“Life is difficult.” This is the first sentence of a very important book by M. Scott Peck, M.D. Though the phrase is short, it is packed with meaning and portent. As adults we read that sentence and nod our heads with a knowing agreement. We’ve been there, we’ve done that. Maybe, we are even in the midst of that reality. It will always be so, of course. As parents, we have an opportunity and a responsibility to give our children the tools to be able to confront life’s difficulties with both dignity and effect. What are the things we need to encourage and promote in our children? They are the very things we need to encourage and promote in our selves.
The first gift we need to give to our children is a healthy family. This is not rocket science. It is a matter of both pure logic and of common sense that children deserve the environment of a healthy family home. The healthy family is possessed of parents who love each other first and, as a result of that love, bring children into their home and into the world. The best way for a father to love his children is to love their mother, and vice versa.
The second thing children need to receive from us is an education. By this I mean the opportunities for a good school education, but not that alone. We need to be their first teachers. We need to teach them not just how to read, but to ignite a love of reading in them. Turn off the T.V. and read to them, or when they get old enough, have them read to you and show them how enjoyable that experience is. We need to not just teach them the basics of simple math, but how those basics apply to the real world, like the family’s spending and saving habits.
We need to teach them some even more important things too. We need to teach them that hospitality, and fairness, and duty towards others are the habits of a good life. They need to see us modeling these virtues with each other, with neighbors and even with strangers. They need to see us acting in these ways cheerfully. They also need to see that the suffering of others ought not be ignored, or worse, denied, but rather that it ought to be entered into with compassion, a real, visible, tangible concern for the other, along with a commitment to work together to bring about real and just change.
Another thing that we can give our children, that follows directly from the above paragraph, is a love of work, hard work. It is this love of work that will enable them and empower them to live meaningful and purposeful lives. We need to engage them in it early, in the household. The home is the whole world to a young child, it needs to be a safe place for them to learn the skills they will need to live properly, and to live well in the larger world. We must teach them the love of hard work, that it is that which gives us dignity and meaning. Ever since the beginning human beings have worked by the sweat of their brows and the agility of their minds to live more safely and productively in the world. We must teach them that work is normal and has its rewards.
Another gift we need to give to our children is the gift of self-discipline. This is freedom in the truest sense of the word. If we give this to our children, they will be able to manage the vagaries and surprises that life will throw at them. They will be able to meet life’s difficulties with real skills like the ability to delay gratification, to take responsibility for their own failures and successes, to deal with others and the world out of a clear sense of reality, and they will be able to find balance, the golden mean, the narrow path in life that is the only way to greater happiness in life.
For our children to be able to do this, we need to give them well-formed consciences. We need to teach them that truth that there is such a thing as right and wrong, good and evil, and that it can be identified and known. It is a well-formed conscience that is the real and true guide to happiness. A well-formed conscience will guide their decisions toward the good, the true and the beautiful with greater accuracy than an ill-formed conscience, or a conscience that is numbed by self-centered rationalizations and the demands of immediate gratification.
The most important thing that we need to give our children is a deep and abiding faith, a love for God, for it is out of this that all good things come and can be known. Without a love of God loving another becomes a matter of chance, of being blown about by the winds of temptation, selfish desires, and immediate gratification. It will have no roots to put down and no rich soil to be planted in. On the other hand, with a belief in a loving God all things good are possible. For example, out of anger and hurt can come forgiveness and reconciliation. We can raise our children with the time-tested guidance that comes to us through the Scriptures. It is true, too, that the family that prays together, stays together. We can also find comfort and support in the company of other families who are struggling to do the same when we gather together in Jesus’ name at weekly services in our churches. It is there that we are challenged by truth that is common to all, not particular to one. This is the source of healthy family and of healthy society.
As parents, we have a great opportunity to make the world a better place. Indeed, it is our duty to attempt this. If we make room for God in our lives. our children will grow into the kind of adults the world needs. If they see that we love learning, that we practice hospitality, fairness and duty toward others, that we love hard work for its natural good, that we are self-disciplined in our actions toward each other, toward them and toward others, that we continue to form our consciences in an effort to become better parents and citizens, and if they see that all of this arises out of our love for God, they will learn to live out of that model themselves. It is out of this that the world has the hope of becoming better.
This is not, of course, the full list of things we owe our children. There are many more things too. But these are some of the basics and they are a good place to start.
Dan Doyle is a retired professor of English and Humanities. He taught 13 years at the high school level and 22 years at the university level. He spends his time now babysitting his granddaughter. He is a poet and a blogger as well. Dan holds an AA degree in English Literature, a BA in Comparative Literature, and an MA in Theology. To read more of Dan’s work, click here.