Dear Catholic parents,
The teeth surprised me. I knew I’d have to learn to change diapers and that, eventually, teenage angst would pervade my home. I had just never given thought to teeth-brushing — day after day, child after child, one flattened-out toothbrush after another. It turns out that brushing another human being’s teeth is not easy, especially when that human being: a) only wants to swallow the toothpaste; b) really enjoys biting your finger; and c) has no regard for the reasonable notion that you should not eat again before bed once your teeth have been brushed. Baby’s first steps are amazing. A kid’s first day of kindergarten is remarkable. But a child’s first time brushing her own teeth … well … that is completely undervalued. I’m tempted to say that the hardest thing about parenting is teeth-brushing.
I am only barely exaggerating. Of course, some of our children need help like this (and much more besides) all throughout their lives, just as some of our siblings or friends do. Our parents reenter such stages of dependence, and teeth might be the least of the challenges of caring for them (if they still have teeth). I was just surprised by it: the challenge to cleaning a child’s teeth. As my wife and I are coming to the end of bringing our sixth and youngest child to the point of autonomous dental maintenance (not what we call it), I’m still kind of surprised by it. It is challenging — much of parenting is.
I should make this very clear: Teeth-brushing is not the hardest thing about parenting. Something else is the hardest thing, and that is what I want to write about in this letter. Mark Twain once said that “if it’s your job to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning. And if it’s your job to eat two frogs, it’s best to eat the biggest one first.” I’m basically following that advice. If the hardest thing in parenting is the metaphorical frog, we should get to it right away. Or if instead, it is the biggest in a series of frogs, we should still get to it first. So here it is:
The hardest thing about parenting is that who you are matters most.
That’s the hardest part. It is an unavoidable and, ultimately, undeniable fact. Nothing reveals your character like being called to help bring another human being into life and guide that person into maturity. Who you are is front and center in that mission.
Why I am writing at all
I am going to write more about what I am calling the hardest thing in the rest of this letter, but before I do that, let me tell you why I am writing to you in the first place. A couple years ago, I started writing a series of “Letters to a Young Catholic.” My hope was to lend some meaningful assistance to young people in how to become mature and committed Catholics. I have come to learn what it means to be a mature and committed Catholic, even if I myself am still personally in process toward that end. I wanted to offer younger people more substantive, honest and intentional guidance than I enjoyed. And so that series of letters became a way to give real, practical and hopefully insightful assistance to those who were not as far along on their own journeys.
This series of letters that I am beginning here is somewhat like that earlier series. As I mentioned, my wife and I are raising six children. There are other parents who are wiser and more experienced, and yet, even as I myself am still very much in process in becoming the kind of parent I am called to be, I have come to understand what that calling entails. I have learned this in part through experience, but also through study, teaching and from witnessing others. And so, I want to write to especially younger parents, or would-be parents, or even older parents who are interested in hearing what someone else has to say. I want to talk about the task and the gift of parenting today in full view of the Catholic faith. I don’t want to fall into pious platitudes, nor do I want to reduce parenting to some kind of technique. I want this to be personal — i.e., about who we are as persons, with everything included — and I want it to be real and honest, aspirational and practical. I will write a number of letters, and I hope each of them offers something meaningful and worthwhile, even if only to spur some continued reflection or conversations for you.
Back to the hardest thing
We are, by nature, imitative creatures. We imitate others, learning what and how to value, what and how to desire, and what and how to live by imitating what and how we see other people valuing, desiring and living. This is especially true of those closest to us. Unsurprisingly, the greatest influence over children is their parents, whether by presence or by absence — whether in their lives or not (since not being in their lives is also a massive influence). This is not news to you.
In addition to this imitative influence, we parents also have an outsized cause-and-effect influence on our children. Tenderness in us typically causes openness in them, as patience in us might create in them a deeper capacity for trust. Conversely, anger in us causes fear in them, just as impatience leads to anxiety or guardedness or both. This is also not news to you.
The hardest thing about parenting is just how much who you are matters. Parenting is not reducible to a series of choices made or acts done or words spoken. It is also and, perhaps, especially about the steady influence of who and how you are, and what you are like in the default mode. What I mean by “default mode” is what you go back to when you don’t mean to be doing something else, when you’re not trying to be a certain way, when you’re not thinking about the intentionality of your conduct. Kids see so much, and when you share the same household, they see up-close.
This sounds terrifying, like your entire character is in a crucible of judgment at all times. But the flip side of the fear we might experience over who we really are for the sake of our children (or future children) is that we have the opportunity — indeed, the calling and responsibility — to be people of quality and substance for our children. That is really what I want to focus on together throughout this whole series: what it means to become the kind of people worthy of the call we have received as parents, especially as Catholics. We will, therefore, pay attention to habits, customs, intentions, commitments and the like, all because all these things play into the formation of character (ours and theirs) and the creation of cultures (from the home outward).
If the hardest thing about parenting is that who you are matters most, then what matters most in preparing to be a parent is developing who you are. If you desire to raise children who are generous, become a generous person. If you want a household that is peaceful, practice patience. If you want to pass on the virtues, become virtuous. A satirical article I read once bore the title “Expectant Parents Throw Some Values Together at Last Minute.” That’s funny because it’s often true. It takes a long time to not just identify values but actually live by them. What gets passed on to children is not so much what is taught as what is encountered, and what is taught is only credible and persuasive if it is encountered. Word must become flesh, always.
In the letters to come, I will definitely think with you about what we might want to practice embodying, and why. For now, though, I wanted to eat the frog first by saying the hardest thing up front: Who you are matters most for parenting.
Leonard J. DeLorenzo, Ph.D., works in the McGrath Institute for Church Life and teaches theology at the University of Notre Dame. Subscribe to his weekly newsletter, “Life, Sweetness, Hope,” at bit.ly/lifesweetnesshope.