion together that it was more important to be with family on Natalie’s birthday and honor her special day.  Owen dried his tears, we put the invitation away, and nothing more was said about his classmate’s party.

You see, my sister Natalie has many special gifts.  She knows how to soften hearts with a single smile and a sparkle in her eye, she knows how to slow down and find joy in the rainbows, flowers, and ever changing sky that God gives us.  She can erase the selfishness from almost anyone she meets and inspire an outburst of generosity and patience, and though she has her stubborn moments, I believe her purity of heart serves as an impenetrable barrier to the threat of temptation or evil.

Some call her state of being “mentally handicapped”, but I call it a fountain of blessings in a very clever disguise.

Natalie and Owen

Natalie and Owen

I’ve witnessed time and again how my sister brings out the best in people.  Complete strangers hold doors for her, wait patiently behind her while she slowly ascends a flight of stairs, and even give her small gifts that make her eyes light up and her fingertips quiver with excitement.  My own children have all held a special affection and respect for her since the time of their birth.  It is by her presence that they find the strength within themselves to exhibit greater self-control, generosity, and love.

So why does society shy away from celebrating people like my sister?  What is it that we fear about possibly having a child like that of our own?  If only we could accept that it is through the vulnerable and the powerless that we receive the greatest power of all:  the power to see our souls stripped of the garments of this world, exposing the virtues and graces that will open the doors to the next.  Some of those virtues will shine brighter than others when put to the test, but it is only by the revelation of our deepest weaknesses that we can ever hope to achieve the level of perfection that heaven requires.  It is only by understanding our own imperfections that we can be filled with the desire to surrender ourselves to God’s mighty hand and allow Him to shape us into who He wants us to be.

There are so many things we can do in our modern age to avoid creating the person that God intended to place in our lives.  As parents, we want to take measures to ensure a healthy child, certainly, but when we veer too far from the way God intended a child to be created (in a loving marriage between a man and a woman through the natural expression of their love in answer to God’s call), perhaps we are setting ourselves up to miss out on one of the greatest blessings of our earthly lives.

If Natalie had not been born when she was, the way that she was, my son would not have had the opportunity to learn a valuable lesson.  He was presented with the opportunity to learn that family comes first, and Natalie’s birthday is just as important and special as anyone else’s.  In a world where some might say her life is worthless, sad, or even easily disposable, he learned that her life is one that deserves to be celebrated.

As a mother, I know it is my mission in life to lead my children along a pathway to heaven.  I pray often that I will be aided in this task by the people God puts in my life.  Who better to walk among us than people like my sister?  She is full of joy, pure of heart, brings out the best in others, and is nearly sinless.  In many ways, my sister is a better teacher for my children than I’ll ever be–simply because she is who she is–the person God created her to be.

Does Natalie feel like a “burden” at times?  Of course!  But, then, so does my two year old as I clean up yet another one of his messes, and so do any number of other people and things that God has given to me when they require me to enter that painful process of growth and change.  We wouldn’t be fully human if we didn’t have those negative thoughts about those we love best creep into our minds and hearts, acting as little reminders that even our best and purest intentions are always vulnerable to temptation.  The truth is, anything or anyone can feel like a burden when we put our own perceived wants and needs before God’s deepest desires for us; and His deepest desire is to shape us into the person we need to become to be received into full communion with Him at the end of our time here on earth.

Natalie with Owen on his first birthday

Natalie with Owen on his first birthday

Embrace your “burdens”, and they will become light with the knowledge of the joy they will bring you.  You might even discover they weren’t such a burden, after all.

We traveled as a family to celebrate Natalie’s birthday, and a fun time was had by all.  The memory of Owen’s party invitation faded away, but the bond of family remains strong.  At the time of Natalie’s birth, and for a long time after, there were many “why’s”.  Maybe she was given to us in part to teach a little boy a valuable lesson, and carry him one step closer to heaven with her.

Gentle Parenting and the Lone Mom

157651447Ever worried you were indulging or spoiling your baby by practicing attachment parenting?  This week gentle parents received some good news.  Though what we do is often counter-cultural and leaves us open to criticism and the raised brows of well-meaning family members, we can rest assured that we are doing what’s best for our little ones.  A multi-disciplinary symposium at University of Notre Dame (Center for Children and Families) brought together scholars from many different fields who together reported upon the decline of child well-being in our country.  The program chair, Darcia Narvaez, explains that this decline is fueled by American parenting practices and cultural beliefs, including isolating an infant in her own room during sleep and the belief that we’ll spoil a baby if we respond to her too quickly when she’s distressed.  Narvaez states that:

Breast-feeding infants, responsiveness to crying, almost constant touch and having multiple adult caregivers are some of the nurturing ancestral parenting practices that are shown to positively impact the developing brain, which not only shapes personality, but also helps physical health and moral development.

Narvaez’s own research focuses on moral development and she has found a correlation between strong nurturing practices and optimal moral development.  Responding to your baby’s needs influences her ability to be empathic, to calm herself, and to gain impulse control as she matures.  Children who lack these skills have a difficult time considering the feelings the others and often respond with aggression without reflecting first.

One aspect of the research really stayed with me and has me musing.  Narvaez posits that a baby needs a group of supportive caregivers beyond the mother herself.  I think this is probably the first time in history that mothers raise their infants alone with little support or assistance.  Last year I read some books in ethnopediatrics, the cross-cultural study of child-rearing and the conditions that lead to the best outcomes for children.  It was clear to me that my goals for my children are in line with the goals of parents in cultures that practice empathic, responsive parenting.  I want my children to be kind; I don’t care if they’re popular. I want my children to be open to love and capable of heroic generosity; I don’t care if they’re ever a linebacker or beauty queen.  Cultures that have similar goals for their children — that value interdependence and cooperation– practice self-donative parenting.  But here’s a little problem:  In most cultures that practice the kind of gentle parenting that I prefer, the mother has a wide circle of support.  That’s a problem for me, for us, and we need to think about that.

