In a Sunday school class, the children were asked to use their imaginations and draw a picture of God. There were a variety of depictions. One boy drew a rainbow to represent God as Creator; a girl drew an old man with a long beard sitting on a throne up in the clouds. Another boy drew God in a way that made Him look remarkably like Superman. However, perhaps the best effort came from a girl, who said, “I didn’t know what God looked like, so I just drew a picture of my daddy.” She must have had a remarkable father—and that’s the sort of dad all fathers should strive to be, one who makes the idea of God real and inviting to their children.
Fathers and mothers both have an important role to play in shaping their children’s understanding of God; this means teaching them to love God, trust Him, and obey Him. Most young children, of course, are by nature self-centered, and one of their favorite words is “No!”—so parents have to apply discipline as needed. Doing so is especially important in a hedonistic, self-indulgent society which spurns accountability and other such limitations. Discipline, of course, involves finding the proper balance between being too lenient and too strict. As one author (P. D. James) notes, “If from infancy you treat children as gods they are liable to act as devils”—for if they always get their way, they’ll never learn good manners or self-restraint. Rules must be clearly stated and enforced—but in a truly loving way; as another author notes, “Rules without relationship will always lead to rebellion” (Tony Evans). Someone (James Hewett) once compared raising children to holding a wet bar of soap: too firm a grasp and it will shoot from your hand, but too loose a grasp and it will slide away. A gentle but firm grasp is the right approach to holding a wet bar of soap, and to raising children to behave in a proper and respectful manner.
According to eminent psychologist Dr. Joyce Brothers, “A recent study  of almost 2000 fifth and sixth graders—some of whom had been reared by strict parents, others by permissive ones—produced some surprising results. The children who had been strictly disciplined possessed high self-esteem and were high achievers, socially and academically. . . . What these children said [in the survey] revealed that they were actually happier than the undisciplined children. They loved the adults who made and enforced the rules they lived by.” This shouldn’t surprise us, for children need to have a clear sense of boundaries. There was once a kindergarten with a nice outdoor playground, but it was located right next to a busy highway. The children were frightened of the cars whizzing by, so during recess they huddled close to the school building—until the day workmen installed a chain-link fence along the edge of the property. From then on, the children happily used the entire playground. The fence didn’t limit their freedom, but expanded it. In the same way, children need boundaries, or clear rules and expectations, in order to be happy and successful in life—and it’s God’s plan that parents to provide these things in a firm and loving way.
The words “discipline” and “discipleship” go hand-in-hand; properly disciplining our children makes it easier for them to live as followers of Jesus. When we as adults give young people an example of genuine faith, it helps them keep everything in proper perspective. There was once a newspaper reporter whose car was passed by a fire truck; sensing a story, he followed it to a burning house. While watching the firemen fight in vain to save the house, he noticed a boy standing nearby with his parents; they were obviously the family who lived in the ruined house. The reporter said sympathetically, “Son, it looks like you don’t have a home anymore.” However, the child answered courageously, “We have a home—we just don’t have a house to put it in.” This wise answer demonstrated that the boy’s parents were doing an excellent job raising him, helping him understand that spiritual things, especially our relationship with God and other people, matter most in life. Speaking of homes, someone (Michael Green) once used this analogy: “Raising children is like pouring concrete. Before a baby arrives, a couple should prepare a solid base in their marriage and share a readiness for parenting. After the first child arrives, the first few years can be likened to the time before the concrete sets up. By our presence…, by careful attention to the thousands of details and tens of thousands of repetitions required, by unfailing prayer and careful instruction in the things of the Lord, we parents attempt to set a mold that will last a lifetime and more—into eternity.” Your role as parents is far more important than most people realize; you are helping your children build a destiny for themselves. A crucial element in influencing your children to develop a good character and make proper choices, is of course, your presence and availability to them. A popular speaker named Carol (Kent), who spent a lot of time away from home, once wrote: “One day when [my son] Jason was young, we were eating breakfast together. I had on an old pair of slacks and a fuzzy old sweater. He flashed his baby blue at me over his cereal bowl and said, ‘Mommy, you look so pretty today.’ I didn’t even have makeup on! So I said, ‘Honey, why would you say I look pretty today? Normally I’m dressed up in a suit and high heels.’ And he said, ‘When you look like that, I know you’re going some place; but when you look like this, I know you’re all mine.’” Children need and value our time and attention more than we might think—and the more we give them these things, the better-equipped they’ll be to resist the temptations of the world and face the challenges of life.
Needless to say, if we want children to respect and obey us, we must first give our respect and obedience to God. One Sunday a farmer told his grown son to go out and work in the fields, but the young man objected, saying, “Today is Sunday, and I must not break the Third Commandment.” When the father insisted, “Those commandments are only meant for children; they don’t apply to you now that you’re grown up,” the son replied, “If that’s so, I needn’t obey you any more—for if the Third Commandment is no longer binding on me, neither is the Fourth.” The father had no answer to this, for if parents undermine reverence for God’s authority, they saw off the branch on which they themselves sit. We must not only give a good example to our children and young people; we must tend to our own spiritual help if we are to be of any use to them. During the review of safety procedures in an airplane, we’re told that when oxygen masks drop from the ceiling in an emergency, the proper procedure is to put on our own mask first, and then help any child needing our assistance. In the same way, we cannot help prepare our children for a glorious destiny in Heaven unless we ourselves take the faith seriously.
The harsh but undeniable reality is that today’s world is a spiritual battleground, with many dangers and temptations, including people who seek to harm or pervert the young and the innocent. Instead of trying to completely shelter their children from the world— which, in the long run, is impossible—parents are commissioned by God to teach their children how to defend themselves morally and spiritually, so as to make it safely through life and reach the goal of eternal happiness in Heaven. To summarize, we might say there are “Ten Commandments for Raising Heroic Children in an Anti-Heroic Age:”
1. Spend time together as a family; in particular, eat dinner together as often as possible, using this as a chance to discuss the events and happenings of the day.
2. Make and enforce family rules firmly but lovingly, so as to help your children learn fairness, honesty, and self-discipline.
3. Teach your children to accept themselves, including their strengths and abilities, and their weaknesses and limitations.
4. Give children an example of perseverance, and don’t let them give up too quickly when something is difficult or challenging.
5. Make mutual respect a normal part of family life, and insist your children act in a way that’s respectful of others and of themselves.
6. Honor and emphasize the role of the father, especially as the family’s religious leader.
7. Be aware that you’re marking out a direction for your children to follow, and ask yourself, “Is my attitude or behavior something I want them to imitate?”
8. Encourage your children to discover and pursue their vocation, or calling from God, and explain that this is the only sure path to happiness in life.
9. Attend church together as a family, and make your children’s religious education
a priority—for you want them to be happy not just in this life, but for all eternity.
10. Make your own relationship with God your highest priority, for not only will this help you be more loving toward your spouse and children, but it will also make it easier for them to know and love God, and for your children to trust, honor, and obey you.
Our world has become a very dangerous place in a spiritual and moral sense—but Jesus promises that He has overcome the world (Jn. 16:33), and if we genuinely strive to live as His followers, we and our families will share in His victory.
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.