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This is the third installment of “Putting Family First”, posted here for easier access.  The first part of the article can be found on a separate page on this blog.

Leading By Example

In taking care of ourselves, we thus become an example to our children of how one should treat oneself and others and why; how to manage our work and handle stress; and how to be a good friend.  We are our best examples to our children of the kind of adults which we are trying to raise them to be.  We can, after all, admonish our children all we want but it is that which they see us do that they will emulate.  This leads us to the third priority of a good parent:  the children.  We must, however, see this order of priorities not so much in place value but in the light of the fact that the children come because of husband and wife.

It is the children that really benefit from the strength and soundness of their parents’ loving marriage.  The family, thus, becomes the child’s refuge of learning, nurturing, education and loving.

In the World, Not Worldly

Our goal, as parents, is to love, nurture and teach our children to become responsible and loving men and women of character in the middle of the world.  We don’t want them holed up in some bubble, ignorant and clueless.  They are members of the human race and should be part of the rest of the world.  The only difference is that our family and our home is within which they are taught about life, people and the world, and where they can find solace and a true sense of what it means to love and be loved.  We should not coddle them or hide them from the world.

We need to get to know each one of them as individuals, with unique personalities and characters.  To be genuinely interested in them does not mean being obsessive or stifling in our attention.  We, as mothers, should remember not to smother.  They do not have to and should not be stuck to our side as if they were super-glued on.  They are separate persons and certainly not our clones.

We pass onto them those things, which are important to us – our values, wisdom and faith – through our traditions, customs and rituals within the family.  We should make the effort to share our life with them and not just “manage” or order them around.  They will get to know us on a deeper level when they learn of our childhood memories, our joys and sorrows, hopes and dreams and how we have overcome adversities.  In allowing them to get to know us, they realize that their parents are not just these people they call “mom” and “dad”.  They see our struggles and what we do in order to overcome challenges.

We need to spend time with them, doing both ordinary and special things:  to pray together, celebrate together, to share good and bad times together.  We cannot put off time with them as if we will always have tomorrow.  When the opportunities we let pass by go the way of yesterday’s what-ifs, we would have foregone chances to get to know and to love these most special people who have been entrusted to us as our children.  Our children need material things much, much less than they need our time and love.  We must make every effort to take this to heart because the world is full of propaganda aimed at convincing us of the need to get more money to buy more and more things and indulge in pleasures.

Our children need to hear us say that we will love them no matter what – that there is nothing that they could ever do that would make us stop loving them.  This is a powerful statement that speaks to them about the kind of love that does not impose conditions or sanctions.  It will act as a beacon to them in those moments when they find they have fallen, made mistakes and feel helpless.  They know they can always turn to us, their parents, for our love.

Life Lessons Worth Learning

It is very easy to feel lacking as a parent when it seems like every kid on the block (and their cousin) is enrolled in this or that after-school class or activity.  I know it because I have struggled with it many times.  Are our children really any worse for not having been able to take piano, singing, soccer, hockey, swimming, ballet or art lessons?  Are we much less for not going on vacations or to the cottage every summer?  I can assure you that while these extra-curricular activities and trips may very well be educational and beneficial, they are not the be-all and end-all of character formation.  In fact, if we stop to consider the really important things we need to teach our children, we will soon realize that the ordinary circumstances of life already provide us with ample opportunities for these lessons worth learning.

These are some of those life lessons we should teach our children about:

  • To appreciate the world and be grateful for it, without subscribing to the selfish values promoted within it:  materialism, consumerism, individualism;
  • How to use our freedom well and to make decisions by using critical thinking and a sense of responsibility;
  • To do our work well, to serve others through the work we do and that to serve is a good and honourable thing to do;
  • To foster an attitude of gratitude and a spirit of true generosity;
  • To be sincere in all things;
  • To foster true hope – not just optimism – and to inspire hope in others;
  • To treat every person with dignity:  young and old, rich or poor, male and female;
  • With consideration for the child’s age and experience, we do not shy away from talking about these realities which are a normal and necessary part of life;
  • Love is not just about feelings, hugs and kisses, but more importantly it is an act of the will – a verb, an action word;
  • To know how to forgive, which is an act of the will, and to ask for forgiveness, which is an act of love and humility.

