How to actually raise teenagers

A lot of digital ink gets spilled over what it’s really like to raise older kids. I mean really, truly, no jokes, just the unvarnished truth.

We currently have four teenagers, and I’ve tried, myself, to put down some useful words on the topic, but the truth is, nothing scrambles your brain or flattens your ability to function like raising kids this age, these days. And yet it must be done. So here’s my contribution:

Writing about teenagers tends to fall into two categories.

The first comes across like a final report discovered decades later from deep inside a sealed bunker. You know the kind : “They have taken the bridge and the Second Hall. We have barred the gates but cannot hold them for long. We cannot get out. They are coming” kind of thing.

Poor miserable souls these parents are, for so many years they clung to the illusion that their own children would be different, and that they alone would maintain discipline and order and even an amicable relationship with their offspring.

But they suffer the same fate as everyone else. Their kids are absolute sociopaths, and the parents can’t wait to warn their peers about the fate that awaits them. They hang around at maternity wards just to gloat. They turn up at kindergarten graduations of strangers and throw tomatoes at the stage, because these kids may look adorable now, but they know what’s coming as soon as puberty sets in.

So that’s one kind of advice you’ll get from parents of teens. The other type valiantly pushes back against these tired tropes of the surly, smelly, antisocial adolescent. These parents insist that it’s neither necessary nor normal for teenagers to behave so poorly. Give them some higher expectations and a little guidance, and they’ll grow and bear fruit like the most elegant of topiaries.

They themselves have an entire phalanx of teenagers in their house right now, they will tell you, and the only way you’d guess it is because of the sounds of the viola wafting up through the floorboards as they willingly practice their arpeggios. One teen is tutoring his younger brother, two are about to come home from work at the Fine Young Man Store, and one is sitting at the desk he built himself, writing a letter to apologise to his elderly neighbour for how unevenly he chopped the shallots in last Sunday’s boeuf en croûte.

It is simply a matter of having the right expectations, and you must simply expect your children to be as inexhaustibly fabulous as you are yourself, and the job’s halfway done.

(The other half happens at boarding school, it turns out, which the grandparents pay for. Also the kids spend their weekends at the grandparents’ house. The grandparents themselves live in a metal trailer in the desert, desperately petitioning the courts to terminate their visitation rights.)

I joke, I joke. The truth, as usual, lies somewhere in between these two extremes. Teenagers are by no means natural sociopaths, but neither are they [excuse me while I get up and make sure my door is locked] especially willing and eager to be formed into useful members of society. Not. Especially. Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

Image source PXhere (public domain)

Leaning into the boringness of the rosary

For several years, family prayer night at our house went like this: We would shout, “Time to pray! Time to pray!” and everyone would slouch into the living room and hurl themselves onto the couch.

When everyone was sufficiently hurled and all screens were darkened, we would make the sign of the cross, then my husband or I would ask, “What are our intentions?” and the kids would mumble out a few names. Then we would say, “And what are we thankful for?” This was our stab at keeping prayer fresh, personal, and meaningful, and for our efforts, we invariably got the youngest child screaming out something like, ‘I’M GRANKFUL DAT ELIJAH GOT A NEW BUTT FOR A FACE” and we’d have to dampen the ensuing riot.

We would then launch into a rocket-speed recitation of a list of prayers that we kept adding to, because it seemed important that the kids knew more and more prayers. And it is important, except that even though I do not have the gift of seeing into hearts, I felt pretty sure that, while our lips were rattling out “our life, our sweetness, and our hope; to thee do we cry, poor banished children of Eve,” we might as well have been saying “fadatta, fadatta, fadatta, beepum, boopum, bah.” It’s just human nature. Say the same words in the same order night after night, and after a while, you don’t even know what you’re saying.

We tried to correct it. We’ve made various stabs at liturgy of the hours, but keep discovering that we are both too lazy and too stupid to keep up with it. (Please don’t make suggestions about how to help this happen. I said “lazy and stupid” and I meant it.) We’ve tried this and we’ve tried that. And finally, back to the scriptural rosary we crept, like a dog to its . . . well-loved tennis ball that it keeps chewing on, because something in its poor simple brain makes it seem satisfying, comforting, and even worthwhile, and it was a gift from its owner.

