Catholic Activity: Teaching Through Example
Parents are the primary instructors of their children, and they must back their words with corresponding deeds throughout their daily life, in order to truly instruct their children from an early age.
Parents are always teaching, and their first lessons are about love.
A mother holding her baby in her arms, speaking to him in her gentle voice, softly stroking his silky hair, teaches him that he is dear and that she loves him, that he is safe and snug in her care. A father's strength and bigness, the tenderness of his grasp, even the familiar sound and smell of him, so surely speak of love to a child that although he is too young to put it into words, he knows what love is because he has experienced it.
As he grows, he grasps many other things in the same way, among them the idea of making. His first making is usually the making of messes — with his food, with the sugar and flour he ferrets from the cupboard, with his mother's bath powder or his father's shaving cream, or whatever material his family leaves about. But in time he learns to control his hands. He watches his parents as they make things; he imitates them. He makes mud pies and mud houses; he takes bits of his mother's bread and cookie dough and makes with them; he arranges blocks and makes trucks and trains. He soon comes to know how it feels to be a maker. Bringing his creation to his parents, his constant boast is, "See what I made!"
Then one day his mother or father is prompted by grace to ask something like, "Do you know who made you?"
"Who?" he asks, and when the parent answers the child understands, because he has already learned about love and making. "God made you, and He loves you best of all."
How much we teach without knowing it! If a philosopher were asked, "How would you tell a three-year-old child about God and His love and how He created him?" he might well answer, "You can't explain that to a three-year-old." And he is quite right. But God has designed a situation in which it is taught nevertheless, without a word of explanation.
A child's idea of God is made of his parents' love and his own experience with making. When his parents tell him God made him, he believes it because at Baptism he was given the gift of Faith — he gift that makes him "able to believe" — and because his parents have been a kind of image of God to him — the source of all that is good and true, the source of love. He believes everything they say.
As he grasps the idea of God from his parents, so he acquires his interpretation of the Christian life from their attitudes. If they believe it themselves, they will teach him, show him, that life is an adventure with God, Who reveals His will for us every day. The greatest excitement of all will be his discovery of the special ways God has planned for each of us to serve Him.
The parents' admiration of each child's talent and beauty helps develop a sense of gratitude for gifts, and a stewardship of them, if the child is shown that these gifts are from God and are to be used for His work.
"What wonderful cartwheels! Isn't God good to give you a strong body that can do so many things? Be sure to thank Him for it."
"Yes, you do have a pretty face — and God made it for you. Let it always remind you to be grateful and not proud, and let it remind others how great God is and that He makes all things — even pretty little girls."
Gone are the days, let us hope, when the determination to cultivate humility in a child caused parents to downgrade everything he did. Praise is necessary and serves a good purpose if it is used within the relationship to God. God Himself praised men for their virtues — Abraham was praised for his obedience, Moses for his meekness and in the Gospels Christ praised the Roman centurion for his great faith.
Praise encourages a child to try harder to use fully his gifts. Parents must remember that the drive for perfection even in the material world is a reflection of man's longing for God and for perfect happiness with Him.
On the other hand, parents can help a child be content with modest gifts, if parents themselves are content with them. The Lord has a special work for the modestly gifted, too.
A bright little boy was always envious of the athletic talents of his older brother. For years he was told, "But God did not give you the gifts of a champion. You are simply meant to have fun with your games and to learn to play well, and to lose well if you must. He has other things for you to do with your fine mind."
The boy's answer was always: "But it just so happens that I wish I were an athlete!"
Then the day came when he began to discover the exhilaration that comes with using his intellectual gifts and to be glad he had been saved the damaging frustration that can come upon a child who is constantly urged to excel at something he is not equipped to do.
A child cannot be fooled. Mere lip service in the teaching of virtue will not overcome the example of parents who do not practice it. After a while parents' values become the child's values.
The little girl whose impatient "Me first! Me first!" is checked with the explanation that each must have his turn because "It's only fair," really learns that this is so when she sees her mother patiently wait her turn at the department store counter or in the line boarding the bus. To see her mother do otherwise would teach the child that grown-ups talk to children about justice but in their own lives (and therefore in the real world) personal convenience comes first.
A little boy startled his neighbor by refusing to take money for raking her leaves. "Why not?" she said. "You did the work." His answer revealed his parents' values: "My parents say we should always help each other."
