Second Generation Trad: On Freedom for the Good

I’m a second generation Trad, no doubt about it. I can’t really remember the pontificate of Benedict XVI—by the time I was actually paying attention to my faith in a more serious way in high school, Francis’s pontificate had already begun. I have one indistinct memory associated with John Paul II from what must have been the last months of his pontificate. Since I’ve been writing off and on for OnePeterFive since 2016, Tim Flanders recently asked me to share my thoughts and experiences as a “second generation” Trad.

While the topic is complex, and I hope not to paint with too large a brush, my general impressions lead me to advocate that parents take care not to force devotional practices, but instead create a warm and loving, low-tech home where children can easily and freely love both natural and supernatural goods.

A Natural, not Devotional Home

Everyone is deeply formed by their family and home. Catholics eager to form family cultures based on traditional Catholic devotions and practices should be highly encouraged. However, an important fact remains: life is more than devotion, and an overemphasis on piety, regardless of how well-meaning, can backfire. As Joseph Shaw has written with refreshing clarity, family culture must be both “natural” and “supernatural.” He writes of this integration:

An environment in which parents and children can truly feel at home is not built exclusively on prayer and the sacraments. The family needs culture. It needs a tradition of cooking, of clothing, of architecture, of home decoration; it needs Christmas carols and fairy stories…. Catholic culture is a natural culture as well as a supernatural one, and it is the family’s task to maintain it, develop it, and pass it on.

It is important to remember that life is a unitary thing, which includes prayer, devotion, and piety. These are not to be plastered onto life, because they are part of life which is a whole, a unity. What formed me growing up was not so much the family devotions I was sometimes required to participate in (although there is always a place for that in moderation), but times when I saw my parents living “regular life” and the “spiritual life” as a single, seamless thing. Having a home culture which is both natural and supernatural is essential to a healthy upbringing. One fond memory is an abbreviated Compline that my family often sang growing up: the introductory prayers, along with the hymn and reading, but with the psalms left out. A complete office? No. The right length for kids, instilling in them a feeling for, and some ability to sing, Gregorian chant? Yes.

Don’t Push

In college and beyond, my experience of peers from other large and conservative or traditional families has been this: a delicate balance must be maintained by parents when it comes to promoting good things in family life and allowing appropriate freedom for their children. As an adult, I can reflect on some of my experiences and offer suggestions to parents even though I’m not a parent myself. Allowing for the true exercise of discretion and prudence in each situation, my inclination would be to recommend that traditionalist parents err on the side of freedom; keep tabs on your kids, but allow them the freedom to do the right thing in different ways—or even different right things. Here I’m thinking of things like devotions and spiritual reading, styles of dressing, or following one path in life over another.

Time and again I have met peers who “ought” to have turned out a certain way judging from how “good” a family they came from. Yet, their behavior and outlook has often been the opposite. Trads are often presented as repressive or strict, and unfortunately this parody sometimes has truth in it. The “What! Watching a PG movie, son? Get your bible!” caricature from “Seven Lies About Homeschooling” comes to mind.

This tendency among parents—who might be converts or reverts themselves—to “push” or promote good things in the home is perfectly understandable. Often having experienced the emptiness or confusion associated with a too-secular home in their own childhood, they want to bend the stick in the opposite direction for their children. An old proverb has wisdom to offer: “you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.” Having high standards of morality or clear-sighted policies about what elements of modernity are allowed in the home is good; enforcing them with frustration, bitterness, or over-simplification is not.

Parents should be careful not to conflate essential with non-essential items, remembering that as children get older and enter high school their desires need to be listened to and given more respect, if not always acquiesced in. I have seen college students who came from public school, Novus Ordo, or broken family backgrounds discover, live, and love traditional Catholicism, while kids brought up on Baronius Missals, denim skirts, and Taylor Marshall turned to chain smoking, rock music, and spiritual lethargy. The obvious conclusion is that, whether we like it or not, there is no easy equation with which to guarantee a “devout future” for anyone.

I am not trying to say that whatever parents do, it’s likely to be wrong (which is sometimes the attitude children have, at least at a certain age!). The entire dilemma and challenge is to discern what is essential. What is essential? Modest clothing? Good music? Infrequent movies? No cell phones? Or are all of those excessive? My comments are not meant to make anyone scrupulous about using their God-given moral authority as parents but to remind them, with Saint Benedict, to be careful, and “mindful of holy Jacob, who said ‘If I drive my flocks too hard, they will all perish in a single day’” (Rule, ch. 64).

Even with the best upbringing, children can still abuse their free will, and succumb to the enticements of the world, the flesh, and the devil. There is no “magic solution” against sin. There’s nothing parents can do to make sin or even non-sinful but poor life-choices never happen (though they can pray and hope it never happens). They should not blame themselves when it happens, as if it must necessarily be their fault. There are super-strict families whose children end up super-strict like their parents, and other families where the children of the strict seem lax, and the offspring of the confused find meaning. Both the desire to imitate one’s parents and the desire to be different from them are at work, and perhaps both are at work in everyone to different degrees.

Freedom for Vocation and Beauty

Three particular areas besides devotions also come to mind when I think of unhelpful if well-meaning pressure from parents: music and movies, dressing, and vocational discernment.

Although I don’t have the space to argue it here, I posit that the vast majority of modern music and movies are not only worthless, but harmful to both children and adults. If you are a parent, you do not want your children listening to or watching this stuff. But do you have something to offer in its place (see here and here for ideas)? Are you ensuring that your own tastes are sufficiently well-developed to be able to set a good and winsome example? What sort of friends do you let them be influenced by? The primary aim should be equipping your children to know and therefore choose beauty, rather than finding themselves constrained by semi-meaningless rules.