I used to have no end of trouble with the scriptural rosary. I used to try to flog my brain into some kind of hyper-vigilant state where I would ferret out some new insight every time we revisited each mystery.

There we would be at the finding in the temple for the 723rd time, and I would give myself the space of ten Hail Marys to discover something I had never noticed before, some new little crumb of understanding hidden away behind Jesus’ sandal or some unexpected wrinkle in Joseph’s travel cloak…

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

Image by DaModernDaVinci via Pixabay (Creative Commons) 

What’s wrong with hymns without quotation marks?

Last year, popular sacred music composer David Haas was accused of sexually and spiritually abusing and assaulting 44 women. A recent conversation about his music took an interesting turn, and I thought I’d share some of it here.

First of all, it’s a shame that it even has to be said, but the guy’s music should never be played in church again. He shouldn’t be making royalties off songs he wrote and used explicitly to groom and manipulate women, and nobody should have to hear the words of a predator sung inside the walls of their church.

I have my own thoughts about separating the artist from the art, but this is different: The guy explicitly and recently used his celebrity as a religious artist to prey on women. He should be out for good, period. Yes, even if that one song of his was very meaningful and moving to you at some point in your life. You can always play it in your own home if you like it that much. Music is expendable, but people are not. Even if it were the most sublime music in the history of the church, it doesn’t belong in the church because of what he did.

Everyone agreed on that point, and we moved to the second point, which was more contentious, and which was this: Perhaps Haas’ music wasn’t sublime. Far from it: It was pretty terrible, so there’s a second (less urgent) reason it shouldn’t be played in church. Yes, I firmly believe that some music is objectively inferior to other music. Music that’s trite, coy, and formless is inferior. You don’t have to be a trained musician to develop a sensitive ear, which makes hearing bad music at church the equivalent of sitting on sticky, splintery pews or breathing air that smells like rotten eggs. Christ is still present, but gosh, it’s distracting.

Then came the third objection to Haas’ songs: The lyrics…Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

Baby teeth

My daughter finally lost her tooth. It was a relief, that it came out just before the first day of school.

The tooth was hanging on by the merest hinge, and as long as she was home, she delighted in flipping it back and forth gruesomely; but the prospect of losing it at school presented some problems. She’s a bit of a bleeder.

What if she wore her favorite mask with the parakeet on it for the first day of school, and she ended up bleeding on it? She could bring a second mask as a back-up, I suggested. But does blood come out of masks? I assured her that it does. Still, we were all relieved that the tooth fell out the night before. So much better to deal with these things at home.

So then of course she lost the tooth anyway — lost it after losing it, I mean. She had put it in a sandwich bag and set it by her plate while she ate dinner, and her older brother cleared the table and mistook this fragment of her for trash, and threw it out.

Understandable all around. A sympathetic hug, and she was mostly over it. She probably has another baby tooth in her head to lose, still, so I don’t think this was her last chance to slip a tooth under her pillow and hope someone, magical or otherwise, would come and collect it in the night.

It’s a strange thing to work around, the idea that part of our skeletal system might fall out during the day, and we have to decide what to do with it. It’s hard to shake the idea that the system of growing and losing teeth isn’t halfway magical — not in an airy, sparkly way, but in a murkier, more occult vein, where biology bleeds into grisly existentialism, and hidden things come to light only to be lost again, leaving a half-healed wound. Strange that we just live with this system, as if it’s normal.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

 

The people you meet when you run

My husband and I go running together several times a week. We’re not fast and we’re not agile, but we do keep going. Over the years, we’ve come to recognize the various people you meet when you run. They’re not always the exact same people, but there are a few familiar types:

Don’t Worry, He’s Harmless

This is an earnest dog lover who has to shout above the sound of her slavering, snarling ragebeast who is expressing his harmlessness by opening his mouth so wide, you can see inside his tail. Don’t worry! Why would we worry! Why should you even consider putting such an animal on a leash, when really it’s the rest of the world that is being silly and mean by worrying! Coincidentally, on days when we meet Don’t Worry He’s Harmless, we always make the best time.

