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Painting an Unfinished Picture

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1 Painting an Unfinished Picture on Thu Jun 03, 2010 8:27 am

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Painting an Unfinished Picture
How we continue to grow as parents

By: Anne Frederick






Last August, when our oldest child turned twenty-one, my husband, Ernie, and I experienced one of the most pleasant surprises of parenting. In the middle of his birthday celebration, Brian turned to his dad and me to thank us for being his parents. Our nineteen-year-old daughter, Melissa, echoed his appreciation.

They said they were grateful for giving them a moral foundation based on Catholic teaching. They thanked us for giving them room to make choices and learn to accept responsibility for the consequences, good or bad. We had loved them unconditionally but not over protectively, Melissa and Brian told us. Because of this, they felt able to avoid the drinking, drugs, partying (and flunking out) that some of their high school friends had fallen into, once in college and away from home.

As we listened to our children’s words of thanks, we felt awed and deeply grateful. It’s not as if our family life has been free of ups and downs. Ernie’s twenty-year career in retail management, with its irregular work hours and frequent moves, was often a source of stress. And we’re certainly not “perfect” parents. By 10:15 a.m. on any New Year’s Day, I’m already out of the running for Mother of the Year. Our kids, too, have made mistakes and are still in process as they move into young adulthood.

Staying on Track. Ernie and I often agonized over what to do as we raised our children. How frequently we turned our concerns over to God and prayed that the Holy Spirit would lead us in the right direction. The path seemed confusing at times, but we always had our Catholic faith as our moral compass.

In his book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Families, Stephen Covey compares parents to pilots of small planes, who need a compass and a flight plan to get pointed in the right direction and get back on course when they fly astray. Even if a family is off track 90 percent of the time, he says, there is hope if its guidance mechanisms are at least somewhat in place.

My husband and I know this is true, for we haven’t been straight-line flyers in our family life. And though we’ve had a moral compass, we’ve often lacked a clearly articulated flight plan.

Fortunately, Ernie and I have always been on the same page about our underlying goals. We wanted a Christ-centered marriage and family; we wanted to participate actively in the life of the Church; we wanted our kids to be happy, healthy, and holy. We shared other values and ideas, too, but didn’t generally articulate them until prodded by some troubling incident or situation.

There was the time our new pastor came over for dinner. There we were, sitting at table and looking forward to some good conversation. Impossible! Our family mealtimes had been getting very fly-by-night, and the kids, who were about six and nine, revealed it by their restless and disruptive behavior. (At one point, I think they even crawled under the table.)

The pastor took it all in stride and went on to become a close family friend. Ernie and I were embarrassed—and mobilized. We talked, agreed we wanted regular family meals where we could all sit and talk, and discussed how to implement our goal. It was one of the best decisions we ever made.

Assertiveness Training. Occasionally, we did manage to spot problems and agree on a game plan in a more timely way. Seeing that Melissa was very shy and susceptible to letting people take advantage of her, we adopted the long-term goal of helping her become more assertive.

Over the years, we found ways to build our daughter’s confidence and offer encouragement. We stifled our urge to jump in and rescue her from the consequences of not standing up for herself and her beliefs. We also modeled approaches to various situations and discussed them with her. Once, when Melissa was concerned about a change of teaching methods in her sixth-grade English class, I made a point of pursuing the matter with the principal and school board. Melissa was gratified that I had acted on her concerns, and we had an especially good talk about the whys and hows of speaking up.

Ernie brought his business expertise to bear in the way he helped Melissa find her voice. He showed her how to size up a situation, negotiate, and work with people. She learned well. Just how well became obvious the day she and Ernie went to buy a car that she could use. At the car dealership, father and daughter worked so smoothly together to get the right information and the best deal that the manager offered Melissa a job on the spot! (She accepted.) Now in college, she’s considering a business major.

When Things Fall Apart. In 1997, Ernie’s job took us from a small town in Oklahoma to big-city Atlanta, Georgia. It was a drastic change for all of us, but especially traumatic for the children. Fifteen-year-old Brian took it hardest. One thing led to another, and soon we had a crisis on our hands. Ernie and I faced the fact that we needed a clearer overall plan for our family.

We began by giving ourselves some space—taking time for a marriage retreat where we could talk and brush up on our communication skills. We asked advice from our friend, the “pastor who came to dinner,” and were grateful that he came and spent time with us. Because it’s hard to see clearly when you’re in the midst of turmoil, his perspective was very helpful.

Also helpful was the reading and reflecting I was doing as I pursued a graduate degree in theology. In a deeper way, I saw the wisdom of the Church’s teaching and tradition of moral living through the virtues and its importance in shaping character and behavior. Then I came across Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People seminar, with its adaptations for families and teens. It was a good fit with Catholic moral teaching, I thought, and offered solid practical help for applying it in family life.

Ernie and I especially appreciated Stephen Covey’s insight about the importance of digging beneath a problem to discover the basic underlying principle or truth. In Brian’s case, we decided, this meant treating our son as a responsible moral agent who could learn to make good choices about how to handle his responsibilities and relationships.

One evening, we sat down with both children and presented them with a vision of this truth. “You’ve been raised to know right from wrong,” we told them. “You also know that you’re going to be held accountable for the choices you make in life.” We talked about moral values and the importance of standing up for the truth, even when it’s tough. Then we watched the movie A Man for All Seasons, which tells the story of St. Thomas More’s courageous face-off against King Henry VIII.

Unfinished Business. This marked the beginnings of a change—especially for Brian, who chose Thomas More as his Confirmation patron a few months later. The next year was still a roller-coaster ride, but Ernie and I held onto our vision for our son. This helped us to encourage his gifts, which, in turn, helped him to overcome his frustration.

In time, Brian went from angry venting to active involvement in the Model United Nations team at his high school. The experience stimulated his interest in politics and international affairs and shaped his choice of a college major; he’s more than halfway through a dual degree in philosophy and political science.

Today, not quite two years into the empty nest stage of our lives, Ernie and I are grateful to see our children moving forward. They’re not a finished picture, we know. They still have critical choices to make. And so we continue to listen and discuss, doing what we can to help them grow in prudence and make wise, responsible decisions.

Most of all, as two imperfect parents who have received so much grace in time of need, we entrust our kids to the care of our loving God, who is always there to guide us toward the choices that bring us life.

Anne Frederick is Director of Religious Education for the Diocese of Knoxville, Tennessee, and a certified facilitator for the Stephen Covey seminars, which she has adapted for use in Catholic settings.


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Lord, you pour out blessings and lovingkindness on me before I can even ask. And you offer more than I could even conceive of asking. -King David, Psalm 21

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