Do we let them know we see and delight in them as they are, for who they are? Or do we hustle past their actual selves in favor of a generic family photo op? God gave us specific children for a reason. One of our primary jobs as parents is to identify and encourage what is good in them – not what we wish they were like, but what is good in them right now. Our job is to find something delightful in them.
Hey, parents, how did Mass go yesterday?
Let me guess: Everyone was exhausted and cranky, the kids were still sticky and vibrating with last night’s sugar, several faces showed traces of whiskers and fake blood, and all in all, you kept thinking how nice it would be to venerate the saints any other day at all but this one.
The only thing that could make it harder? If another parishioner went out of his way to make it harder. Yes, it happens! If it’s never happened to you, you’re lucky.
Yesterday, a mom asked me how to get yourself to go back to Mass after it happens once too often. It wasn’t just a passing glare, sigh, or stink-eye from a crabby fellow Catholic, she explained, but the person actually hissed in her ear that her children do not belong at Mass. That she is doing a bad job as a mother. Incredibly, the complainer sought her out after Mass to double down and say it again: Your children don’t belong here. Do not bring them here.
Let’s be clear: This is a message straight from Hell. The Mass is humanity’s main source of grace and life, and if no one goes, then no one will have grace or life. Telling parents their kids don’t belong at Mass is like trampling down every seedling you find, then clucking your tongue over the poor harvest.
So, yes, children belong. Yes, even if there is a cry room and a nursery and a separate kiddie liturgy available.
You as parents may believe this with at least part of your heart. But what do you do about the people who don’t believe it? What if the prospect of setting yourself up for another public flogging next Sunday just feels crushingly impossible? You know how much you need Christ, but you also know you’re going to spend the entire hour feeling tense, angry, guilty, and defensive; and it’s not as if the kids are begging to be there, either. You know you need what Christ has to offer, and you know grace isn’t a matter of how you feel. But even knowing all of this, sometimes it just seems pointless, utterly pointless, to go. What to do?
Sometime before Sunday, talk to the priest. This may or may not work. Some priests over-value silence, and some underestimate how hard it is to keep kids quiet. Priests are human, and no human responds well to all situations.
But many priests will be horrified to hear that families are being discouraged from coming to Mass. When the pastor insists from the pulpit that true pro-lifers want, need, and love children in the pews, and insists that we act that way, it changes the culture of the parish. So ask your priest if he will say something, or put a note in the bulletin, or distribute some of these encouraging cards. Have more than one conversation, if need be. Yes, the priest is busy, but your complaint is not trivial.
Make a simple strategy ahead of time. Not necessarily a plan for how to manage your kids (although that’s important too; although some mornings, not arriving naked is triumph enough), but a plan for how to respond if someone does harass you. When I’m already frazzled by a rambunctious toddler, I’m not going to be able to improvise a sensible response to an equally unreasonable adult (hereafter referred to as “The Hisser”). It’s invaluable to have an all-purpose tool at the ready.
Suggested stock phrases: “Thanks, we’re doing the best we can!” or “We’re having a rough time. Let’s pray for each other” or “Go back to hell where you came from, you old warthog.” Well, maybe not that last one. But you get the idea. Smile blandly, stare just over The Hisser’s left ear, and repeat, repeat, repeat. It doesn’t even have to make sense. Just having a ready response and sticking to it helps you regain control.
Third, enlist help. This is a tall order, I know. If you had an army of helpers surrounding you, you wouldn’t be struggling to begin with. But often, we see our pews as little isolation chambers, everyone turning up with their own personal issues; but the Mass is supposed to be a communal experience that extends beyond the sign of peace. So look around and see if you can spot a sympathetic person to act as a buffer between you and The Hisser. People pick on parents because they can. If they discover those parents have bodyguards, they will be less bold.
Find a spot close to another family or a friendly elderly couple. Gather up your courage and whisper, “Hey, listen, could you help me out? I’m trying to teach my kids to behave, but sometimes they get away from me, and it would be so great to feel like not everyone’s mad at me! If anyone gives us a hard time, could I ask you to stick up for me?” It’s weird, I know. But it’s hard to imagine someone turning you down, and many people (especially those who wish they had kids of their own) might be honored.
Prepare spiritually. This one is indispensable. We rightly think of the Mass as a meal where we are nourished (although that nourishment may not be a lovely, cozy experience every time), but it is also where we go to offer ourselves to the Father along with Christ. The Eucharist may be an unbloody sacrifice, but that doesn’t mean we won’t come away feeling bruised.
Sometimes Good Friday feels more present than Easter Sunday — even at Mass. Remember that Christ, too, was mocked. Christ, too, was castigated. Christ was told that He didn’t understand how to worship properly, that He was dishonoring God’s house, that He didn’t belong there. He knew it wasn’t true, but don’t you think it hurt Him anyway?
As you enter the Church, offer what is to come up to the Father. It is real suffering, and a worthy sacrifice to dedicate.
