By Kathleen Naab
CHICAGO, Illinois, JAN. 13, 2009 (Zenit.org).- Children can be obedient — and their obedience can be immediate and joyful, says a couple that has parented 19 children.
In “Better by the Dozen, Plus Two,” James and Kathleen Littleton tell about their experience of raising obedient children, as well as children who know how to think critically and are open to a vocation to the priesthood or consecrated life.
The Littletons also spoke with ZENIT about the tricks of raising successfully such a large family, and what their adult children say about the experience, now that they are out of the nest.
Part 1 of this interview appeared Monday.
Q: You say you expect “immediate and joyful” obedience from your children. Can you explain how you achieve this?
James: We try to raise our children with a spirit of sacrifice. We do not want our children to come to us when they are grown and say, “Mom, Dad, why did you ruin me by always giving in? Why did you always give me what I wanted, when I wanted it? Why didn’t you give me the capacity for sacrifice? Why didn’t you form my will when you had the chance?”
We try to form our children to be obedient. Obedience is expected to be immediate and joyful, manifesting quality and diligence. In other words, when they are asked to do something, they are expected to do so immediately with a positive attitude, giving their best to the details of the task, and getting it done as quickly as is reasonably possible, without wasting time. The lack of any one or more of these qualities is really not obedience.
How do we achieve this? First, our children are not angels, they are human, so it is always a work in progress. We try to make them clearly aware of what is expected of them. There needs to be consistency and diligence both in what we expect and in holding them accountable. Then there can be negative consequences when a child is not obedient, such as doubling the requested chore when a complaint is given. I am not a big proponent of regularly giving warnings, though I will on occasion where prudence suggests. And, we do strive to predominantly use a wide variety of positive motivations including, for example, rewarding the best-behaved child after a designated period of time with perhaps a bag of candy. The added benefit to this is forming our children to share — the recipient of the candy has the free will to keep it all, or to share. We have been blessed to witness how they have all learned to share in this way. Or the reward may involve a special outing or sports activity.
I also strive to meet with each of my children on a monthly basis to offer spiritual guidance one-on-one, though not always as consistently as I should. They each have goals appropriate to their age, for example, a virtue they are concretely working on as well as their prayer commitments and goals. So they are partners in taking responsibility for working on their own formation. This is essential.
And most importantly we receive the sacrament of penance together as a family on a weekly basis. We have been blessed to have received special permission from our pastor for our children to receive this sacrament as early as age six. The self-reflection and the graces of this sacrament of mercy are indispensable in growing in virtue and holiness, and make our job as parents 99% easier.
Kathleen: We try to raise our children imitating Christ as our model of virtue. Christ’s sole purpose on earth was to do the will of his Father in heaven, not out of fear, but out of total love. Thus, we as parents attempt to form our children in prompt and joyful obedience based on the same motivation — love, not fear. Love is self-giving and each child needs to learn that they are here on earth, like Christ, to serve, not to be served. Service is a manifestation of love for another, whereas sullenness, lack of charity and isolating oneself, is not of God, and creates division and disorder. When one refuses to cooperate out of selfishness, the entire family is hindered.
Each member of the family needs to do their part in the finely tuned working of the household. Self-giving love is a coming out of ourselves. This doesn’t come naturally to children — for that matter, even to adults — and often parents needs to keep reinforcing the lesson. This is done through continuing explanation of the reasons why we work together, by consequences for poor choices, but most importantly through positive witness and the enjoyment of the fruits of an ordered and peaceful home that is a haven of love. When achieved, prompt and joyful obedience brings harmony and order to the home, whereas without it, chaos and disorder reign. This is how we help our children to understand that each of them are loved, needed and an integral part of the family — each with a unique place and mission within it.
Q: You also endeavor to form your children in critical thinking. What are the practical steps you use in this effort?
James: We train our children in critical thinking, often engaging them in conversations on this subject. This is vitally important. For example, we will bring up a current event or something we came across in the media, and then examine it with a critical eye for the truth, for how it measures up to God’s supernatural view. We will examine perhaps what the agenda of the writer might have been. We will talk about the influences perhaps of the dominant culture, or a morally relativistic cultural view that is being expressed, and how it compares with the objective truth. We will look at how the event, article, or movie measures up to our Christian morality. This is a superb exercise in helping the children develop critical thinking and discernment skills that they will need throughout their lives. They will eventually need to stand on their own two feet to discern the truth and live by it.
We try to allow the Holy Spirit to possess and move us as parents, seizing opportunities wherever they may arise. We engage the children in a mutual discussion to examine matters in the light of truth. This can happen when the family is together at a meal, or any time and place. For example I was recently with my children filling my van’s tank at a gas station when I observed a large banner above the door to the convenience store saying, as I recall, “Get more good stuff!”
So we spontaneously had an animated conversation, replete with passion and humor, about this sign and its message of materialism. Do we really need more stuff? Don’t we have enough stuff? Where would we put this stuff? What will we do with this stuff when it becomes junk? Will more stuff really make us happy or would we end up craving more “good stuff”? We had a lot of fun bringing out the ludicrousness of this message. Experiences like this, I believe, deeply inculcate the truth and a proper critical discernment of the various false and misleading messages the culture is constantly hurling at us.
