What occasionally keeps me up at night, besides the yappy dog a few houses over, is wondering how to raise my children to become saints. There are so many questions my wife and I ponder. How do we get our children to a reverent Mass? Will homeschooling shelter them too much? Where will they find good Catholic friends? How will they react if we are able to convince Archbishop Vigano to come live with us? Such thoughts eventually lull me to sleep, and life goes on as usual the next day.
With four young children “usual” is not to be mistaken for dull. If several pieces of heavy equipment, including a mammoth excavator, were to show up at the neighbor’s front yard to remove a spruce tree, it might as well be Easter morning. Recently this happened, and my children watched spellbound for the 15 minutes it took while the blue spruce tree was ripped from the ground and tossed into a massive dump truck. Even my ten-month-old boy grunted deep manly noises of approval as he stared eagerly – a profound moment of masculine realization for him, I imagine.
Any person who has an ounce of understanding of children will guess what happened next. The two older boys made off towards the sandbox, stuck a small tree branch into the sand, pulled out their little excavators and loaders, and began re-enacting the scene from the neighbor’s front yard. How very predictable. Children are the masters of watching, learning, and imitating. God made it that way, and if that wasn’t enough, He even chose to participate in this development at Nazareth.
Without us realizing it, children never stop learning. Take a boy to the hardware store and he’ll learn how to get a key made, select proper nails and screws for building a playhouse, and the differences in sandpaper for various finishes. Once at home he will learn how to check the crown on a 2×4, and to then build a straight wall with such a crown. He will perfect his hand-eye coordination by insatiably hammering nails, learn how to pull out the nails not hammered properly, and eventually figure out how to do the job right the first time. Meanwhile, inside his little sister may be making bread with her mother. She will learn how to mix ingredients, pre-heat the oven, grease the pans, and portion the dough properly. Throughout the process she will see, feel, smell, and taste the fruits of her labor. All the while her baby brother will be strapped to her mother’s back in a carrier, thus inherently teaching that homemaking and motherhood are life-giving and inseparable.
Yes, these are common occurrences at our home, and possibly yours as well. In each instance the children learn, the parents teach, all without even realizing that learning and teaching are happening. In a word, it is natural, and how God intended it.
Let us examine the unnatural, modern, and “improved” method of teaching children. The telos is simple: children must be prepared to become useful members of society. It must be artificial, self-promoting, and government regulated. My mind drifts to a scene by Anthony Esolen in his book, Life Under Compulsion:
Imagine a new father looking into the eyes of his child. A wisp of blond hair curls about the baby’s scalp. The fingers, wrinkled like those of an old man, curl about his own finger. The child has blue eyes, but who knows whether they will stay that way? There’s the slightest indentation in the chin, reflecting that of his wife, who cradles the baby in her arms and hums gently to him.
“Here is one,” says the father, “who will be a productive member of the labor force, and who will assist in the increase of the Gross Domestic Product.”
“Here is one,” says the mother, “who will be adept at the processing of information, so to facilitate the attainment of a successful career.”
“Here is one,” says the father, “who will possess the capacity to embark upon independent research, who will present arguments that balance claim and counterclaim.”
“Here is one,” says the mother, “who will meet the Common Core Requirement anchor standards and high school grade-specific standards, which work in tandem to define college and career-readiness expectations” (pp. 54-55).
To this I add, here is one who will be raised solely for a future of usefulness and productivity, which is no future at all.
I am a teacher by trade. Guilty as charged. My life is curricula, metacognitive analyses, leveled reading assessments examining accuracy percentage, and gradual release modelling to attain desired outcomes. It is the antithesis of human. It is inhumane.
Do you know what I was taught in teacher’s college? I was taught that children are not human. Not outright, but at least inherently. An example: it was drilled into us, often, that if we messed up the first day of teaching with a new class, the entire year was lost. Such was the necessity for making a good first impression on students. Follow the script, or be lost forever!
My first day of teaching was actually in a grade one class (I originally wanted to be a university instructor – God has a sense of humor). I stressed over my first impression. I wrote a speech, practiced and perfected it, and carefully planned each subsequent minute following the speech. I delivered that speech flawlessly. As I looked out on the class of five and six-year-olds I asked, “any questions?”
One energetic boy shot his hand up. “Do you like lions?”
“Um… yes, I think I do.”
A little girl, cute as a button, also raised her hand. “Do you like jungles?”
“Well, they’re a bit scary, but I think they’re pretty cool.”
Twenty-two small hands shot up immediately. The conversation drifted to thoughts on zoos, hikes in the woods, and swimming in lakes. We talked, laughed, sang, and even learned. That is how my teaching career began. A real person teaching real little people through real methods. It was a beautiful year.
And so, I return to my original thought, how to raise my children to be saints. The answer, in part, is to stop taking the lead from the “improved” modern world. Let me illustrate. I imagine a father looking into the clear blue eyes of his baby son. It is the boy’s Baptism day, and the scent of Holy Chrism fragrances the air.
“Here is one,” says the proud father looking at his newly baptized son, “who will learn a few of the truths of Catholicism for twelve years at a Catholic school. If he is fortunate, his teacher will believe in half of what the Church teaches. This boy will then graduate having not retained anything.”
“Here is one,” adds the mother, gazing tenderly at the newborn, “who will be inspired by a parish youth program. He will learn to recycle water bottles and be a useful Catholic for social justice enterprises promoted in conjunction with the United Nations.”
“Here is one,” notes the priest, “who will strive to be a good person. He will not judge the behavior of others, nor feel guilty for being who he is. He will know that Jesus will love and affirm him in all his lifestyle choices.”
“Here is one,” cackles Susan from the parish council, “who must be kept absolutely quiet in church, at all costs. Whose voice is reserved for the music of David Haas. He will follow my lead obediently, or be forever shunned as a rad trad.”
“Here is one,” whispers a sane person sitting unnoticeably at the back of the church, “who was lovingly made by God, and placed in the care of his father and mother. They are to teach him the faith by words and deeds, seek the best education and Catholic friends for him, and have him receive sacraments, reverently administered, with devotion and love. Here is one who needs the grace of God, and the example of his parents. For God, in His manifest goodness, willed it this way.”
Here is one late-night worry for which a simple answer is evident. It is not an easy answer, but undoubtedly worth it: the indisputably best way to raise a saint is to be a saint.
Dan Millette is a husband and father of five. He teaches in Saskatchewan, Canada. Millette is a graduate from Our Lady Seat of Wisdom College in Ontario and has a Master of Arts degree in theology from Holy Apostles College in Connecticut. His personal blog is www.bravestthing.com.