For the Christian parent today, anxiety can be a constant companion. Beyond the normal stresses of parenthood, the Christian parent has a greater and more pervasive fear: What if my child leaves the faith? Such a fear can leave a parent sleepless and consumed with worry. Even if all appears to be going well as the child transitions from childhood to young adulthood, this anxiety clings to the soul, like an unwelcome guest who simply will not leave the house.
The Two Goals of the Christian Parent
What can a Christian parent do? Is there a secret to raising children to be faithful Christians? While there is no one formula that magically produces a Christian offspring, there are some things to keep in consideration that might ease the fears that linger in the background throughout what should be the best years of a parent’s life.
Raising Christian children actually involves two related, but distinct, goals. The first is the same as for any parent: forming children into well-adjusted and mature adults. The second is particular to the Christian parent: helping children to make the Christian faith their own. Paradoxically, focusing on the latter goal will often result in both goals falling short, whereas focusing on the former can make it more likely that both will be achieved.
All parents, whether they have faith or they do not, want to raise “good kids.” Typically this means someone who is mature, self-assured, polite, and self-disciplined. These are natural virtues, which are available to anyone, regardless of their religious beliefs. Further, natural virtues can be learned and developed over time. This is where good parenting is essential.
The parent who indulges his children, refusing to discipline them for their infractions, will form young people who are not able to master themselves and who put themselves over others. This begins at a young age; for example, not giving in to a toddler’s defiant demands for a dessert before dinner. It continues throughout young adulthood; for example, teaching teenage sons to honor the young ladies in his circle of friends by treating them with respect and dignity.
Further, natural virtues are often learned by osmosis; in other words, parents who model these virtues will often find that their children will take them on as their own. Contrawise, the parents who model immature behavior will find that same behavior in their children. Thus, along with helping children practice the virtues, a parent must exemplify them in his or her own life.
The natural virtues are like muscles: when they are exercised, they grow stronger, but when they are neglected, they atrophy. One of the primary roles of all parents, Christian or not, is to give their children opportunities to exercise those virtues so that virtuous living becomes a natural part of their lives.
If a Christian parent were to help develop only the natural virtues in her child, she would be doing important work, but not a complete job. She may raise a virtuous pagan, but the child would be a pagan, nonetheless. In a culture which bombards us with temptations to vice, a person often needs supernatural help to avoid falling into such vice and rejecting natural virtue. Supernatural virtues are also needed, which are available to the Christian. These are the gifts of faith, hope, and charity, as well as the Gifts of the Holy Spirit: wisdom, understanding, knowledge, counsel, fortitude, piety, and fear of the Lord.
Because the supernatural virtues are gifts from God, parents cannot give them to their children. A person can only receive them by entering into a communion with Christ. In this, parents have an important role, but it’s not the same role as they have in fostering natural virtue. The role of parents when it comes to the supernatural virtues is more that of a facilitator: they introduce these virtues to their kids, try to model them in their own lives, and pray that their children receive them. But they cannot grant or even increase them in their children.
Grace Builds on Nature
However, it’s important to remember a maxim of the Christian life: grace builds on nature. The person who excels in natural virtue is more open to the supernatural virtues, such as faith, hope and charity. He will more readily accept these gifts from God because he recognizes their importance in forming the human person. Thus, the parent who fosters the natural virtues in her child is giving him a far greater chance of being open to the supernatural gifts throughout his life.
The primary focus of Christian parenting, therefore, should be the same as any parenting: foster the natural virtues in children. Teach them, model them, and most importantly, give children many opportunities to exercise them. Doing so will lay the foundations for the reception of the supernatural virtues.
Christian parents, in their worry about raising Christian children, often emphasize the spiritual life to the exclusion of the life of natural virtue. But, paradoxically, they don’t always realize that a focus on the natural virtues is the best upbringing they can give to their children to help them eventually make the faith their own. The young person who scoffs at the natural virtues, even if raised in a Christian home, will shrink from the demands of the Christian faith, making him far more likely to settle into a life that is absent of faith. But the young person who excels at the natural virtues will see in the Christian faith the flowering of those virtues and will naturally be attracted to it, thus fulfilling his parents’ greatest desire.