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Catholic Activity: Good Example — A Lesson in Discipline



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Mary Reed Newland gives some practical guidelines that parents can use in teaching children to take their chores seriously and always unite their work to the Passion of Christ.


Giving Good Example

This whole work affair would be much easier if children were naturally tidy. But they aren't. Life is too full, they are too busy tasting new experiences, to bother being tidy. They enjoy tidiness, but not the making of it; so it is a lesson learned only through constant repetition. It is good to point out the effect of tidiness on the whole family. For a while the carefree life is delicious. Away with work — today we are free! But when things reach a state where nothing can be found in its right place and there isn't a chair left to sit on, tempers begin to fly and peace is out the window. Then it's time to get things in order before we fly at each other's throats. Children are not so easily disturbed by untidiness as adults, but they respond to it by becoming more sloppy, more careless, and eventually more quarrelsome. They can learn that disorder is not only unattractive, but sours the family disposition, and that the spirit does respond when things are put in order.

"I don't believe it," one of the boys said when I told him that cleaning up the chaos in his room would make him feel better. Later he came down and said, "Gee, you were right." Another time he helped to tidy a sick child's room "because she'll feel better if her room is tidy." These little lessons in order as a symbol of peace and well-being will help them in maturity when they must recognize really grave ills in terms of spiritual disorder. But of course the whole idea can be abused when tidiness becomes an end in itself. Mothers of many children are rarely, if ever, able to achieve a very lasting order in their houses while their children are young. Would that their neighbors were not quite so critical of the confusion which must be in a house where a mother knows that love comes first, and then order. Without the love, order is a tyrant that is quite as able to destroy the family disposition as the loving struggle to achieve order can warm it.

Even when adults understand that work is prayer, obedience to duty is beautiful, and all of it service to God, we are still loath to do the things we like the least. These are the moments and hours of work which bear a resemblance to the Cross. There are other crosses, like suffering, betrayal, death, loneliness; but with work it is the fatigue, the pain. And even in tasks we love (like caring for the sick, or for babies) there are moments of revulsion. Putting off such tasks can destroy one's whole peace of mind, and ruin the beauty of an entire day. Done, the whole spirit sings. Children can be made to perform the tasks that are most hateful to them as a matter of obedience, but we can help them make strides in obedience (without even mentioning it) if we show them how to use such work as a cross. Simon of Cyrene, carrying Christ's cross with Him, is a great challenge to children and helps them to see how doing what is distasteful can really be carrying a cross. Especially during Lent and Advent, these lessons in work and the Cross can be put to good use.

"It feels so good," John has said after finally getting out in the wind and cold to water the goats. "Now doing everything else is like nothing." Nothing but the Cross will justify watering the goats to John.

Our teaching about the really difficult jobs will bear only as much weight as our own example, however, and my reminder about using the hateful work as a cross, doing it first instead of last, is so much prattle if the children see all the time that I am postponing a smelly washing. So honesty with our own weaknesses will help us be patient and understanding if we would correct the same weaknesses in our children.

What all this seems to imply, and smugly, too, is that once on the track of work-is-prayer, children will hold the vision forever. Ha! I only wish that were true. The day comes when they say they don't feel that work is prayer at all. It doesn't mean that all the teaching has gone with the wind. It isn't really lost, but as they approach adolescence, these and many of the other lessons of early childhood are apt to be crowded out of the forefront of their minds by all the things that are new and different. What is important is that we have put it there. At this point, we have to work carefully and without seeming to press them to discover where these ideas have been filed. We have to reapply them constantly, usually in a far more mature manner than we've dreamed, and we have to be careful to transform parental pressure (even when it is done nicely, it is still pressure) into more of a mutual assistance pact. If they continue to lag and mope and groan, or try to duck out from under, it is time for them to learn through more exacting, but prudent, discipline.

A Lesson in Discipline

For instance, we know a girl who would not wear aprons, although it was lovely to have her closet full of clean clothes. She was also quite willing to admit that clean clothes were equal parts of washing, ironing, and Mother. Reminding made no difference, however, and she continued to forget to wear aprons. Clean clothes never really registered in terms of someone else's work.

Finally it was agreed that if she did not wear aprons, she would wash and iron the soiled dresses herself. So came the day when there was nothing to wear.

"Your dresses are all out in the laundry, dear, waiting to be washed."


"No buts about it, my darling. We agreed that you would do them yourself if you did not wear aprons."

It was a long and weary session of washing, hanging, gathering, dampening, and ironing a full line of clothes. But oh, the respect for the work! Now it is socks washed at night, blouses ironed, aprons over skirts (or pay for the cleaning). It is a great lesson to learn before twelve: Work does not do itself. All our comforts are the result of someone's work. We must learn to respect it, if not the easy way, then the hard.

The thing that is so deadly about much of daily work is the repetition. Children continually pull against this goad, as do their parents. We can help them appreciate the necessity of it if we point out its parallel in the spiritual life. We labor day after day at the same faults (work of another order) and find, after meditating thoroughly on "forgive us our trespasses" that the next day we must battle the same old inclination to bear a grudge. It is the constant picking up where we left off and doing all over again that finally makes for accomplishment. Unless we maintain at least the status quo, we are losing ground. Unless we labor at the venial sins, we are one day going to be so cluttered with them we will not resist the mortal. So this constant reminding of the importance of repeated daily tasks, and being firm about it, is part of the forming of a child's character. Just as conquering little weaknesses makes us stronger and more able to go on to be giants for God, so forming the habit of doing readily and well the small daily tasks, we are ready to go on to more stimulating challenges.

A far better way than bribery to get a child to do what must be done is to allow him to do more mature work when it is done. Monica has a real talent for cooking and will hurry with her room if she is to be allowed to bake a cake or mix up a batch of cookies. Jamie fairly flew to collect the trash recently because he had been promised a lesson in attaching a plug to the end of an electric cord. These are real rewards, not just because they are novelties but because they push the horizon back a step further and give a child a taste of more mature accomplishment, a sense of growing up.

One of the most difficult disciplines of work is respect for tools. This is the despair of all parents. More fathers have come close to dementia because of lost hammers and screw drivers. More mothers have cracked up for the day at the sight of a sink full of cake-baking paraphernalia. The only cures for these lapses are the painful ones. No more building jalopies. No more baking of cakes. Or no dinner until the tools are found, the pots and pans washed and put away. Or, "You must buy a screw driver to replace the one you lost." There is nothing new about this; the only trouble is we don't hold firm. If all parents adhered to this discipline with their young, this sort of carelessness would probably disappear off the face of the earth.

Activity Source: We and Our Children by Mary Reed Newland, Image Books, 1961