Foundational Framework

It’s fine enough to talk about the things we want our children to learn and what we want them to be when they grow up.  But how do we do it?  Is there some super sophisticated mathematical or scientific formula that we apply to our family situation to make everything happen automatically and perfectly?  The short answer is no.

There is nothing automatic or even perfect about families because we, as human beings, have a free will to decide and act on our decisions.  We are not robots; our lives are not pre-destined.  The beauty of this is that we can do something and not just sit back consigned to our fate.  In getting to know and understanding each and every member of our family, we are able to create a framework of traditions, customs, rituals, routines and rules that are founded on our family’s unique identity, character and dynamics.  It is within this framework that we are able to establish and impart those values, which are important to the family.

Far from being tiresome, boring or dictatorial, this structure will in fact liberate and empower us to do achieve our goals as a family.  It enables us to move forward with purpose and direction, rather than haphazardly and indecisively.  It allows us to say no to those things that take us away or have nothing to do with our family’s overall mission.

These traditions, customs and rituals within the family – whether those from when we were children ourselves, or newly-established ones – have the power to strengthen the ties that bind the family together.  These give each member of the family a sense of what is familiar, thereby providing a sense of security.  We human beings are creatures of habit, after all.  These rituals can be as simple as the making and serving of coffee in the morning, or spending some time with each child by their side at bedtime.

This framework of family life provides many chances to be together as a family while helping and being with each other.  A history is constantly being created on which the family builds a stronghold of loving support and nurturing to draw upon in moments of adversity.  Loving traditions and customs create good memories on which to look back to with fondness and encourage us to hope for the future.  Birthdays become a time to recognize and appreciate a unique member of the family.  Anniversaries mark important milestones in the family’s life.  Special occasions, such as Christmas and Thanksgiving, family trips and vacations are cherished moments to celebrate together.

Even the family meal — in which the preparation of the meal, the setting of the table, the consideration for preferences and manners at table, and the conversations that many times will seem to almost flow into each other — all make up what has become an important family ritual.  By doing all these things as a family, we create an atmosphere for our children and ourselves that is alive and vibrant, considerate of each member of the family and the family as a whole.  In teaching our children about unconditional love, we don’t just tell them we love them – we are showing them so.

Postscript:  Reality Check

Having said all this, we must be aware that in life there are no real guarantees.  The story of our lives is still being written – by us – and lived out day by day.  We must learn how to live one day at a time.  We have enough cares for one day without having to worry about tomorrow and the day after.  And although there are no guarantees, the ending has not been determined or set.  It is still to come in due time.

In the meantime, we must learn to live our lives to the fullest, living in the moment and doing our best.  Now is the only moment we can really do anything about, for the past if over and done, and the future is yet to come.  When you are with your husband and children, be with them completely and unreservedly.

Mistakes happen and we must not be surprised at all when they do.  It is not wasted time or useless effort on our part.  These are the learning moments from which we pick up ourselves and simply begin again.  We are human beings, and therefore imperfect.  We cannot do everything, but we can do a lot.  And what we can do, we must do well.  As St. Josemaria Escriva said, “A lot depends on what you and I must do.” (The Way)

In July of 2006, our family suffered a second miscarriage, which made my next pregnancy (in November 2006) that much more special.  When I shared the special news of the baby-to-come with our seven-year old son and asked him to just keep it within the family for the moment, he looked at me with a clearly concerned expression on his face and said, “But shouldn’t we be telling people so that they can pray for the baby not to die?” Right there and then, I knew this young son of ours loved his family and every single member, young and old, seen and unseen.  He knew what mattered, what was important and the power of coming together as a family.

So, when you find yourself — at any given time of the day, but especially at night — tired, frustrated, anxious, worried or stressed out – take heart and do not lose your peace.  There will be days when you feel as if nothing is going right.  There will be nights when you can hardly sleep for worrying about a problem.  There will be times that you feel so tired and worn out.  Know that if you are doing your best and giving yourself fully to the tasks and moments at hand, then ultimately everything works out for the good.  It may not seem so, but it does.

As successful American businessman Lee Iacoca put it, “The only rock I know that stays steady, the only institution I know that works is the family.” We must not ever lose hope.  Our efforts are worth it.  And there is always hope for those who love.

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