Of great importance are the parents' reactions to the injustices and sufferings of life, to the misunderstandings that inevitably reach into every family and touch all its members. For it is here that parents, by their attitudes, can lead their children to a profound understanding of what it means to serve God.
"But Daddy! He didn't even thank you!"
"I know, but we had to do what was right, didn't we? God sees everything we do and He rewards us in heaven." In ways such as this the child learns that the world will grow better only if we do the things that are right. He understands what Our Lord meant when He said we must forgive people who are cross with us, and pray for them. Whatever we do to anyone He counts as done to Him. So we never lose when we do the right thing.
The whole world is a sign of God, and early childhood is ideally suited for forming minds to see this. To sense the hand of God everywhere is the beginning of contemplation. Before children are caught up in the clamor and din of the adolescent years, they are naturally contemplative. In time they may be temporarily diverted from this awareness of God, but the mind that once has seen the trace of Him in all things cannot easily lose that vision.
"Raise the stone and there you will find Me cleave the wood and there I am." In a thousand places the family finds the signs of God, and marvels at them. Does God have a sense of humor? Who could doubt it when He has made such things as kittens with their funny antics, and pansies with their droll little faces. His sense of beauty is revealed in the way the milkweed seeds lie patterned against the silk, and the yellow horn of the skunk cabbage curls out of the marsh in spring.
An egg broken in a bowl speaks the mystery of life. It is such a common thing that we don't think of it as teaching so profound a lesson. But the lesson is there, and it tells us something of the order of creatures: the lower always serves the higher, even to man, who uses all creatures to praise and serve God. At the expense of being too obvious, here is an example: the hen obeys nature and gives us the egg; Mother is obedient and prepares it for breakfast; Daddy is obedient and, filled with energy from his good breakfast, goes off to work to support his family, whom God made and loves and wants with Him forever.
In no time, the child whose parents were his world and his authority finds a hierarchy of authorities to guide and protect him as he moves out into the community. The teacher, the bus driver, the policeman in front of the school — each has his place in God's plan, and out of our respect for authority comes order and peace. The parents' scrupulous respect for authority confirms this lesson.
Important distinctions between authority and personality are learned now. "But I don't like that teacher!" a little boy complains. But his mother points out that obedience to the rule is necessary whether or not we like the person enforcing it.
"It's a stupid rule, and besides, I wasn't doing anything bad!" Here a lesson can span a lifetime, by teaching concern for the common good. The rule about no talking in the study period was made for everyone, and here the child can be shown that he cannot make and break rules to suit himself. We all must care for the good of one another, We are our brother's keeper.
A child grows up with breathtaking speed. The first years of simplicity, trust, and docility fly by so quickly that before we know it, his attitudes are already formed. Parents must make the most of these years because it is then that the child is sure his parents are right. His motto might well be: "Because my father and mother said so."
With the arrival of teen age, this relationship begins to change. Slowly the child starts testing and translating into his own terms all he has learned from his parents, all he has taken for granted. This is part of growing up, the last step before the young man and woman are ready to be free.
At this stage, wise parental discipline often seems intolerably strict to young people not yet experienced enough to be totally independent. Fathers and mothers discover that their love must be strong enough to bear challenge and rebellion. Parents must be wise enough to make harmless concessions while refusing to surrender principles. But they must stand firm with the values they have taught, unwavering before the familiar plea: "But everybody does it, why can't I?" In their firm stand, parents give the final example of the unchangeableness of God and His love. Little do children realize that this is what they want to see in order to make their own convictions firm.
By the end of teen age, the boy is a man. Many persons have instructed him, influenced him, persuaded him. But only his parents have been with him and have taught him through all the weeks and months of those twenty years, endlessly exemplifying and bearing witness to the truth.
Parents are the mold in which the man is formed.
I will help my family to cultivate conversations while eating dinner, riding in the car, on shopping trips, doing chores together, at bedtime, which will explore the relation of God to matters at hand - for example, the food we are eating, the achievements of the day, the item most discussed in the day's news, the neighbors, sporting events, and so forth.
I will point out and discuss with the older members of my family, adults and children, how the love of the parents for each other and the children, and of the children for each other and the parents, teaches even the youngest child about God's love, about man's love, about goodness, and what we mean when we speak of these things.
In our family prayer, we will ask God to make us more sensitive to the signs of Him in the world about us and in our family life together. We will also ask Him to make us better able to teach about Him in our family.
Activity Source: Homemade Christians by Mary Reed Newland, George A. Pflaum, Dayton, Ohio, 1964