Q: Now that some of your children are young adults, what do they say about the experience of growing up with so many siblings? Are there any attitudes or practices that you have changed as parents based on their advice or feedback?
James: I don’t think they would have had it any other way. This is particularly evident by the fact that all of our older children like to spend a lot of time with the family when they are, for example, home from college. Is there ever friction? Yes, of course. But in a large family in particular I think each family member learns quickly that he or she is not the center of the universe, and also the indispensable virtues of quick forgiveness and tolerance.
As to the second part of this question, one lives and learns, but essentially Kathleen and I would not have done things much differently than we have. As for myself I wish I could have done better in tempering my choleric temperament and impatience, as I am often “reacting,” rather than being calm and collected. Yet, I am amazed and consoled by the reality that Jesus knows how each of us is. He knows all of our human faults and weaknesses, and yet he still chooses to entrust us with the stewardship of his children. I am convinced that he makes up for all that is lacking in us. We are merely called to try our best and to confidently trust in him for the rest.
Kathleen: We have found that love multiplies itself. In other words, the more one loves, the more one can love. With each new child, our love as parents has grown and multiplied. Our love has increased, not diminished. We have had parents admit to us that they fear having an additional child because they think they’ve given all the love they are capable of to their one or two children. They fear they won’t have enough love to go around, to give to any more. This fear is so ungrounded in truth and in our own experience. The human heart is capable of an infinite amount of love, as it is created in God’s image.
Likewise, the love our children have for each other has multiplied with each addition to the family. Our children even at a young age surprised us with their excitement over each new baby. Never was there any hint of a selfish thought that now there will be less love and time on mom’s and dad’s part to go around. Quite the opposite — there was only great joy and happiness when we had an “announcement” to make. Even now, my children continue to ask, pray and hope for more babies to join our family — though that might take a miracle at my age!
Growing up in a large family naturally instills generosity and service among the children, but it also develops a great closeness, love and dependency among them. It is obvious to any witness that our children truly care about each other. They are one another’s best friends because they have shared a closeness of age, have shared their possessions and have shared the joyful, and at times, difficult experiences of family life. They have grown up in a very tightknit family unit. As we write about in great detail in our book, our system of charge-master and younger charge has created a great bond of love between the younger and older children. They truly love each other, because the older ones have taken an integral part in the care and nurturing of their younger brothers and sisters. This is a blessing and has created a lifelong relationship that is very special.
As to what attitudes or practices we may have changed based on their feedback — we must humbly respond that no, there aren’t any. We have always tried to raise our children with God’s help and grace obtained through prayer and the sacraments. We have prayerfully listened and acted upon his inspirations, living our lives on a hierarchy of values and priorities, always with God at the center of all we do.
We have often had to choose the narrow path, not allowing our children to follow the crowd, but helping them to see the value of living charity, modesty, and a virtuous life. God is the one who has formed our children and he deserves the credit for any good that has resulted. We now are seeing the fruit of a life united to him. We have been blessed to hear our older children actually admit that we “were right” even in the difficult choices. They have made the faith their own and are living their lives upon the same principles and values instilled within the family unit. “Raise them up in the way they should go and they will never depart from it.”
Q: Some of your children have participated in vocational discernment programs and one of your sons is in a minor seminary. What do you do to foster openness to a vocation to the priesthood or consecrated life?
Kathleen: The virtues of generosity, service to others, selflessness and responsibility that are developed within a large family continue to manifest themselves in the choices of vocation and career that our older children have discerned to be God’s will for them. Since our book was published, one of our daughters has given her life completely to Christ in the lay consecrated state. Our oldest daughter works full time for the Archdiocese of Chicago. Our college-age daughters are choosing careers that will enable them to use their formation in the Catholic faith to serve others in the fields of education, law, medicine and psychology, as well as looking forward to raising children of their own. Our son is in a minor seminary discerning a call to the priesthood while receiving an outstanding high school education and Catholic formation in the faith. Each one of our oldest seven children have decided for themselves to attend schools of discernment during their high school years in order to give God the first chance with their young lives.
This has not happened by chance. From early on within our marriage, God has worked in his own mysterious way to lead us to make him the center of our family and our lives. At first it started through simple spontaneous prayer to Our Lady, and she led us to her Son. Then more frequent recitation of the rosary lead to daily Mass and weekly confession as an entire family unit, and to a growing love and knowledge of our faith and a complete embracing of the teachings of the Church.
The effect this has had on each member of the family is evident in the way they are now leading their lives and the choices they are making. Their lives are centered on God as they know that is ultimately why he created us — to know, love and serve him and to bring others to do the same.
— — —
On the Net:
Part 1 of this interview: www.zenit.org/article-24758?l=English
“Better by the Dozen, Plus Two: Anecdotes and a Philosophy of Life from a Family of Sixteen”: http://www.lulu.com/littleton