Many traditionalists have high but not always nuanced standards of modesty. By the time I got to college, I wanted to dress well quite naturally; those I admired did so, and I wanted to imitate them. Do parents instill a positive attitude towards dressing well? If the “Sunday suit” or ankle-length skirt is just something you “have to do” for Mass on Sunday, why should you do it at all, or why dress well on other days? In other words, the emphasis shouldn’t be on Sunday as a weird exception, but on every day as an opportunity to be beautiful and elegant and neat. Anna Kalinowska has excellently presented the service modesty renders to beauty, and the formative nature of clothing. Again, positivity is key; fathers must tell their daughters they are beautiful—and more beautiful when modest; sons should understand that they are more of a man when they avoid slobitude.

Promotion of the religious life is the final item that comes to my mind: the possibility of religious life, priesthood, or marriage should always be associated with a parent’s complete support. Each of these paths is a path to holiness, each requires sacrifice, and each needs both parent and child to be detached from expectations as to what will be best. I will forever be grateful for the fact that I never felt pressured in any direction by my parents. When I tried monastic life for several years, they were entirely supportive of my decision, if a little melancholy to “lose” me; when I left the monastery, they were still as supportive and respectful of my decision, despite a hint of melancholy that they would not have a priest son. All entirely natural feelings; always respectful of the serious thought and prayer I put into each step; always ready to help in whatever way they could.

In each of these areas, the emphasis is on enabling your children to be free to choose the good, and recognizing that there are a number of different goods they could legitimately choose. From Irish folk music to Gregorian chant, from spouses to religious houses, the key is support and encouragement of what is good, true, and beautiful. What exactly “sheltering” means, and to what extent it is a good thing, is a topic for another article, but this much is clear: promoting the good also implies a duty to remove the false, evil, and ugly, as far as one can prudently do so.

The risk of rifts with children increase if their upbringing is not consistent. For example, if pop music is present in the family here and there as they grow up, but suddenly they are reprimanded for listening to it too extensively as a teenager, this causes a contradiction in their minds: if it is so bad in large quantities, why was it there at all in the background? What is to be avoided everywhere and always and what is problematic only in excess is, again, a complex question which I hope others with more experience can address.

Benefits of Homeschooling

I would be remiss if I did not touch on homeschooling. I was homeschooled, and that is one of the things I am most grateful for. It offers families a lot of freedom to customize education for their children’s needs and talents. It can go wrong by excessive regimentation, but on the other hand, it can go really right. My mother steered a refreshingly flexible course between “school at home” (i.e., the tendency for pre-built programs to mimic what happens in a public or private school) and “unschooling,” where no structure or homework is required.

In particular, the unstructured free time to play, write, do music, draw, was crucial for me. Homeschooling is not public school at home: I strongly believe that a conception of education that requires a schedule starting at 8 or 9 in the morning and running till 3 in the afternoon is way too much to ask of even high-schoolers, at least on a daily basis. Children need time to come into contact with the real world–not time spent on cramming someone else’s textbook version of it into their minds. John Senior’s vision for education comes to mind. While I don’t agree with all of his opinions, especially his advocacy of boarding schools, I recommend that parents should try to learn from the advice and example of Senior in how to educate young people and form their imaginations through literature, music, and nature.

Hand-in-hand with a good amount of free time goes advocacy of a “low-tech” upbringing. If you are going to give your children free time, it must not turn into “free tech time.” The benefits of a low-tech approach are immense. Let’s face it: the word “Amish” is used to dismiss serious objections about the mind-numbing and soul-shrinking effects of computer absorption, video games, constant texting and movies, etc., but these really do need to be kept at bay, all the way from childhood to mid-adolescence. I have written of these things elsewhere, in regard to hospitality, human interaction, and our encroaching barbarism.

Low-tech is the emphasis, not no-tech. Common objections to “low-tech” decisions run along the lines of “I don’t want my child to get to college and not know how to type.” I didn’t say: don’t let your middle-schooler write some short essays on a laptop and even do some internet research for them; I didn’t say don’t watch a good movie as a family now and then; I didn’t say don’t use online courses when advantageous. What I do say is: there is no need for video games, regular surfing of you-tube, or a personal iPhone.

Second Generation Means Life, not Death

Second-generation Trads are now in their mid-twenties and starting families of their own. Our world and Church are changing–often, it seems, for the worse. We have to realize that second-generation Trads will not always be quite the same as their forefathers. That is okay: this transition should mean life, not death. After all, it is another generation, and new life will always include elements of both old and new, continuity and discontinuity.

Despite agreeing with most or all of what my dad has to say, there have been times when I’ve felt the need to distinguish myself; I’m sure other second-generation Trads feel the same. But it is important both for parents and for children to remember that such a feeling means not a repudiation of but a continued search for the good that we all pursue. Devotions come and go; fashions come and go; our lives come and go. Some aspects of these things are very important, others less so. Some people will naturally want more of one thing and less of another. A nuanced traditionalism will help us second-generation Trads move forward thoughtfully and confidently. What we need, above all, is to be shown the good—the good of a joy-filled life sustained by perennial truths and centered on loving relationships; the good of receiving and using well an inheritance from the past; the good of being creative and adaptable in how we live out our firm fidelity to the permanent, human things of culture, family, and religion.


Photo by Allison Girone.

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