Every Catholic parent wants to know: how do you raise perfect kids who will remain Catholic forever, never have premarital sex, never do drugs, never suffer from depression, attempt suicide, turn out gay, or grieve their mothers heart in any way? What is the secret?
Fortunately, there are tonnes of articles all across the web telling you how this can be done. And more! Not only can you have morally perfect children, you can also have children who sleep through the night starting at three months, children who toilet train by the time they are one, children who never throw tantrums, always clean up their toys, and eat all of their vegetables and all of their meat with nary a complaint.
There is, however, one very small catch. A triviality almost. Most of these articles are written by parents whose children are still quite young. Some of them are written by mothers with only one child. Sometimes only one child who is still a toddler.
This brings to mind a very ancient story, told by Herodotus:
Once upon a time, the Athenian lawmaker Solon was visiting the King of Lydia. Croesus, the King, showed all of his vast wealth to the Athenian and then went fishing for compliments. “Of all the men you have met in your travels, who,” he asked, “would you call the most happy?” Solon didn’t take the bait and named an Athenian who was killed in battle. So Croesus gave him another chance and asked who the second happiest was. But Solon still did not name the Lydian King. By this point Croesus was getting kinda frustrated. “Dost thou count my happiness as nothing?” he cried.
To which Solon famously answered, “Call no man happy until he is dead.”
Solon’s point, which was supposedly illustrated by various misfortunes that Croesus suffered after this conversation took place, is that you can’t really know what fate intends for a person until their life is at an end. For example, say you’re madly in love with the perfect guy and you think you’ve got it made — but actually, Mr. Right is a sociopath and all of the wealth and gifts that he’s showering on you are from the estate of the former Mrs. Right…who you will shortly be joining. Are you happy? You think you are, but no, you are deceived.
“Oftentimes,” Solon cheerily observes, “God gives men a gleam of happiness, and then plunges them into ruin.”
What does this have to do with parenting advice? Well, I think the same basic principle applies. Children are all very different, and they tend to go through a lot of stages in their growth. Sometimes, for example, you get a kid who seems to be the perfect dream baby. They sleep through the night. They suckle easily and painlessly. They are never fussy or colicky. And then one day they wake up and they are a monster. A howling, growling, fit-throwing, spit-in-your-eye, hair-pulling, sibling-hitting, freak-out machine who refuses to nap and stays up kicking you in the face until three in the morning.
Now, let’s imagine that this baby’s mother has a Mommy blog. This is her third child, and after two difficult babies who were gassy and never slept through, she had her little Dr. Jekyll. During the wonder-months she concludes that she must have done something special to produce such idyllic offspring.
“What did I do differently?” she asks. “Ah! I know! It must be because I replaced all of the bedding in my house with bamboo sheets and switched to organic laundry soap! My other babies must have been so unhappy, suffering with nasty cotton and horrid GMO detergent.”
So she writes a blog post about the wonders of bamboo and ylang-ylang extract, and how you too can have a perfect child by following these easy steps. Which she knows. Having scientifically tested her method on a study population of one. She opines about how itchy it must have been for her previous infants, and strongly implies that if you don’t immediately burn your crib sheets and replace them with more exotic fibres you are torturing your child.
Later, after the blog post goes viral and mothers everywhere drown in guilt because they can’t afford laundry soap made with real unicorn tears, her child undergoes an unfortunate metamorphosis. He turns into mini-Hyde, and she discovers to her distress that no amount of bamboo will turn him back into her seraphic little cuddly-wumpkins. Alas, he is only a child.
But the advice lingers. The internet is full of it. Parenting magazines are full of it. Mom’s groups are full of it. Advice from parents who were temporarily blessed with good fortune, and who mistakenly ascribed their luck to some method or effort on their part.
“Call no man happy…”
Most children will go through these phases. Phases of being easy, delightful, amusing, sweet, gentle and frankly delicious. Phases where they are small agents of sweeping chaos who can burn your soul to cinders with a howl. Phases where they are radiant fonts of cheerfulness and joy. Phases where they are despondent human mud-puddles who shuffle glumly from their bedroom to the fridge and back again.
Until a parent has actually had multiple children grow up successfully and navigate their way in the world, it is very difficult to determine how effective (or ineffective) their parenting methods are. A man may be sincerely convinced that his five little munchkins (all under ten) will grow to be great Saints, preserved from all evil by the daily family rosary and Seton’s homeschool curriculum. He might write an article about it, including evidence of their blooming devotion. Doesn’t mean it’s going to happen. We all know that kid who was a veritable Dominic Savio when they were eleven…and left the Church as soon as they got out of their parents’ house.
We can all benefit from advice on how to parent, and how to parent well, but we need to beware: a lot of the advice that you will find floating about is actually just boasting in disguise. It’s really a way of saying “Look at my child! Look how great they are! Aren’t I just a marvelous parent?” They’re not a helpful guide for parents in diverse circumstances, dealing with children who have a wide range of needs and temperaments.
Those who have had more experience, more children, and more time to reflect on their experience are often (not always, but often) wiser — and it’s worth noting that they are also more likely to say things like “Every child is different. You have to find what works for your particular kid. They are all wonderful…but none of them are ever perfect.”
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