I would define sheltering as keeping children as unaware as possible of the sin and misery of the outside world during their formative years, while surrounding them with sufficient examples of virtue and a wholesome worldview that will aid in their growth and salvation.
The problems that arise when parents attempt to implement this are varied, as we have touched on. However, sheltering certainly has its benefits.
1. The chief goal of the Catholic parent is to usher the souls entrusted to him to salvation to the best of his ability. This is why we baptise our children as soon as possible after they are born, why we ensure they receive their other sacraments in a timely fashion, and why we encourage them to have their own relationships with Christ and His Mother. For the same reason, it would be neglectful of us to fail to remove a child from harm’s way, if even through exposure to concepts, images or actions that, even when not sinful in themselves, the child is not mature enough to assimilate and put in their proper place.
2. Children have had their original sin washed away by the waters of regeneration in baptism, leaving behind the grace of Christ to overcome their natural concupiscence. We as parents must provide early training such that this concupiscence is minimized. Providing unfettered access to anything a child desires is not training, but rather giving in to our child’s fallen nature. This is to be avoided, as there is no better time to create virtuous habits than when our children are young and easily molded.
3. We believe that children are naturally innocent, and we must seek to preserve this innocence as long as possible, following the words of St. James, “Religion is… to keep one’s self unspotted from this world.” (1:27) And what was our Lord promoting when he said “For unless you become like a child, you will not enter into the kingdom of heaven”? (Matt 18:3) It is obvious there is such a thing as a state of childhood, which if Christ bids adults to return to, must be worth preserving.
4. The catechism of the Catholic Church teaches us that parents must create a home “where tenderness, forgiveness, respect, fidelity, and disinterested service are the rule. The home is well suited for education in the virtues. This requires an apprenticeship in self-denial, sound judgment, and self-mastery – the preconditions of all true freedom. Parents should teach their children to subordinate the ‘material and instinctual dimensions to interior and spiritual ones.'” Protecting children from the influences of our modern hedonistic, anti-Christian, anti-consequence society would seem only the first step in accomplishing the above.
Seeing that there may be compelling reasons to shelter our beloved offspring, how we can do this while steering clear of the pitfalls we mentioned?
We cannot shelter them in a vacuum. The critics of sheltering are correct in that this practice is indeed “taking away” something from our children. We cannot hope to succeed at our goal if we do not provide something with which to replace what we remove or withhold. Thus, I believe it is important for us to ensure our children are well versed in Bible stories, the lives of the saints, and other religious aids in teaching virtue. But equally important, and easily neglected by the careful parent, are stories of fantasy and adventure. Fairy tales (the right kind of fairy tales) are beneficial for a child for many reasons, including that they stimulate and excite the imagination, they instill the child with a sense of justice, and encourage the child’s innate belief in the supernatural, which eventually will be helpful when teaching them the mysteries of Holy Mother Church. (For a lengthy prose passage extolling fairy tales I recommend the chapter on it in Chesterton’s Orthodoxy.)
This applies not only to entertainment, but also to activities. We must fill our children’s lives with fun and love. If we will not allow them to go to Johnny’s pool party, we should be busy planning a family picnic to which Johnny may be invited. The goal is not merely to keep them from the bad, but also to promote the good — and we do this by tugging on the strings of their hearts. We must make our home so welcoming, so comfortable, so orderly, so loving and so fun, that being kept there is not a punishment, but something they look forward to and somewhere they can’t wait to bring their friends. We don’t have to do this with stuff– actually, “stuff” can be quite a hindrance to happiness. Rather we should seek to early inculcate in our young a love of simply being together. Teach the children new games and songs. Bake or cook together. Create family traditions that everyone enjoys and would be loathe to miss. What we want is for our children to prefer the home environment, not out of fear of the “big bad outside world,” but because it is a good place to be. Sheltering our children should ultimately cause them to choose the good over the bad. We must make this easy for them by helping to make the safe alternative, the attractive one.
This being said, I believe it is extremely important to be proactive in monitoring and limiting a child’s intake of popular media. Many programs on public television or videos fall under the category of “not harmful,” and they may certainly be the cause of a busy mother’s prayer of thanksgiving so she can take a shower or do some necessary chore. However, personally I try to be cautious to stay away from this type of electronic babysitter. There is only so much time that we have our child in our full time care. (For some – homeschoolers – this may be longer than others, but in any case it’s limited.) I believe the majority of what our children watch, read and listen to should be positively beneficial, rather than simply “not harmful.” There may be different ways a program can be beneficial (educational, actively teaching virtue, etc.), but I think that many parents are so relieved to find something their child can watch that isn’t full of sex and violence, that they often forget to ask what actual purpose is served. This kind of vigilance is especially necessary in the early years before the age of reason, and increasingly less so as the child obtains a vocabulary to describe and critique what he observes. Naturally, discussion must be actively pursued and it should not be assumed that the child is handling well what he sees simply because he has arrived at a certain age.
It is a fact, however, that eventually our children will leave our protective environment for good. Thus one goal of effective sheltering is that parents should always be seeking out opportunities to develop a child’s own conscience and critical thinking skills. This can be done in the course of every day life. One way might be to discuss stories or
shows with your child, using labels to describe the behavior of the characters. “Charlotte was acting generously, wasn’t she?… Was Molly being obedient or disobedient?” These labels provide concrete examples of the definition of virtues and ills which a child needs in order to move to the next step of analyzing well, which along with conscience formation will lead to choosing wisely.
What are some other reasons we must protect our children’s innocence?
What more ways can we ensure that our children can grow up healthy, happy and innocent?
Are there some litmus tests we can use to ascertain when our child is ready for more information and exposure?