By Most Reverend Prakash Mallavarapu
Archbishop of Visakhapatnam
Children are the gift of God to the parents and to the entire family! Giving birth to a child is the fulfilment of the married life of a couple. We know the pain and anxiety of married couples when they do not get a child in the early stages of their married life. Still more painful and hard to accept when a couple realizes that they are not going to have children. With the birth of the children begins also the responsibility of being parents.
Children have to grow and develop through different stages and at every stage there is a slightly different way of accompanying the children that is expected of the parents. When there are more children, the same parents have to accompany every child in a slightly different way because all the children are growing in age and in freedom. It is not only the responsibility to provide for their basic needs of food, clothing, and shelter but the struggle is to see that the children grow well and become good human persons: with discipline, with good habits, with character, with a psychological balance, and above all, with a disposition of fear of God and a disposition of obedience to the commandments of God.
Home and family are the first schools for the children where the process of learning and interiorizing of ideas and thoughts, principles and values related to the different aspects of life takes place. Parents and the elders connected to the family have a crucial contribution to make! They are the immediate teachers and guides to the children and youth in the family. Not all the efforts of the parents are well understood and appreciated! And, not all efforts bring good results! Each child is so unique and so exposed to other influences that the parents themselves have also to keep learning in order to effectively accompany the growing up child.
Children and Youth growing up in age and freedom…!
One of the smallest parables in the Gospels is the parable of the two sons (Mt. 21:28-30). It is about the way the two sons respond to the order of the father asking them to go to the field to work: One says yes but does not go; the other says no but later he goes. Both change their way! In doing so there is the exercise of personal freedom. The one who said yes and did not do accordingly, and ends up in doing what he liked or decided to do.
The one who said first no changed his mind and did according to the wish of the father. The point for reflection here is about what one is supposed to do or expected to do and what one wants to do without referring to what he ought to do. There is a vast difference between “what one likes to do and what has to do.” In either case there is freedom involved. But the point is what should guide and regulate the freedom every individual enjoys as an inalienable right. The two sons are family members and in relation to the father, who is the head of the family and in relation to rest of the family, there is something called ‘duty’ and ‘responsibility.’ They are obliged to faithfully abide by those duties and responsibilities. This is necessary for the desired happiness in the family. This has to be taught to the children from the early stages of life, and sometimes have to teach them the hard way!
Guidance in using freedom with responsibility…
The growing up children and youth in the family are guided by the parents and elders. This is necessary because they are not yet in a position to take proper decisions based on reason and based on values. The parents and elders have their own fears and apprehensions about their children going astray. But, while guiding and regulating the children’s life, a gradual and graded freedom has to be given in order to help them to learn to do things in a responsible way and be accountable for what they decide and do. Over cautiousness and over protection for too long can hamper the normal growth of the children.
The children and youth can become too much dependent on the parents and elders for every small or big decision. One bad consequence of that would be the accountability will be pushed on to the parents and elders, “you told me to do that way, and I did it”. A kind of blame game will be there, especially, when the expected result does not come. Saying “yes” all the time and saying “no” to whatever the child wants will also hamper the growing process in the school of life. In today’s world the children and youth are exposed to a more complex life and there are agents besides the parents who give suggestions and directions about what to choose and about what to do. Some of these agents are far more attractive and have strong influence on the children and youth. The work of the parents becomes even more difficult.
Freedom the children and youth seek…
Parents are not given sometimes the choice of refusing what is being proposed or demanded by the children and youth. They have to just allow or give consent to what the child or young woman/man is asking. “There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them” (Luke 15: 11-12). We should not think that the father might not have persuaded the young man to change his mind or to think of the alternatives and the consequences what he is asking! In the real life situation of the family, the parents and the elders experience the joy and pain of guiding the growing up children and youth. Certainly, the God-given wisdom and discernment are necessary in handling this delicate but very important responsibility of accompanying and guiding the children and youth. The world of the child in the family includes a lot more than its home. Gradually, the listening and obeying child becomes a questioning and bargaining child because the faculties of thinking and decision making begin to grow and mature.
Therefore, the parents and elders themselves need to learn about accompanying and guiding the children and youth. The parents will have ideas about what they want the child to be or to become and this will be guiding them in accompanying the child. There is a risk that such a pre-conceived idea and plan is not suitable always or compatible with the child. The child or young man/woman may be resisting that idea and plan of the parents because another idea or plan has already taken hold of them. Parents have to learn to give that space for the freedom to the child that is growing up. “Children obey your parents in everything, for this is your acceptable duty in the Lord. Fathers, (parents), do not provoke your children, or they may lose heart” (Col 3: 20-21).
Parents know your children and know what is happening in their life…!
Parents and elders should know their children by observing and interacting, listening and responding to the child at different stages as they grow up. This is the reason why the parents, especially the mother, know the children more than anyone else. But, there are others who also observe and interact with the child and they can help the parents to know the child even better. The teachers in the school and instructors in religion at the church who will have some intuition about the child they are seeing and interacting. They will have something more to say, good or bad, about the child, and about what the child can be and become in the future. The parents may or may not know those things!
When Child Jesus was born in Bethlehem, Mary and Joseph knew who the child was. The shepherds had to be told about the child in the manger and Magi had to be led by a star to come and pay homage to the new born king. But, the Simeon, the prophet, takes the child into his hands and in the hearing of the parents he tells something more than what Mary and Joseph knew: “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed and a sword will cut through your heart” (Luke 2: 34-35).
It is important that the parents listen to the things being said by others, as observations, as remarks, and as compliments. They say these things based upon the manifestations of talents, conduct, performance and behavior of the child. The parents’ knowledge of their child will be enhanced and enriched and this will help them to accompany and guide the child.
Children should be taught faith and morals by the parents…
The people of Israel were repeatedly told through Moses that they should teach their children and children’s children all the things that God has been teaching them, the commandments, the ordinances, statutes, etc.
The new generations have to be told about their history as a people and how they were saved from the slavery in Egypt. The parents and elders have to share about their experiences of the ever faithful love of Yahweh and about the covenant made between Yahweh and the People of Israel. The commandments and teachings of God contain the faith and morals that every Jew should have and should abide by: “You shall observe this rite as a perpetual ordinance for you and for your children… And your children ask you, what do you mean by this observance? “ you shall say, “It is the Passover sacrifice to the Lord, for he passed over the houses of Israel in Egypt…” (Ex 12: 24, 26). In the book of Deuteronomy there are reminders also about teaching the children: “ keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart, recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise, bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the door posts of your house and on your gates” ( 6: 6-9). In the same way, in the Christian families, parents have to teach faith and morals to the children and youth. Along with all other ways of preparing the children and youth for the future, bringing them up in faith and morals is a necessary duty. The children and youth should be brought up in the school of discipleship of Jesus and Christian Community!
“Children, once born, begin to receive, along with nourishment and care, the spiritual gift of knowing with certainty that they are loved. This love is shown to them trough the gift of their personal name, the sharing of language, looks of love and the brightness of a smile. In this way they learn that the beauty of human relationships touches our soul, seeks our freedom, accepts the differences of others, recognizes and respects them as a partner in dialogue … Such is love, and it contains a spark of God’s love.” (Amoris Laettitia, Pope Francis Post Synodal Apostolic Exhortation, no.172).