What Is “Intentional Catholic Parenting”?

CAPC recommends and is built upon the intentional Catholic parenting model explored through the framework of Kim Cameron-Smith 7 Building Blocks to a Joyful Catholic Home.    This model takes into account the science behind how children thrive — especially attachment science, neuroscience, and ethnopediatrics — and explores this evidence through the lens of Catholic theology, especially virtue ethics.  When we parent intentionally as Catholics, we ask ourselves what we hope for our children and how we can best realize those hopes.

It seems there’s an ever-growing list of experts who claim to have all the answers to our parenting concerns. Does it really matter which method or approach you adopt?   To be frank, if your goal is to raise a basically okay kid who grows up to find a decent job and live a law-abiding life, and you grew up in a loving home yourself, then it may not matter a whole lot which method you choose.  However, any prudent parent should pay attention to information about how God made our bodies.  Science can give us important information about which parenting practices might undermine our deepest held hopes for our children.  In addition, if you grew up in an abusive home, you should consider carefully the parenting methods you choose, because what feels normal to you may be unhealthy for your child, for you, and for your family.  Finally, all parents should also be aware of “normative abuse”.  Normative abuse occurs where a culture accepts a certain threshold of parental detachment and even mild neglect in the name of certain cultural values, like parental autonomy (“nobody ain’t happy if mama ain’t happy”) or the child’s individuation.

While it’s true that as long as your child has some sense that you love him, he’ll probably never commit any felonies or end up homeless and he’ll probably even get married and have some cute babies, I invite you to consider intentional parenting as a part of  your spiritual path.  If you care about the values and sense of purpose your child carries into adulthood, if you care about your child’s ability to show empathy and compassion toward others, if you care about his ability to connect deeply with his loved ones, then it matters a great deal which parenting practices you adopt.  If you hope your child will be better than just an average functioning member of society, then it matters.  What kind of values will he bring into that marriage and pass on to those cute babies?  What kind of employee and co-worker will he be at that decent job?  What will happen to the lives of those around him as he passes through?  Will they be better off because he was there?

Now, I’m not suggesting intentional Catholic parenting is the only way to achieve these goals, but I am asserting that it is the most effective way to achieve them.  It’s also an approach thoroughly in line with Church teachings.  As a Catholic parent I’m looking for a way to raise my children that 1) will most likely instill in my children the values and virtues most central to the heart of the Church and 2) will most likely help each of my children find their true identity and mission in Christ.  Let’s explore these goals a bit.


Every parenting expert builds his or her theory on a set of assumptions about children and about which values are most important in life.  Their parenting advice is tailored so that the parent shapes and encourages those values in the child over time.  What are the values we hope to instill in our children?  When we answer that question, we can better assess which parenting advice is worth our attention.

The Heart of the Church:  Self-Donative Love

While our Mother Church has never given an opinion on parenting approaches, she does say a great deal about virtues and values.  The Church is not a relativistic wishy-washy body; it believes that some values systems are better than others.   In the introduction to his Catholic parenting book Parenting With Grace, Dr. Gregory Popcak writes:

The real training in the Faith is done in the daily life of the family.  The parenting style you choose is the single most important catechetical program your child will ever experience.  Education in the facts of the Faith must be founded on an ongoing education in the heart of the Faith, and this can best be accomplished by choosing to parent to the values and attitudes most closely identified with the heart of Catholicism.

What values and attitudes are most closely identified with the heart of the Church?  While the Church recognizes and encourages many values, there is one value that is most central to the heart of the Church in the 21st Century:  self-donative love.  Self-donative love is a sincere gift of oneself to another for the benefit of the other.  Dr. Popcak defines self-donative love beautifully:

[Self-donative love] is a supremely responsive love, empowering those who practice it to use their bodies, minds, and spirits to respond with justice and compassion to the deepest God-given needs of others.  Self-donation is the kind of love that mirrors the self-gift Jesus Christ gave us, through His Incarnation and through is Passion, Death, and Resurrection. Further, it is the love that lies at the heart of both Catholic social justice and Catholic family life.  Parenting With Grace, 35.

