Coming to Terms: Parental Authority

by Catherine Fournier

Every time I try to think about parenting, I get Dr. Spock and Dr. Suess confused. This may be less scatter-brained than it sounds. Dr. Benjamin Spock started the 'permissive parenting' movement, Dr. Suess created a universe where anything was allowed to happen. Dr. Spock's advice has wreaked havoc in our world, Dr. Suess's worlds are built on chaos and havoc. Both, as far as parenting goes, are mixed-up.

Of course, parenting advice is much older than Dr. Spock.

"For the Lord sets a father in honor over his children; a mother's authority he confirms over her sons." (Sirach 3)
In Ephesians 6, Saint Paul wrote. "Children, obey your parents [in the Lord], for this is right. . . . Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up with the training and instruction of the Lord."
And in Colossians 3, "Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord. Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged."

Catholics understand that parental authority comes from God the Father, as our children have come from Him. We have a clear right and responsibility to teach our children what we think is best for them. We can and should guide their actions, train their intellect and inform their consciences, all to "bring them up with the training and instruction of the Lord."

Dr. Spock's book talked about cause and effect. "If you do these things while raising your child, your child will turn out this way," he assured parents. It sounds very persuasive and logical and many parents, wanting the best for their children, follow his and other expert's advice. On the other hand, Dr. Suess's stories are about places where cause and effect don't seem to work. Eggs are green, elephants hear miniscule Whos, a cat (in a hat) balances impossible stacks on his finger. Returning to the real world of predictable outcomes is a relief.

Even if we don't agree with Dr. Spock's or any other secular parenting advice, or we decide follow a rigorous fundamentalist approach, or even if we don't think about it much at all and just raise our children with loving guidance, I think we all want the relief of a predictable outcome. We want to be able to say to ourselves "If we love them enough and try really hard, they'll turn out the way we want."

Catholicism and Catholics understand that everything, especially mankind, exists first in relationship to God and second in relationship to others. We understand that one of the elements of our relationship with God is free will. Our free will literally allows us to do what we will. Free will does not deny that we remain in relationship to and dependant on other factors - a properly informed conscience, obedience to God, and the acceptance of one's responsibilities to others - it allows us to ignore them though, if we will.

The secular view says everything should be autonomous and independent of any influence, especially humankind. Autonomous independence is understood as existing independent of any external factors, depending solely on the intellect and desires of the individual. (As far as I'm concerned this is where Dr. Spock and Dr. Suess start writing the same book.)

While God gives us both a right and a responsibility to exercise parental authority over our children, He does not give us a right to the expectation of a predictable or even desired outcome. He does not take away our children's free will. And neither can we. As many parents painfully learn, the most carefully managed, shielded, attentive and loving parenting in the world will not guarantee an adult child who is an "upright and righteous man" or a "self-controlled, chaste woman." The Bible doesn't promise that it will. It only tells us what we, as parents, must rightfully do. The rest is up to our child.

But in the midst of the pain of a wandering, rebellious or sinful child it's easy to forget that we can lead our children towards Heaven but we can't force them to go.

It's also easy to forget that since good parenting doesn't guarantee a good outcome, then flawed parenting doesn't guarantee a flawed outcome either. We're all flawed parents. God's taken that into account. Just as it's unreasonable to take all the credit for your child's success - which denies your child's own accomplishments and dependence on God for their talents - it's also unreasonable to take all the blame for your child's errors - this denies your child's free will. It forgets that their relationship with God is first, and with us second.

Unlike Dr. Spock who places all the responsibility on us and Dr. Suess* who throws responsibility along with the laws of gravity to the winds, God promises that the responsibility is His. Whatever the outcome, it's in His hands. This is our real relief.

* I am a fond admirer of Horton (who heard a Who) and realize that he is the epitome of responsibility.

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