family-silhouette-featured-w740x493Sexting, drugs, alcohol, cyber-bullying, teen suicide, rampant materialism, technology addiction, and me-first mindsets – the list of challenges to young people today can seem overwhelming.  As parents of two boys, ages 14 and 18, I feel like my wife and I are on the front lines of a never-ending war for the very souls of our children.  I would love to tell you that we have the upper hand in this ongoing struggle, but some days I am not so sure.

In order to give you some context for this blog post, I would like to share a little about our interesting family dynamic.  My older son has high-functioning autism and attends a great private school that promotes a balance of strong academics and strict rules in order to prepare the children for college and life in the real world.  Because of his autism and the associated social quirkiness that brings, he has a very difficult time making friends and spends a lot of time listening to music, reading and hanging out with our family.  In many ways, he is somewhat protected from the cultural storm around him.  Our challenge is to help him tap into his God-given gifts and learn to be independent in a world that often feels alien and hostile to him.

Our younger son attends a wonderful private Catholic high school school next to our parish. He loves lacrosse, basketball, reading, NCAA Football and hanging out with the family.  He is friendly and likable, but a little shy.  We are grateful that he has a few good friends, but is not overly interested in hanging out with the popular groups of kids at school.  This may be, in part, because of the influence (and frequent social isolation) of his older brother.  Both of our boys are interested in and truly enjoy our Catholic faith.

My wife and I often feel worn out from the daily challenges of protecting our boys from the worst excesses of the surrounding culture while also teaching them how to live in the real world with their faith and values intact.  Granted, we know full well our vocation is to get ourselves and our children to Heaven and there is no greater calling, but we honestly feel like we are swimming against the current much of the time.  Prayer is always a source of comfort. We pray daily for Jesus to help us with our challenges and to watch over our sons.  I am not sure how we would make it through a single week as parents without our Catholic faith.

Lessons Learned

We don’t have all the answers, but we do have a lot of lessons!  Here is what we have learned in our parenting journey so far about raising independent and faith-filled children:

  • Model strong faith and prayer.  Attending Mass, Holy Days, PSR and evening prayers are to be expected.  We go to Reconciliation frequently and let the kids know why it is so important and that we look forward to it.  We also make sure our children pray with us in public over every meal.  We frequently pray for others and are trying to incorporate family Rosary time in our home.  Bottom line:  we love our faith and pray and hope that they see and model our behavior.
  • Engage and Guide.  If we don’t spend quality time with our kids, they may fill it with something potentially harmful (inappropriate peers, harmful video games, bad TV, etc.).  Dinner time is sacred at our house.  We play games and read together as often as possible.  They are allowed TV and video game time, but we carefully audit both and there are time limits.  We engage in conversation about the real world and never cease to be amazed at how interested they are in politics and other issues.  Often, they just want our time and an active listening ear.
  • Encourage independent thinking and creativity.  We provide guidelines, but also encourage the boys to come up with their own answers to questions.  We give them ample opportunity to make decisions and encourage them to think creatively.  Instead of telling them the answers to questions, we often respond with “What do you think is the right answer?”
  • Encourage them to dream.  We figure if we encourage them to have their own dreams and goals, they will be less likely to follow the pack mentality in their schools.  Their goals may change each month (our experience), but at least they are being genuine.  When they share a goal or dream with us, we can then talk about what they will need to do in order to achieve it.
  • Don’t try to keep up with the neighbors.  We honestly don’t care what our neighbors and friends have in the way of material possessions.  We weren’t raised that way and it just isn’t a priority.  Our kids see this and hopefully learn from our example.  To reinforce it, we often discuss the family budget, saving and giving money to the Church and other causes.  They are also encouraged to save up for things they might want with their own money.  Christmas and birthdays are the only gift-giving days in our house.
  • Encourage gratitude.  Be grateful for what we have and encourage this through involving the kids in volunteer activities that help those less fortunate than us.  We say what and who we are grateful for during prayer time.  Our observation is that grateful children are less likely to be greedy children and they won’t covet what advertisers and their friends say they should have.
  • Embrace old-fashioned thinking.  Yes, we actually teach our kids to open the doors for ladies and senior citizens, to say please and thank you and to write thank you notes when they receive a gift!  Respecting us, other people and themselves is also critically important.  It goes much deeper of course, but we had some pretty good lessons from our parents and living in “modern times” doesn’t necessarily mean that we have to throw out what works.

All of these lessons have had varying degrees of success and we are constantly experimenting.  The ongoing mainstays are devotion to Christ and His Church, prayer and family time.  As worn out as we may get about being vigilant, we know that turning over our parenting responsibilities to others is not an option.  We only have so many years to be a positive influence and we can’t waste the gift these children are in our lives.

Why did I write this post?  I recently took some time to observe dozens of other children in approximately our sons’ age range in a variety of locations and situations in our area.  I also stay current about what is happening to young people in general.  All I have observed and read is troubling and has prompted a lot of reflection and prayer.  I know that nobody on this earth will ever love and care about our children as much as my wife and I do.  We have a responsibility to raise them to be well-formed, Catholic adults with strong values.  If we neglect this responsibility, others who mean them harm will likely fill the void.

Would you like to learn more about “regular Catholic heroes” and the joyful witness they give for Christ and the Catholic faith?  Randy Hain’s exciting sixth book, Joyful Witness: How to Be an Extraordinary Catholic (Servant Books) is available through Amazon and all Catholic bookstores.

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