As I tried to point out on my last guest spot on Dr. Greg and Lisa Popcak’s radio program, More2Life, we can carry with us unconscious cultural assumptions that conflict with our greatest hopes for our children.  Who doesn’t want their child to grow up to feel loved, vibrant, and joyful?  But, as the Notre Dame symposium tells us, our culture’s messages about pushing young infants toward independence actually harms our babies.  I recognized that cultural assumption early in my parenting and I’ve made parenting choices that reject it.  But there’s another cultural assumption I carry with me that I’m not ready to give up:  my expectation that I will live alone with my husband and children, and that it will be up to me to reach out for help when I need it.

Quite frankly, I don’t want to live with my extended family.  The drawback of having several generations living together under one roof is that the most senior set of parents will tend to lead the family, or their values will tend to be the values embraced by the familial group.  I want to raise my kids the way I want.  I enjoy it when my in-laws come to visit, but I like having my own space to raise my family the way I think is best for us.  My in-laws think a lot of what Philip and I with our kids is strange.   I’m glad I can consider carefully what values and virtues I will pass on to my children and how I can best achieve the goals I have for them.

I also stink at asking others for help.  I just don’t like doing it.  It even seems strange to me when my husband asks a neighbor to borrow something.  And when I most need help, I have the greatest difficulty reaching out for it.  I experienced post-partum depression to varying degrees after all four of my babies were born and I’m sure I would have suffered less if I’d asked for help.  But when I feel bad I just like to be alone.  So I can become isolated and fatigued, committed to nursing on demand, cloth diapering, co-sleeping, and responding with respect and empathy to all of my older children.  I also homeschool and I try to nourish my family with nutrient-dense food, often made from scratch.  I confess I’m a slob by nature, but I do indeed do dishes daily and there’s laundry piling up at every moment.  (However, I will not discuss the spider webs and dust bunnies that I merely ponder as they spread like some cartoon super-force.)  I become sleep-deprived and irritable.  I begin saying and doing things I regret; I know then that something is out of balance.  This isn’t what God wants for me or my family.  Because I live in a culture that doesn’t send help as a matter of course, because it’s not our norm, looking back, it would have been nice if we could have afforded a doula, a babysitter, or just an occasional visit from a housekeeper, but it was out of the question financially.

I’m sure I would have struggled with PPD no matter what parenting choices I made with my newborns, and I honestly believe that nursing and sleeping close to my babies made those early weeks easier for me.  And my depression didn’t take away from my experiencing profound gratitude for the new life welcomed into my family.  I guess I’m just admitting that it would have been better for everyone if I had more support, if it had come without me needing to make an appointment to get it.

So that’s a real pickle, isn’t it?  I wonder how we moms can retain our independence in making parenting choices while still gaining support during child-rearing.  Fathers have become more involved in child-rearing in the US, which is wonderful for mom, the kids, and dad.  But moms need more support.  Often our family members live far away or they are busy working.  Again, it’s not built in to our larger culture, it’s not the norm, for mothers and new babies to be fussed over and protected following birth.  I think it’s a human right for every mother and her new baby to receive this support; insurance should be required to pay for a doula or something similar for a mother for at least six-weeks following birth.  I am committed to advocating for this kind of legislation, but right now we don’t have it.  So, what are our options?

Friendships with other women have helped me a lot.  When I’m in that post-partum funk, the only people I trust are my husband and closest girlfriends.  I’m talking one or two women.  Even though I enjoy friendships with dozens of women because I homeschool and I’m active in my parish, I only have a few friends I allowed to see me after my fourth c-section when I came home with a catheter because the surgeon sliced into my bladder during the surgery.  When you’re walking around carrying your own urine, you have to know a visitor really cares about you before you open the door.  Those women brought me food and laughed with me at my pee bag, which I stuck into a cute purse to make a fashion statement.  Even though I didn’t feel comfortable asking these friends to clean for me or to take my older children for a while, having them around on occasion helped me gain perspective.

If you don’t have a lot of close friends, many mom-to-mom support groups are emerging.  Many of them are on-line, but here I’ll focus on those that can provide a sense of local community, because I think that’s what the Notre Dame research is getting at.  An on-line support group is a tremendous boon, but standing next to a living, breathing human being who will look us in the eye and touch our arm, who will smile at us when we haven’t showered in three days, cannot be duplicated on the internet. Here are a few groups to consider:

  • DONA International:  Gives you information about and helps you find either a birth doula or a post-partum doula.  A post-partum doula can help you with newborn care, family adjustment, meal-preparation, and light household tasks for as long as you need it after your baby is born.  DONA helps you find a certified doula in your areas.
  • LeLeche League :  LeLeche League supports pregnant and nursing mothers
  • MOMS:  Support group for stay-at-home moms.
  • Attachment Parenting International :  API has support groups that provide mom-to-mom support for moms commited to attachment parenting.

Send me more to add to the list!  Many local support groups also exist.  My Catholic homeschooling group offers a lot of support to new moms and I’m sure many of you have found similar support in your parish or neighborhood.

I’m grateful for the kind of research gathered by the scholars who spoke at the Notre Dame symposium.  I’m especially grateful they’re willing to interpret the data honestly, in a way that might improve the future of the children of our country, even if it’s unpopular or hard for some parents to hear.  This kind of information helps all of us parent with greater awareness and wisdom.