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Catholic Activity: What Your Child Needs

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Carefully avoiding overprotectiveness, help your child simultaneously grow and yet stay secure in your unconditional love.

DIRECTIONS

It cannot be repeated too often that you are your child's most important teacher. As an adult, he will reflect your influence to a greater extent than you probably imagine — just as you reflect the personality of your own mother and father. Even if you refused to exercise your God-given responsibility to train him, you would leave your imprint upon his personality nevertheless. For instance, a father who deserts his family while his child is still an infant leaves an impression upon the youngster that will never be eradicated; he says, in effect, that parenthood is not worth the trouble and that a father's obligations are more than a man should carry. The storekeeper who calls it "good business" when he cheats his customers by selling inferior merchandise teaches his child that honesty is unimportant. The mother who tells smutty stories need not deliver a speech downgrading purity; her actions, more effectively than words, teach this principle to her child. And against such influences of the home, it is highly unlikely that the corrective teaching of church or school can prevail.

You have an awesome responsibility, therefore, but also a challenge — a challenge to which you will rise magnificently if you realize the benefits to humanity that can be achieved if you live by true Christian principles. As we have noted, your influence as parent will extend not only to your children but to your children's children and down to many other generations yet unborn. Your simple acts of devoted motherhood or fatherhood may assist untold numbers to heaven — or your bad example may be the force which may lead them to hell.

What your child needs. In order to become an adult who will honor God and serve his fellow man in the way God intended, your child needs the sense of security that can come only from your unquestioned love and kindness. When a baby is born, he enters a strange environment — one newer and more different to him than Mars might be to the first space traveler. Before birth, your child was sheltered, warmed and fed in an automatic process. Then his world abruptly changed: he became an individual thrust from his warm, protecting shelter and forced to encounter cold, hunger and suffering. Never again on earth will he enjoy the sense of peace and well-being that he experienced in the womb.

The newborn babe needs food and shelter, of course. But even more, he needs a substitute for the security he has lost. This need can be satisfied in a physical way at first — for instance, when he is held close to his mother's body. Later, as he develops a sense of physical freedom as an individual, it must be supplied psychologically through love.

In his book Your Child's World, Dr. Robert Odenwald, the psychiatrist, states that your child's need for security will be the most important part of your relationship with him. His behavior in later life will reflect whether you have provided or denied it, and how much maturity he acquires as an adult will depend directly upon how much security you give him in his early years. "You can best foster a feeling of security in your infant or young child by giving him uniform, sympathetic care," Dr. Odenwald states. "Paying loving attention to his needs, like holding him and rocking him, creates a steadfast continuity which makes him feel secure. One of the first things you will discover about your child is his urgent demand for consistency. Take him from the crib to which he has become accustomed, change some characteristic of his feedings, misplace his favorite toy, get someone new to care for him for a short period, and he may wail for hours. Is this an early evidence of perverseness on his part? No. It is evidence of his desire for security and his deep unhappiness when it is not provided for him."

As your child develops, you can make him secure by constantly letting him know that you are interested in him as a person, and that you want him and love him. Few parents would openly admit that they do not love their child; yet many reject their offspring by their actions. Some couples find that a young child interferes with their pursuit of pleasure: they cannot go to many dancing parties or stay out until early morning when an infant demands their attention around the clock. Others may subconsciously resent the fact that they no longer can spend as much as they would like on liquor, clothes or automobiles; they must tighten their purse strings to support their baby. Other couples are immature and see the infant as a threat to their hold upon the affections of the partner.

When these resentments exist, the parents may not express them openly; it is not the "polite" thing to do. But they may develop attitudes which express their true feelings. One such attitude is perfectionism. Those who would not dare reject their child in an obvious way — such as by leaving him upon a doorstep — can set up standards of behavior with which any human being would find it impossible to comply. Typical perfectionist parents usually have only one or two children; they often are more concerned about what other people will think of them than about what is truly right, and they tend to be unable to give freely of themselves emotionally. They upbraid their child for disturbing the sterile neatness of the living room, for shouting or singing in the house, or for returning dirty after playing outdoors. These parents are really saying that what their child does naturally — and what any normal child would do — is not suitable behavior. By setting up artificial standards, they do not allow him to develop in a normal way and thus they undermine his confidence in himself as a worth-while individual — the very basis of his security.

Other parents stifle their child through overprotectiveness. Such parents also are saying that their child cannot be trusted to handle by himself the normal situations of everyday living which others of his age tackle with their own resources. Visit a public park on a Sunday and you will see overprotectiveness at its most appalling. A young child wishes to run on the grass, but his mother holds him back because she fears he might fall and hurt himself. Eight-year-olds playing a game are constantly warned not to throw the ball too far, lest they run out of the parents' sight and thus risk getting lost. These are extreme examples the kind which often bring the child involved into a psychiatrist's office years later, as an adult, when he lacks the initiative to perform even common tasks on his own. Fortunately, few parents are guilty of such extreme behavior, yet lesser varieties of overprotectiveness — the kind summed up in the word "Momism" are more common than most persons suspect.

You are overprotective when you implore your young child to eat his dinner every night for fear that he will not get proper nourishment. If you withheld food between meals and let him hunger for a few days if necessary, he soon would eat what is offered at mealtime. You are overprotective if you constantly warn him of dangers such as falling which are a normal risk in children's games. Likewise, you are overprotective if you repeatedly beseech your teen-ager to wear his rubbers when it rains; after a few urgings on your part, it would be better for his full development as a self-reliant individual if he contracted a cold as a result of his failure to wear them and thus learned from his own experience. For by constantly reminding your child to do what is a reasonable responsibility of his age, you indicate that you lack confidence in him and thus undermine his security.

It is obvious that a necessary chore when done for a young child may be sheer overprotectiveness when done for an older one. When your two-year-old plays in front of your house, common prudence dictates that you remain close by, because he lacks the experience to know that he must not run into the street and possibly into the path of an oncoming car. But to sit by for the same reason while your nine-year-old plays is sheer overprotectiveness. Thus, to function effectively as a parent, try to understand what may reasonably be expected of your child at various stages of his development. Many excellent books have been written by child psychologists which indicate what the normal youngster can do for himself at different ages.

Activity Source: Catholic Family Handbook, The by Rev. George A. Kelly, Random House, Inc., New York, 1959

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