The entire family is called to self-donation, not just parents.  So, it’s imperative that we consider carefully and prayerfully which parenting style best instills this kind of Christ-like responsive love in our children.

While a gentle, intentional parenting approach isn’t the only approach that might meet these goals, I believe that it’s my best bet in loving my children in a self-donative way, and in teaching them to love others in the same way.  This extraordinary quality means these children are not only pleasant to live with, but they can grow into adults who recognize suffering and feel compelled to respond, who are tender and merciful to those who are weaker than themselves, who are able to connect on a profound level with their loved ones, and who will mirror in every facet of their lives the self-gift of Christ, the God-Man.


The greatest paradox of human existence is that in emptying ourselves, we find our true selves.  This is not a false self that popular culture woos us into chasing, but a holy identity.  We can never really define ourselves; God has already done that job.  We can only discover our real identity.  Who are we?  We were made in the image of God, who is the great communicator of love.

Human Identity and Mission.  The Church has proclaimed that “man can fully discover his true self only in a sincere giving of himself.”  Gaudium et Spes, 24.  It’s all about love.  While we were called into being through love, we were also created for love.  Love is both our human identity and our mission.  We have both the capacity for love in our very beings (our identity) and we are called to use our bodies and minds to donate ourselves in love (our mission). See Familiaris Consortio, 11.  When we act in accordance with this true identity, we become more ourselves; when we act contrary to it, the cloud of sin carries us further away from true self-discovery.

I want to parent my children so that they can eventually fulfill their mission to love in the most natural way possible.  I don’t want their loving acts to be window dressing.  Instead of helping others because they feel a sense of duty, I hope they will help others because they can’t imagine doing otherwise.  Without the ability to love selflessly, they don’t have a hope of finding their true identities.  I’ll end up with kids who seek their identities in superficial, quick fix, gimmicky fads but end up feeling empty. Worse, I’ll end up with children who never really deeply love anyone.

Family Identity & Mission.  Does your family have an identity?  Are you the sporty family or the stylish family?  Are you all crafty or musical?  These lovely things do create part of your family culture (this is part of identity as defined by the social sciences — all good stuff), however, they’re not your real family’s true identity, which is spiritual and transcendent in nature.  Your family identity will blow your mind!

One of Pope John Paul II’s most brilliant theological developments was to apply the Church’s view on human identity to the family by defining the family as a mystical person.  Just as individuals can find their true identities through self-donation, the family finds its true identity through its acts of love.  By fulfilling our mission to be a community of love, our family identity comes into focus.

As parents, our first step in acting with Christ-like love is to treat our children, indeed all children, with tenderness and esteem so that we protect their personal dignity:

In the family, which is a community of persons, special attention must be devoted to the children by developing a profound esteem for their personal dignity, and a great respect and generous concern for their rights. This is true for every child, but it becomes all the more urgent the smaller the child is and the more it is in need of everything, when it is sick, suffering or handicapped.

By fostering and exercising a tender and strong concern for every child that comes into this world, the Church fulfills a fundamental mission: for she is called upon to reveal and put forward anew in history the example and the commandment of Christ the Lord, who placed the child at the heart of the Kingdom of God: “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.” Familiaris Consortio, 75 (emphasis mine).

I want to parent my children in a way that heeds this call.  I want to respect their rights, and treat them each with tenderness and concern.  I believe that in doing so my children will treat others the same way.  Intentional parenting is quite simply my best bet in reaching these goals because this approach has similar goals:  It seeks a world in which children are raised with tenderness, with care for their fears and concerns, and with an understanding of and respect for their needs.


“What Is Conscious Catholic Parenting?” by Kim Cameron-Smith. 

“Bonding and Godly Parenting” by Kim Cameron-Smith.  The crucial role of attachment in leading our children to the “everlasting hills”.

“Empathic Response” by Marcia Mattern.  How mothers can use all their senses to respond to their children’s needs.


Photo credits (photos.com): Hemera Technologies (smiling family), Matthias Wagener (2 girls hugging), Catherine Yeulet (3 babies), OMG Images (family & daffodils)