by Eric Gudan, PsyD
It’s human nature to point the finger at someone else. When something goes wrong, it’s always someone else’s fault. Parents who are watching children grow up often attribute bad behavior to others: disobedient classmates, an inept teacher, a bad TV role model.
As Catholic parents, we want our children to choose good, grow in virtue, and be holy. We know that living according to God’s will and plan for their lives will bring them happiness in this life and in the next. When children exhibit their fallen nature, it can be painful and confusing for parents.
Although ultimately our children have free will just like the rest of us, we can make changes in our own lives that can help our children make better decisions in theirs.
Recognize Prideful, Selfish Motives
We all want our children to grow up to be saints. When we see bad behavior, we should be correcting and disciplining because we want our children to learn good from evil, grow in virtue, and become holy.
In reality, however, most of us have mixed motives. Honest parents will admit they worry that poorly behaved children will reflect badly on themselves as parents. They might prefer angelic, quiet children who do as they are told so they can concentrate on their own work, hobbies, or interests more freely. Parents might blame ill-tempered children for their own sinful outbursts of impatience or anger.
By admitting these less-than-holy motives on our own part can help us refocus our responses and actions toward our children’s growth and needs.
Reflect Before Responding
Children’s bad behavior may sometimes require a swift hand to prevent injury or ensure the safety of the child or others nearby. However, try to remember to stop and reflect before responding in the moment. Think about what is best for the child and what response would be most effective to curb poor behavior before acting. Many times parents will instinctively respond without reflecting first.
You can also pray and think about typical scenarios that result in misbehavior, daily conflicts, and ongoing issues when you’re not in the middle of them. Play out a likely scene in your mind, ask God how you should respond, and practice. When the situation plays out in real life, you’ll be more controlled and ready with a thought-out action plan.
Match Guidance with Child’s Development
Just like you can’t teach a child to read without teaching the alphabet, it’s important to match your guidance, correction, and discipline to your child’s ability to receive them. Each child is different, born with unique temperaments, opinions, strengths and weaknesses. What is effective for one child may be completely ineffective for a sibling.
At the same time, it’s important to balance challenging confrontation with supportive encouragement individually as well. Think of the fact that the direct sunlight a rosemary plant needs to thrive will leave a fern wilted and brown. Parents must have a deep knowledge and understanding of their children, both in terms of their unique traits and their developmental level or age, to help effectively.
Helping our children grow in virtue requires us to do the same first and foremost. Admitting our own prideful and selfish motives can help us refocus on what’s truly good for our children. Taking our own typical thoughts and responses to prayer can help us reflect on better ways to parent. And, finally, working to be attuned to our children can help us find the most effective ways to help them improve their behavior and grow in holiness.