Remember you won’t live in Babyland forever. I cannot say it often enough: This stage passes. You may feel like you’re going to spend the rest of your life getting dressed up once a week to be screamed at in a drafty lobby for an hour, but it will pass. Kids grow up. They turn a corner. Even if you have baby after baby, the older kids can help with the younger kids, and they can set a wonderful example for their siblings, too. Babyland is intense, but it is not a life sentence.
You may have to find another parish. I believe in blooming where you’re planted, and I believe in improving the soil when you can. But some churches simply don’t want kids. So shake the dust from your sandals and let them have their wish — not vindictively, but because you and your kids don’t deserve to feel like pariahs simply for existing.
Once you’ve found a friendlier home, let the old pastor know why you’ve left, in as civil terms as you can manage. If enough people do this, he’ll notice the trend and maybe turn things around before it’s too late.
Just don’t leave the Catholic Church altogether! If you have left for a time, do come back. No welcome is warm enough to substitute for the sacraments.
I think he’s fallen prey to a dangerous fantasy, almost a fetish, of what the world once was: A world where fathers are always good, kind, and wise, where women are gentle and nurturing but not awfully bright, where the sun was always golden, sheets were always clean, and most of all, no one was ever, ever gay. (And if they were, it was because they accidentally talked to a gay man, who probably got that way by … not thinking about showering coal miners often enough … hmm.)
So here’s my advice to you, teenagers . . .
Lori told me:
This isn’t your typical “Porn is bad and you shouldn’t look”-type of course. We address our broken nature and we clearly show God’s plan of life and love. We talk about why they will be attracted to porn, but that it’s just a trap. We hit that concept pretty hard. We want to dissect the lie and showcase the truth.
Lori has a degree in education and several years’ experience teaching, and speaking for Project Freedom, a program promoting chastity geared toward eighth graders and their parents. Eric is the oldest of the eight Doerneman children.
Here is our conversation about The Parenting Dare. My questions are in bold.
Lori, when we met a few years ago a the Catholic Family Conference in Kansas, you were writing a blog called “Prayer and Duct Tape.” Can you explain that title?
Lori: I wanted it to be a Catholic blog but without too pious of a title. We had duct tape all over our house. Also, my bra was held together with duct tape at my wedding! Like prayer, it holds us together.
Eric, you’re pretty open about your own struggles with porn addiction. What happened?
Eric: We were super Catholic, hitting all the spiritual nails on the head, praying the rosary a lot, going to Mass every Sunday. One summer, I served at Mass every day. Mom was killing the spiritual aspect. But she completely missed the physical aspect.
Lori: I thought talking about porn would ruin his innocence, and I wanted to keep him innocent.
Eric: In 5th and 6th grade, I started looking at pictures on internet, masturbating and looking at porn consistently. Mom walked in on me one time, and from, there we always had a bit of a back and forth conversation. I wasn’t always transparent, but through that, we always had a real relationship.
Lori: I want to talk to my kids, intentionally building a relationship so they will trust me.
Eric: I told my friends my mom was helping me through it. Initially, they freaked out, but then they thought it was cool. They could never talk to their parents.
So where did you go from there?
Lori: The most of the year it took to get him out of porn startled me. Once he finally got out, it was through [an understanding of] the science of what was happening in his brain.
Eric: I tried [to stop] throughout high school and college. I knew it was immoral, but I couldn’t stop. It wasn’t until college that I said, “I’m actually addicted.” After college, mom kept hounding me. She got me a book [Pornography Addiction: Breaking the Chains] which taught me about the science, and I got a good grasp on what was happening to me.
What made you think not only of helping your kid, but trying to help other kids and other parents?
Lori: I changed my parenting through the course helping Eric. I have five sons, and I know I have a lot to offer to other parents. So I thought, “I want to offer an online course.” Parents need to acknowledge that porn is stealing the hearts of their kids. So we called it “The Parenting Dare.”
Eric surprised the crap out of me by saying, “You’d suck at doing this alone. I want to do this with you.”
Eric: We’re daring you to take your blinders off. It’s a hard course. We’re funny, but it’s not tutti frutti. It’s not Pinterest-y.
Lori: We have made the Gospel too easy. Kids want to do something heroic with their lives.
Tell me a little bit about what your program offers.
Eric: There are five main sections of the course, called “modules,” and each one has videos in it, anywhere from seven to ten minutes long. The first module is background, stuff you need to know about us, and then some concepts covered in the course: the four levels of happiness, the brain and addiction, and your belief system.
Lori: Module Three covers kids age zero to five, to get moms keyed in, and to get them to discuss things openly, like, “That’s your penis!” We get them to establish themselves as an authority.
“The sex talk” is not a talk, it’s a continual conversation. It starts from a young age: how beautiful your body is, how awesome God is that He created this. This makes it easier to have conversations about sex, porn, lust and love.
The best addiction is one that never starts. That means we target parents of young kids. In the last three modules, we discuss the parents as the general contractors of their home. The foundation is the understanding of god, and we describe different parts of the “house.”
