Children are God’s image bearers

Back in February 2007 I wrote a post asking for input on Catholic child rearing. At the time I was just trying to rethink some of my previous philosophies that had been informing my child rearing methods. Now, over a year later, I have really come to change my approach on so many levels. It’s hard even to know where to begin to explain the how and what, but I’ll attempt a series of posts on my general thoughts hope it generates some discussion.  

One important aspect that has really affected my whole attitude is the Catholic concept of respecting other people as made in God’s image. Even children fall into this category! It sounds stupid but it is really easy to forget sometimes, that even infants and toddlers are people too, people deserving of respect by nature of the image they bear. They have their own feelings, preferences and desires, their own souls, and their own free will. This really has an effect on how I try to train them.

Do I simply go for obedience training – Pavlovian cause and effect, if you will? It certainly has its advantages, training the kids so that “When I say ‘jump,’ you say ‘how high?'” But this does not take into account the fact that I must give them the tools to shape their consciences, so that they are not merely blindly obedient, but are able to choose obedience themselves. Does it take more work to do the latter? You betcha. A lot more. And more patience, and more waiting for them to mature. But that is the trouble with having an ideology. You have to be a little bit forward-thinking sometimes.

Should I select methods simply because they “work” (another post on “what works?” might be forthcoming) or is there another factor involved? Pinching, slapping, hair pulling, biting (to cure biting, e.g.) might all work to adjust a behavior, but aren’t they inherently disrespectful of the people that are our children? I need to choose methods that are appropriate. I can use my size (bigger than they!) to accomplish this respectfully, such as physically moving them away from a temptation or danger. I can choose to correct them privately as opposed to in public (humiliation). I can inspire them by stories of saints or other children who exemplify the behavior I wish them to emulate. I can model the good behavior myself, rather than adopting a “do what I say, not what I do” mentality which is all too common in the methods which are heavy on fear-based behavior modification. It’s easy enough to strike fear in your children’s hearts. Not so easy to inspire them, but much more worth it in the long run!

A final point, on the notion of free will. As Catholics we believe strongly in free will. Free will is not an illusion, nor is it mere semantics. We actually have the capacity to make choices every day which will determine our own eternal fate. Therefore, as parents we must respect our children’s free will, because it is given to them by God Himself, just as He gave one to us. Thus any method that strives to “break” a child’s will is completely contrary to Catholic doctrine. The proper goal is to provide a track in the right direction on which the child’s will can freely run. Does this mean that as parents we simply accept misbehavior? Not at all! It merely informs the way we treat misbehavior. We might use natural consequences as much as possible, or contrived consequences when this is not possible due to excessive danger, etc. And we seek opportunities to discourage bad behavior as well as encourage good, while at the same time giving the child tangible tools to use for next time.  Also, it helps to have a mindset of preventative discipline rather than a wait-then-fight-fires approach.

All this doesn’t exclude corporal punishment per se, but corporal punishment is far inferior to other forms of motivation. Liken this to the fact that one can live a life free of mortal sin because he fears the pains of hell, but this is an inferior motivation than the pure love of God. If you can obtain the latter, the former is not necessary, but the former is only to be used as a bridge to the latter.

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