‘O Happy Fault’
As a father, I have made many mistakes both large and small. The key is to learn from them, to “rise again” despite falling many times (cf. Prv 24:16) and to get back to the important job of parenting. Here are five lessons that I have learned by making mistakes:
Love means turning off your phone. Two years ago, one of my small children grabbed a play phone, stared at it while pressing buttons, and said, “Look, I’m like daddy!”
My wife and I pride ourselves on limiting the amount of television we watch, but I have been much less successful at kicking the phone habit. I even think my phone addiction is worse than having the TV blaring all day. After all, we can watch TV together, but my phone separates me from my family.
So now my phone usually gets put away as soon as I’m home, and it stays out of sight. When I forget, I simply try again.
Children imitate the shows they watch. I had a “eureka” experience after my family watched a TV skateboard show. The contestants raced through a crazy obstacle course, leaping onto slippery surfaces and dodging mechanical fists. Soon after, my kids made their own course, from couch to stairs, past siblings holding sticks.
The experience ended in tears, anger and a new rule: If we don’t want them to imitate it, we don’t let them watch it. This applies to children of all ages. Kids who watch Star Wars play Luke Skywalker; those who watch Davy Crocket play pioneers. Likewise, teens who see sexual content tend to act that out, too.
My excuses become their rule of life. One weekend, I skipped a project with my family because I “just needed to veg out” after a very tough week. Before long, my children were skipping all sorts of chores after claiming their own need to “relax.”
You see the same thing happen when a parent skips Sunday Mass without a legitimate excuse their decision resets the child’s understanding about whether Sunday Mass is really necessary.
So now I try to make sure my children know where the lines really are, and that some responsibilities aren’t optional.
Good deeds teach far more than preaching. I clearly remember when this lesson hit home. After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Pope John Paul II recommended daily rosaries for peace and the family. I extolled the practice enthusiastically in my writing and conversations.
Finally, my 12-year-old daughter said, “Dad, you talk about how important the rosary is, but we hardly ever pray it.”
Around the same time, I read an article that mentioned Mother Teresa’s father, who died when she was 8. He made sure that his family always set a portion of each week’s food aside for the less fortunate. This made a deep impression, as Mother Teresa learned from him to serve the poor.
Today, our family prays a daily rosary for peace and the family, and we deliver food to the needy. I hope it gives us a passing shot at one of my kids becoming a Mother Teresa.
Do not expect “religious” kids, just normal ones. For a while, we tried to make Sunday Mass special by saying an extra prayer after Mass, and we tried to make the rosary special by rewarding kids for paying attention. But in the end, we learned that making Sunday special with donuts did a lot more to increase interest in the Mass. And we found that allowing one child each day to set up religious figurines got them more excited about the rosary.
The Mass and rosary will never be “fun” like playtime. Young children do have real experiences of spirituality, but they don’t look like ours. The goal is to make formal faith practices bearable for children so that religion isn’t a burden.
If you have learned similar tricks of the trade, share them with other dads. We all need help along the fatherhood path.
TOM HOOPES is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kan., and a member of Father Michael J. McGivney Council 10705 in New Haven, Conn.