The Venerable Archbishop Fulton Sheen once read from a father’s journal during his television show:
“Changed diapers 15 times … they kept falling off.
“Requested children in a kind voice to be quiet once. Told children in a firm voice to make less noise twice. Hollered at children to stop shouting FIFTEEN TIMES!
“Warned children not to cross the street 16 times. Watched the children cross the street 48 times.
“Children asked 10 times when is mommy coming home. I asked myself the same question every four minutes.”
Seriously, I could have written that. How do we parents help our children to become responsible, mature adults? For Archbishop Sheen, the answer isn’t so much about stern discipline. He recommends we work with, not against, a child’s natural instincts. Parenting is about patient encouragement as much as anything else.
Here are three instincts that children naturally possess. Parents, you can identify these in your children and help them develop them. And for us adults, we could always stand to recover a bit of these childlike instincts, too.
The instinct for eternity. Children instinctively assume permanence and safety, particularly in the loving arms of mom or dad. From their safe harbor, they view the world with wonder. Wonder is the first step toward wisdom and seeing God’s reflection in His creation. Parents encourage that sense of wonder about how vast and amazing the universe is, how deep is the human soul and how limitless is God’s care for His children.
The instinct for love. “Every babe assumes love,” Archbishop Sheen said. Love isn’t earned, it’s a gift poured out on the worthy and unworthy alike. This may sound obvious, but when I became a father I overestimated how much I should discipline my children and underestimated how insistent I needed to be with them about how much I love them. I do discipline them when needed, but my primary duty is to love them. By doing so, they will be prepared to both give and receive love as they mature into adults.
The instinct for the divine. To young children, fathers are all-powerful and all-knowing, towering icons of a supreme power. Mothers, too, are like superheroes and are viewed as icons of ultimate mercy: always forgiving, ready to nurse a scraped knee or to hold a child tight. Parents represent spiritual qualities like justice and mercy. When we practice these virtues with our children, we nurture their natural instinct to do the same. We can’t simply tell our kids about God or send them to church and hope holiness rubs off on them, we have to be living examples of those qualities in our homes.
I love how positive these tips are and their focus on the relationship we develop with our children. There’s no secret method to good parenting, but encouraging the natural, good instincts of our children is the best way to prepare them for happy, saintly lives.
Father Rennier is parochial administrator of Epiphany of Our Lord Parish in St. Louis. A former Anglican priest, he was ordained in 2016 under a pastoral provision for the reception of Anglicans and Episcopalians into full communion with the Catholic Church. He and his wife, Amber, have six children.