The biggest module is the fifth one, for ages eleven to fourteen. As kids mature, we get into bigger concepts. We talk about love versus lust, and about puberty. It helps them be warriors. We talk about understanding the science of porn addiction and help them reject it.
Eric: We give parents the words to say.
Lori: The course is very practical. We address girls sending nudes. I interviewed lots of college girls, and I give them things to say when someone asks for nudes, so they don’t commit social suicide.
People who enroll are entitled to any updates that will come in the future. Technology is always changing, so is this one of the parts you see yourself updating?
Lori: Yes. Module Two is about how to protect electronics in your home and your phones. People will buy, for instance, Covenant Eyes, but they don’t install it. We hold their hands, step by step, click by click.
Why a mother-and-son approach?
Eric: That’s just how it worked out in our family. In a lot of families, the kids spend more time with mom, and mom has a lot more time to mold the kids.
Lori: Women use more words, too. But throughout the course, we say this isn’t just for moms to do. We address parents, and that could be moms or dads.
There are going to be some concepts men will understand in a deeper way because they have testosterone. And some women are so conservative,they can’t even say the word “porn” or “orgasm” or “masturbate.” We hope it will be a family thing, parents going through it together. Husband and wife sitting down together and opening up.
What if the parents themselves have issues? Do you see this helping them as they help their kids?
Lori: One of the beliefs we tear down is, “I can’t help my kids because I have my own issues.” No, that actually makes you more qualified. If you grew up dirt poor, are you never gonna talk about it, or are you gonna teach your kid to grow up to avoid it? Do you want your child to be better off, or not?
I’ve learned how to talk in a different way. How not to shame our kids, to be present for them. It’s almost more of a parenting course: How to authentically connect with your kids so they will open up. We don’t talk about porn all the time. We talk about how to have fun as a family.
Eric: It’s not even about how to talk when you find out they looked at porn; it’s for beforehand. The tone you want to give off is: If you ever look at that, I’m not gonna hate you. If you do that, they’ll never talk to you about it.
Lori: It’s a weird tightrope, because you don’t want them to be worldly, but you want them to talk to you.
What are some other common beliefs you refute?
Lori: That if my child is moral, and believes in Jesus, they will never look at porn.
That girls don’t look at porn.
And the biggest one is: I can’t talk to my child about porn because I want to keep his innocence.
By talking to them, you teach them innocence. They are kind of grossed out when they hear about porn, and that’s kind of good. You catch them before they’re in it. Talking to them gives them this huge protection.
Eric: In the part for the 6-10 year age range, we discuss a study that says if kid sees porn, he’ll go back to see if it’s still there, out of curiosity. So parents can ask them if they saw anything that makes them feel uncomfortable.
Lori: Priests say the heartache is that there are young kids looking at porn, and their parents don’t even know. We have to shake up the tree a little bit.
You touch briefly on the topic of modest dress for girls, which is such a hot button topic.
Lori: A priest told me, “Don’t go there!” But I saw a woman in the park, and the way she was dressed, she was turning me on! We just raise the question, comment, and say how we handle it. We’re not telling you what to do.
What is your ultimate goal?
Lori: It’s our vision to get rid of porn. It won’t happen in the next hundred years, but I want to be able to raise men and women who are porn resistant.
Eric: The things we’re talking about can be overwhelming. We’re going to help you through every step of the process.
We are there to praise and worship God, to be spiritually nourished, and to unite our lives with the life of Christ as He offers Himself up to the Father. We are not there because we bought our ticket and are entitled to a certain experience.
After eighteen straight years with more than one child in the house, I suddenly find myself alone with a toddler. I was worried it would be hard to keep her occupied while I got my work done, but it turns out toddlers are great at entertaining themselves. All you have to do is supply them with the right equipment — and try to turn off the over-anxious housekeeper in your brain.
Here are some tips to help your little one have fun, and to help you relax while she does!
-Let her play in the sink. Turn the chair backward for stability, and put lots of ladles, cups, sieves, and other tools in her reach. Don’t worry about the mess! Water is easy to clean. Put some towels on the floor if it helps you relax.
-Give her a bunch of brightly-colored cloths, preferably silks, that she can sort, fold, and distribute around the house. Yes, laundry will do! Laundry can be cleaned up, Mama, but babies don’t stay babies forever. Relax.
-Give her giant chalk and let her do her thing. Sure, inside. Chalk comes off just about any kind of furniture or paint, so relax. Or it doesn’t. Relax. Just relax. Just. Oh shit those are markers. But maybe they’re washable. Relax.
-Give her a spray bottle and let her “clean” things. Ignore it when she licks up the spray. Yes, ignore those other things she is licking, too. And those other things she is spraying. Maybe put bells on her so she can’t sneak up and spray you in the back of the neck. Or down the back of your pants. Or your compu— oh, well, keyboards can be replaced, Mama! But babies don’t last! