Catholic Activity: Confidence in God
Newland gives advice on how to protect your children against various crippling insecurities, including material and emotional insecurity. She also explains how to deal with children who have chronic illnesses or lack self-confidence, and those who may cope with physical flaws, bad grades, or fear of danger.
What this chapter proposes is that it is possible to raise children so convinced of their security in God's love that they need not fear what the world may hand them. And the way to such security is complete faith that everything and anything that happens, happens with the knowledge of God, and is permitted for some reason He knows, which is for our best good.
We learned about material security the hard way, by being very poor. Nor are we the only family who learned this way. Like others who did not understand how safe God is, we were afraid. We learned because He made us, and if we had not been poor perhaps we would never have learned. There were incredible lessons.
We learned that when your children have no shoes, and they ask you, "When will we have shoes?" you face a choice of two things. Either you tell a lie, or you tell the truth. To lie is never the answer to anything. To answer that He will send what is needed at the right time is not so easy as it sounds, but even so (even when you are amazed to hear yourself speak with such daring) it is the only truthful answer. It is a tremendous act of faith, even when He has to wrench it out of you, and He rewards even the small acts of faith with the grace to have more faith, and more simple faith.
"Right now," we told them, "God knows you have no shoes. And He sees you on the grass and the driveway, and He sees the stones and sharp little sticks. He is asking a very big thing of you. He is asking you to wait a little longer until He says the time is right for shoes. You are His children and He loves you and will care for you. Today He is asking you to show your trust in Him by going barefoot, without any shoes."
Some weeks it was pea soup all week, and some days berries. Or no gas, or heat, or stamps. These things are not unusual with the poor, nor will the poor say they do not pinch and hurt. But they hurt only the part of you that does not trust, and if learning to trust is bought with such pinchings as these, it is hardly any price at all because in the end you discover you are always cared for. Then you learn once and for all that it is foolish to be afraid.
Even so, it seems hardly possible that children could live through all this, accept it, and remain unscarred. But children believe that God is loving and caring for them. They are pure, untouched by sin, radiant with grace. Why is it so hard to believe that faith can sustain them? We judge them by ourselves all the time. Filled with fears which we have acquired because we lack faith, we assume that children will have the same fears. We even think that if they do not fear, it is because they haven't enough sense to fear. And all the time we forget that Christ said unless we have childlike faith, we won't even get into Heaven! They are the wise. It is we who are foolish.
But God is very patient, even with our foolishness. Every family that has ever been poor has its own private collection of small miracles by which it has at last learned to trust. And there is always a favorite one which becomes a part of family lore, handed down to the untrusting to remind them they must trust. Our favorite miracle was particularly lovely.
It happened on a day when we had no food left but four loaves of bread, which had used up all the supplies in the house. There was nothing to spread on it, but it was bread. It was all that stood between us and being completely bereft. We sat down to supper, and said grace, and when we were about to eat, there was a knock at the door. It was the little girl from across the road with a bundle wrapped in newspaper. Had we eaten yet? No, wouldn't she like to come in?
"No, I can't. But Johnny thought you might like these." And she thrust the bundle into my husband's hands and darted off into the night. When we opened the newspapers, there were four fishes.
Say if you wish that it wasn't even a miracle. All right. He did not multiply our loaves, nor miraculously provide our fishes. But He put them in the brook. He bade them bite the line. He inspired our neighbors to share them. If being as insecure as we were that night is necessary before we see God's hand providing, then praise be! It is the final casting out of all fear.
But even when intuition senses the truth of all this, souls will hold back from so complete a surrender for fear of the pain that might follow. Which is too bad because there is going to be pain no matter what. It can be fruitful and sweet when we surrender with trust. It can be bitter and breed fear when we refuse to trust. A child's way is the best...To love God, and know that He loves you.
One of the alternatives is the "I remember Mama" approach, the inventions (in this case the bank account) to build a bulwark against fear.
Once when I was in the hospital, a mother in the bed next to me got into a lot of trouble on account of Mama. Her youngest daughter was visiting for the length of her mother's confinement, but she was unhappy and wanted to come home. Her father explained that she couldn't, not yet, but if she would be patient for a while longer, she could have a reward.
He couldn't say at the moment. But something she wanted.
"Then I want a bicycle."
But there wasn't money for the bicycle.
"Oh, yes, there is. In the bank account. Go get it out of the bank account."
The mother groaned. "Now what to do? We've been telling them there is a bank account. You know — so they'd feel secure. But there is no bank account."
How easy it is to sacrifice something good for something sentimental. Mama was good, and she wanted her children to feel secure, which was good. But God is security, and it is up to us to decide just how much faith we can afford to place in God.
Riches are not bad in themselves, and it is a mistake to cast aspersions on those who have no material needs. It is harder for the rich (now someone will say, "Yes, but I'd like to try it for a change") to know God precisely because they do not need His care the same way the poor need it. For the poor, there is a delicate perception to be formed in their children about riches. Too often a child, absorbing his parents' bitterness, will sum it all up with "They think they're better than we are, because they have money." And again we must show them that security does not depend on what you have, but what you are. We are all the same, the rich and the poor, precious and beloved in the eyes of God, purchased by the blood of Christ. If we differ, it is in degree of love: one is rich or poor, really, in terms of his love. Riches are an accident.
"Do the Joneses have more money than we have? Are we poor?"
Childhood is the time for learning that only in one sense is poor synonymous with no money.
"If you mean, do we have only a little money, why yes, then some people would think we are poor. But we are really very rich in more ways than we are poor. We have God and we know He loves us. We have the Church to teach us how to save our souls. We have the sacraments, such riches that money cannot ever buy them. And we have fun together and love each other. Our Lord said (and He chose to be poor) that having all the money in the world was nothing, if you should lose your soul."
I heard the children talking one day about "being rich." "Well, it depends what you mean," said someone. "Money? Or something like grace?"
We do not have to protect our children from feeling poor. With a Christian set of values they need never feel poor.
Emotional Insecurity But material insecurity is only one of the insecurities. The others are far more subtle. There are terrible emotional insecurities stirred up in children who see their parents habitually disagree. This is no news, nor that great damage is done to a child's character when he discovers that he may take advantage of parental differences and play one parent against the other. This is bad enough, but when it is through his parents that a child must learn about God, from them he must see the example of Christlikeness, think of the damage done to faith in both his parents and God with his parents' continual contradiction of all that is Christlike in their daily behavior. It is better to submit a thousand times to losing an argument than let children see a parent fail to exhibit the patience and consideration he is trying to teach.
Public confession of faults by parents is more likely to embarrass a child than edify him, but it is another thing to learn to apologize graciously for a bad temper, a too severe scolding, or just plain grouchiness. Children are not easily fooled and they see as clearly as anyone the weaknesses in their parents. It helps them to see also that parents consider temper or cross words from themselves the same imperfection they would correct in their children.
Attacking a child's confidence in his parents (by either of them, or others) is very dangerous business. In their early years, children are not at all ready to believe the worst of their parents, even when they see it. Their loyalty is tenacious and woe to the complainant who would satisfy a grudge by betraying a parent to his children. More often than not, the complainant will suffer by comparison with the silent defendant.
A child from a broken home, listening to her mother berate a neglectful father, used to say to the father, "Don't answer her back. It doesn't do any good."
Simply in the process of growing day by day a little less dependent upon his parents, a child will begin to judge for himself. Then he is able to see loyalty of mother to father, father to mother, and it helps him develop an understanding of that subtle thing called family unity. With the slow decay of family unity, there is apt to be a total casting out of all a child has learned in the bosom of the family. Not only the obvious things, such as respect, consideration, self-sacrifice, but ultimately perhaps even faith in God, and no one will argue that this is not the greatest scandal of all.
The Cleanliness Complex The domestic virtues, exaggerated beyond their importance, can be the cause of deep emotional insecurity. Tidiness, cleanliness, routine, all are valuable and must be cultivated in the family; exaggerated, they can rob a home of all its warmth. Children are not orderly by nature. They are experimenters and explorers, and the world is for them to investigate, with the result that in their early years they cannot and will not concentrate very long on any one thing. This makes for great disorder. But a normal amount of cluttering up is necessary if children are to learn and create and play with any satisfaction, and mothers who suppress it too determinedly for the sake of a tidy house can do great damage. There are men who have never developed the "staying home" habit because their mothers kept their homes too clean to play in, because treasures were labeled trash, and unfinished projects messes, and constant nagging left them so ill at ease playing at home that they were more at home elsewhere.
Childhood disorder can be very trying, especially when children who do surpassingly well at creating their own disorder bring in their talented friends to create even more. Understanding mixed with reasonable requests to help clean up after play pays off in adolescence when the pattern of welcome is set. "Bring your friends home so that we can meet them" is futile advice to a teenager if during all the years of being a little boy he has been told to keep his messy friends out of the house.
Children like to be clean. They like the look of it and the feel of it. But they do not care particularly about staying clean. This has nothing to do with liking to be dirty. It has everything to do with how children play, and no normal child can play very long without getting dirty. Healthy play for small children involves playing on the floor, on the grass, in the dirt, in the water; the inevitable end of it all is getting dirty. Scrubbing up afterward is a small price to pay for energy well spent and hours of real joy. Rules about not bringing dirt into the house (by the cupful, not on shoes) are fair and good, and rules about brushing dirt off on the porch before you come in are fair and good, but it is the height of frustration to be told to stop playing "because you're getting dirty." The child who is scolded constantly on this score, dragged in to be washed, changed, and set to something "nice and clean," is doomed to be a perpetual spectator, watching on the side lines while the rest of men enjoy creative work and play.