O to be young!

A deeply tanned, deeply wrinkled woman in baggy jeans and a sassy t-shirt who spends her mornings toddling through the dappled sunlight, beaming at trees. When she comes within hailing distance, she stops, throws her head back and her arms out, and croaks, “O to be young!” Then stands there with her mouth open and an expectant smile on her face. I have no idea what to say to this, so I usually say, “Oh ho ho, ha ha!” and keep running. One time she didn’t say it, and I felt so old…

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

 

Sublimate your anger, $5 at a time

I won’t say who it is, because I don’t want to embarrass her, but someone recently told me about a new policy she developed for herself during the pandemic. Every time she started to get mad at someone for being selfish and irresponsible, and she wanted to righteously lash out and put them in their place , she would send a few dollars to the food pantry, instead.

At first I thought this was a sweet and good but somewhat random gesture: Instead of doing the bad thing (being mad), she was going to do the good thing (feeding the hungry). But I actually think there was actually something more interesting and meaningful going on: Something called sublimation.

Sublimation is when you take some undesirable urge and redirect the energy of it into something worthwhile and commendable. It is not repression, because you’re not denying that the urge is there, and you’re not pretending it doesn’t affect you. Instead, you’re acknowledging that the urge is powerful and forceful, and that you can’t make it just go away; so instead, you make it work for you.

The person in question felt an understandable rage and frustration when someone would rudely refuse to wear a mask, or would spread lies about vaccines, or would harass other people for complying with safety protocols. (Yes, these are all things that happen regularly.)

I think this anger qualifies as righteous anger, because these actions hurt vulnerable people the most. But she knew that following her heart by cussing them out or smacking them would just make things worse for everybody. So instead, she balled up her anger and used it to help vulnerable people. Thus the donation to the food pantry.

So it wasn’t just “do good instead of bad.” She took anger over someone hurting people, and used it to help people. The food pantry is great for this kind of thing, because there will always be poor people, and poor people will always need food (or even better, money so they can decide what kind of food to buy).

The thing about sublimation is not just that it makes good things come about, and it’s not just that it steers you away from crashing on the rocks of sin. It actually changes you. Here is where I recall one of the first really useful things I learned from my therapist years ago…Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly.
 
Photo by Intricate Explorer on Unsplash

We were all out of ideas, so we tried the rosary

My husband and I agreed: It’s not that it’s magic, or anything. It’s definitely not magic. But it’s unmistakable: Saying a decade of the rosary together every day is changing our lives. Not drastically. Just a little bit. But undeniably.

We are not the kind of couple you’d look at and say, “Oh yeah, they’re big into the rosary.”

I never liked the rosary. I was never sure if I was supposed to be focusing on the mystery, or the prayer, or my intentions, or some combination. It was what you did as a penance, or because your parents made you. I never knew if I was supposed to be coming up with some brilliant new insight into the life of Mary, or finding some kind of spiritual comfort in the familiarity of the *lack* of brilliant new insight, or what. And darn it, I always lose track and end up saying either nine or eleven Hail Marys.

But more and more often, dealing with the problems that naturally come with full lives, we found ourselves saying, “I don’t know. I don’t know anything. I just don’t know what to do.” And while there is some relief that comes with realizing your own limitations, sometimes we really did have to do something, and we were just at sea. We do both know how to work our way through a set of beads, though, so at very least it seemed like a rosary couldn’t hurt.

We already go running together most days, so we decided to make a decade of the rosary part of the routine. Since we’ve made it a daily practice, literally come rain or shine . . . well, things have been better.

Surely, part of the improvement is attributable to human psychology: When you decide to commit to doing something to make your life better, that in itself helps. By making an effort, you’re signaling to yourself that you’re worthy of effort and worth taking care of; and this is a thought that, repeated often enough, is very likely to improve your outlook on life. It’s a self-fulfilling self-help routine.

But that doesn’t explain everything.Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

Image via Maxpixel (Creative Commons)

 

Frog and Toad at Cana

Not long before he died, I was complaining to my father I couldn’t persuade any of my kids to go to a Catholic college. I said I knew they were getting decent educations at the places they chose, but still, I was sure my plan was better than theirs. Half jokingly, half dead serious, I groaned,  “How will they ever find a nice Catholic to marry?”

