Someone once said that “Parents spend two years teaching children to walk and talk, and eighteen years trying to teach them to sit down and be quiet.” This tongue-in-cheek observation reminds us that while parents and others with influence over children (including grandparents, relatives, teachers, catechists, and pastors) have a responsibility to train them, we can’t always make them do what we want. We have to show them the right path in life, and encourage them to follow it—but the choice is ultimately theirs.
Society once strongly supported parents in their efforts, honoring those mothers and fathers who took their duty seriously, and shaming those parents who neglected their legal and moral responsibilities toward their children. Now, however, things are quite different. Today there’s a very high divorce rate, and many children are raised in single- parent homes—and no matter how loving and heroic the efforts of the single parent (usually the mom), that situation is far from ideal. Those children are statistically less likely to succeed academically, and more likely to drop out of school, experience teen pregnancy, use alcohol or drugs, become part of a gang, become involved in criminal activity, and spend time in prison. Also, our culture of death tells women that mother- hood is optional; if they don’t feel it’s convenient, they can abort their unborn child. Society tells fathers they aren’t really needed, and popular entertainment often portrays dads as weak or clueless. Christian values are derided; the Church is marginalized, and children are “empowered” at the expense of parental authority—often by government schools that indoctrinate them with values contrary to those of the parents.
All these things go against God’s plan for parents and children—and if we want to follow His plan, it requires a greater effort, and more courage and determination, than when our parents and grandparents were raising their families. Fortunately, with God’s help, success is still possible, and parents remain the greatest formative influence in their children’s lives. To give but one example: one research study suggests that the ages of 12 and 13 are the critical years in fighting drug abuse. Few 12-year-olds know how or where to buy marijuana, or personally know someone using hard drugs, but about three times as many do by the time they’re 13. However, the same survey discovered that teens who regularly eat dinner at home with their parents are much less likely to smoke cigarettes or use marijuana, and teens who normally attend church with their families are much less likely to smoke, use drugs, or hang out with people who do these things.
Involved parents can have a hugely positive influence on their lives of their children, especially when the family is active in a church. A strong spiritual commitment was found to be one of six important qualities in happy families, according to a major study of 3000 strong families located in half-a-dozen countries throughout the world. The other five characteristics are: (1) the members are committed to the family; (2) they spend time together; (3) there is good communication among the family members; (4) they express appreciation to each other; and (5) they support each other in times of family crisis.
Parents can have a huge and lasting influence not only on their children, but also on future generations. Several centuries ago there were two men in New York State whose lives went in radically different directions. Max Jukes was a man without religious faith and lacking a strong moral character, whereas Jonathan Edwards was a man who valued both very highly. Mr. Jukes married a woman of similar low character, and they refused to give their children any religious training or take them to church, even when the children asked to go. Mr. Edwards, however, sought out a virtuous woman to be his wife, and they made their children’s religious and moral training a very high priority. Over the next century or so, Max Jukes ended up with over 1200 known descendants. Some 300 of them were professional vagrants or panhandlers, without homes or jobs; 190 were public prostitutes; 60 were habitual thieves; 680 were alcoholics; and over 300 spent time in prison for an average of 13 years—7 of them for murder. Jonathan Edwards, on the other hand, had over 900 known descendants, including 430 ministers or religious missionaries, some 100 university professors, over 100 attorneys, 75 published authors, 60 physicians, 30 judges, 14 presidents of universities, 7 United States congressmen, and 1 U.S. vice-president.
It’s almost impossible to overestimate the lasting influence parents can have on their children; they play a crucial role in determining a child’s outlook on life. Consider this reflection by Dorothy Law Nolte, titled “Children Learn What They Live”:
If a child lives with criticism, he learns to condemn.
If a child lives with hostility, he learns to fight.
If a child lives with ridicule, he learns to be shy.
If a child lives with shame, he learns to feel guilty.
If a child lives with tolerance, he learns to be patient.
If a child lives with encouragement, he learns confidence. If a child lives with praise, he learns to appreciate.
If a child lives with fairness, he learns justice.
If a child lives with security, he learns to have faith.
If a child lives with approval, he learns to like himself. If a child lives with acceptance and friendship, he learns to find love in the world.
—To be continued—
REVEREND JOSEPH M. ESPER is a priest of the Archdiocese of Detroit and pastor of Immaculate Conception parish in Anchorville, Michigan. He received his Master of Divinity degree from St. John’s Provincial Seminary in Plymouth, Michigan. Through the years, Father Joe has lectured at Marian conferences, appeared on EWTN, spoken on Catholic radio, and written more than a dozen articles for This Rock, The Priest, Homiletic and Pastoral Review, and other publications. He is also the author of numerous books, including Saintly Solutions, More Saintly Solutions, After the Darkness, Lessons from the Lives of the Saints, and Why Is God Punishing Me? In addition to Amazon, many of his most recent books are available through Queenship Publishing.