Cleanliness for health's sake is another matter. Very few children (none I know) seem to think it is important to wash before eating; this simply has to be forced on them. I daresay few develop insecurities from a little brute strength applied here. They must also learn to wash their hands after going to the bathroom, and it is best if mothers desist from using the clinical reasons and teach this simply as a social nicety. Impressionable children are apt to develop terrible fears about bathroom functions if too much emphasis is put on germs (and this can cause real trouble later on when they learn about their reproductive organs). Unable to understand about germs, learning about them first in the bathroom, then in connection with "dirt," and things on the floor, cats and dogs and money and even the air, the world can soon lose all its loveliness for them and be reduced to nothing but a breeding place for germs. If they should ask why God made germs, we can tell them that, like everything else He created, germs were good before Adam committed original sin. It was the sin that destroyed the harmony, and now some germs can do great harm. God gave us heads to learn how to protect ourselves, however, and we can use them, put ourselves in God's care, and refuse to waste time worrying about what might happen because of germs. Brushing teeth, taking baths, washing hair — all the good health habits, are an important part of a child's sense of security (though I have seen our children as secure as barnacles, and with the grime so thick it had to be sanded off), not only because they keep him socially acceptable but also because they are duties of stewardship over a body God has given him. It is when we exaggerate these things out of proportion that they can hurt not only his self-confidence but also his spiritual values. When impeccable personal habits begin to masquerade as personal purity, they can create great moral confusion. Virtue is not synonymous with cleanliness, although it's nice if the virtuous can be clean.
Coping With Sickness Chronic illness is a very special threat to a child's security, not only for its suffering but also because it is easy for invalids to feel either totally useless, or totally helpless. Uselessness can breed despair, and helplessness can breed a monster of self-pity. This is particularly tragic when we know that suffering played the most noble part of all in our redemption, and suffering that is united to Christ's suffering can be the highest and most mysterious vocation.
Of two families we know whose children suffer the same affliction, one mother comforts her child by reminding him of the afflictions of his friends. This one has braces on his teeth, that one wears glasses, the other cannot run very well, and she tries to help him find comfort in the sharing of seeming injustices. It's a little comfort, but not much. It doesn't answer his question, "Why me?"
The other family has taught their son that suffering is powerful prayer. For some reason God alone knows, He has chosen this boy to share His own suffering from time to time. The boy may, if he will, unite his suffering with Christ's and work with Him to save the souls of men. He can use it for a hundred intentions, for his family, his friends, the missions, the children all over the world who suffer with him. One time I asked him if he used his suffering, and he said very simply, "Oh yes, I always offer it up."
It is the magnificent usefulness of those who feel useless.
Self-Confidence and Physical Flaws Childhood is filled with little problems in security, like being born with a big nose, or too many freckles, like being too fat, or too thin, like being too plain and wishing you were pretty, or having straight hair and wishing it were curly. A thousand things can prey on the confidence of a child and expose him to terrible torments of embarrassment and secret suffering.
Being gay is the best cure of all for sensitivity, and when children come to us for comfort in their secret unhappiness, we can help with our own gaiety.
"Why, you silly little boy! Here you are wishing you looked like someone else and all the time God went to the trouble to make a special one like you. With a nose, so — and eyes, so — and nice, nice freckles (which of course He has counted), and red hair which isn't the color of carrots at all, but the color of gold. Have you forgotten who you are? You are you! Very lovely in God's sight, and very, very lovable. And if you keep your soul shining and bright, very, very beautiful."
Of course there are things we can do to help. We can help a stout child to control her eating, which — in the unhappily stout — often becomes the only comfort and gradually grows into gluttony. We can help an unattractive child (but are there really any?) to develop all his other gifts, and remind a boy who is, say, self-conscious about his changing, squeaky voice that even Jesus put up with a changing squeaky voice. We can help them a great deal if we know the stories of the saints, who were all shapes and sizes, funny and lovely to look at, attractive to men and unattractive, and give them these special companions to help them find happiness by learning how to love others, and forget themselves.
A boy we know broke off his front tooth and died a thousand deaths wondering how to face his friends. His mother went straight to the heart of suffering and helped him unite his disfigurement with Christ's in the Passion, and in a week's time he was over his fear and had forgotten his tooth.
A woman we know of worried all her life about a mole above her lip, and finally had it removed. When she did, her friends said among themselves, "But she isn't the same. The mole was part of her." I wonder if it wouldn't have saved her those years of embarrassment if someone had told how the great Teresa's biographer described her: "On the left side of her face there were three small moles which added to her attractiveness."