My father said, “Well, I found one at Brooklyn Public College!” He was half joking, half serious, too: the joke being that, when he met my mother, they were both about as far from Catholic as anyone could be.

They had both been raised as non-practicing Jews, met at college when they were both cutting class, got married in secret in a hurry, had a second public ceremony to appease the parents, dabbled in Buddhism, moved to a kibbutz in Israel, came home, briefly joined a cult, found the Lord, and then eventually became Catholic — my mother and older sister first, and my father and the rest of us a year later, when they had already been married for about 20 years. They ended up as a happy old married Catholic couple, but they certainly didn’t start that way.

I’ve been thinking a lot about marriage and God’s will and who belongs together and how and why marriages work… Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

 
Image by Darkmoon_Art from Pixabay

Does it matter if a priest makes up his own sermon?

Would it bother you if your priest delivered ready-made sermons, written by someone else? A lot of Catholics say they wouldn’t mind in the slightest — especially if the alternative is sermons that are bland and uninspired, or rambling and incoherent, or heretical, or just plain weird.

I always felt sorry for parish priests who must, in addition to their insanely busy schedule, set aside time to come up with a sermon that is coherent, likely to speak to the congregation as he knows them, and is also tied into the readings we just heard or the day on the liturgical calendar. And some priests have great ideas to impart, but they’re just not good writers or speakers; and some aren’t fluent in the language their congregation speaks.

There are services and publications designed to solve this very problem, either offering full-blown homilies or helpful prompts; and there are public priests whose sermons are available online, making it easy for less-famous priests to borrow liberally or simply repeat the whole thing. It seems like a no-brainer: If you’re a priest who’s already pulled in a thousand directions and running dry creatively, it just makes sense to take this one thing off your plate.

That’s why I was a little surprised to learn how many priests have a visceral aversion to delivering a sermon written by someone else (even with attribution). When I asked on Twitter whether priests ever do this, only a few said they did… Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly.

Image source

 

On being less zen about suffering

I forget what it was I was offering up, but I told the Lord, “I’m offering this up to you, and I’ll try to be zen about it.”

Then I heard what I said. So what? So I hadn’t had any coffee yet, and I momentarily forgot what religion I am. I only wish it were the dumbest thing He’s ever heard me say.

It made me stop and think, though, and I realized I had to do a little recalibrating of what I meant by “offering it up.” It’s fairly easy to start thinking of it in pop psychology terms: Something is bothering me and weighing me down, so I’m going to just mentally release it. Imagine it like a bright red balloon that sails up, up, up into the sky until it’s just a little pinpoint, and now — poof! — it’s gone, and no longer my problem.

This is . . . okay. It may very well be the most emotionally healthy thing to do at some particular moment. But it’s not precisely offering it up to God, for a couple of reasons. For one reason, God is not the wide blue sky. He is not an amorphous, impersonal, placid largeness whose function is to swallow up small things until they don’t matter anymore. (That’s not even what the sky is, either, but never mind that now.)

What do we mean when we say “offer it up?” Sometimes people will distort the concept, and use the phrase as shorthand for “suck it up” or “shut up.” People will say “offer it up” when what they really mean is, “I’m going to remind you that the spiritual thing to do is to quit whining about your stupid problems.”

That, as they say, ain’t it. We have the option to offer suffering up to God precisely because even our small suffering IS real suffering, and God knows this, and even (in a way that makes more or less sense to me at various times) suffers along with us. It’s not that we’re not supposed to minimize our troubles. It’s that suffering doesn’t have to be a dead end. It doesn’t have to stay entirely with us.

People sometimes say that Catholics are obsessed with suffering, or that we have an unhealthy fascination with death and pain. And sure, anything can be overdone or twisted or made unhealthy. But Catholics (when they’re not being crazy) don’t seek out suffering; they just do a good job of acknowledging that it exists. And they offer at least the possibility of a plan for what to do with it.

At its core, the Catholic understanding of suffering has two components… Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

Image: Mary Magdalen at the foot of the cross, 1420 – 1430, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Public Domain