A little girl who was always plump offered her suffering lovingly each time she said the Salve Regina, the prayer where we "send up our size." She discovered only when she had read it for the first time (after knowing it by heart for years) what mistake she had innocently made. Today she is a blissfully happy novice, and I wonder if the patiently offered size didn't help as well as all the other prayers she said for the grace to know her vocation.
The Poor Report Card The Curé d'Ars is a wonderful saint for children who have to struggle with their schoolwork. He had a terrible time in school; by all the standards he seemed to be quite dumb. But the kind of wisdom that springs from a soul in love with God the Curé never lacked, and there is no one today who would dare call him a blockhead. God counts most how you try, not whether you succeed, and for children who try but still bring home poor report cards, there is strength to be found in praise for honest effort.
A teacher we know was about to give up with a boy who would not study. She had coaxed and appealed and challenged and scolded and nothing did any good. Then one day she pretended he had tried.
"You know — you're doing much better. I knew you could, if you'd try."
From that day on he began to change. Weeks later she met his parents and then she said: "Now I know what was wrong. That child had never been praised for anything. He never even wanted to try."
Herman the Cripple is the friend of all children who are crippled or badly disfigured. "He could not stand, let alone walk; could hardly sit, even in the special chair they made for him; even his fingers were all but too weak and knotted for him to write; even his mouth and palate were deformed and he could hardly be understood when he spoke." During all his life, Herman was never comfortable, but he was a gay soul who spoke of himself as "the least of Christ's poor ones and yes . . . more slow than any donkey." Out of all this pain and disfigurement came great glory to God. Not only from his industry and determination, for he made astrolabes and clocks and even musical instruments, but his love — for it is pretty much agreed that Blessed Herman wrote the Salve Regina.
Children do not need to be protected in their afflictions, they need to know how to use them. When they are used to draw people closer to God, they cease to be afflictions and they become blessings.
Jealousy Jealousy is another insecurity, but only when we lose sight of how we are loved by God. Love is not divided with the coming of a new child in the family, only multiplied. One more baby means another brother or sister to be loved by, as well as another to love. Helping to care for the baby, doing little chores at bath time and feeding time, thinking of him as "my baby," gradually wear away at the quite normal jealousy of a child who has suddenly lost the spotlight to a new member of the family. But the best cure is to see that the baby is a gift of God's love.
"This is really wonderful, when you think what it means. God knew all the time what a fine boy you are, and how you'd make a fine brother. So He sent you a baby to be brother to. Brothers are grand things to have. They teach things to babies, and take care of them. Our baby is so lucky to have a brother like you."
Most of all, a new baby is like Mary's Baby, and children who still resent his intrusion will often forget immediately if they are helped to see how like the little Jesus he is. "Little hands, and little feet, and a tiny nose, and such a weak little cry. Just think, this is how Baby Jesus was."
Reminding them that God the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit live happily in the soul of the newly baptized baby, just as they do in our own when we are free of serious sin, helps them learn reverence for him, and saying the night prayers beside the new baby helps to sweeten what little resentments are left.
For older children, praise, special and privileged chores, especially warm and loving appreciation, help to quiet jealousy.
"We're so glad God gave us you. Whatever would we do without you? He knew we'd need someone special to help us, someone with your talents, just your kind of person, and the special one He picked for us was you."
Fear of Danger Danger — real or imagined — can destroy a child's security and make some children physically ill, and it never helps a child to make him do something he is afraid to do. Even the things that cannot be avoided, like entering the hospital or going off to school alone for the first time, can be prepared for with prayer and grace will come to help. Our own children suffered a terrible fear of dogs at one time, and the twice-daily walk to the bus and back was running the gamut of fear for them. The dogs they passed never bit them, but they barked so ferociously that certain death was suggested at every turn, and it was only through prayer for faith and trust that they conquered this fear. God knew about the dogs, and He knew about the children. There was nothing to do but pray for the grace to be unafraid.
And when you ask God to protect you, you have to try to act unafraid, even if you still are, a little. So they made tremendous acts of faith, and started out. And they made tremendous acts of will (and didn't run in front of the dogs). And of course, because they didn't run, the dogs didn't chase, and in a week they were no longer afraid of dogs. There is a great difference between walking past dogs alone, and walking past dogs with God, and once children have tasted success with such a simple thing as this, they know how to go about battling the fears that will follow.
Life will never be painless for our children, try as we might to spare them. We are foolish to think that we can. And it is wise not to waste time trying. We can bend every energy to giving a child the full measure of God, and in the end with His help they can learn to accept and bear, and one day find joy, in whatever assaults their sense of security will have to endure.
Activity Source: We and Our Children by Mary Reed Newland, Image Books, 1961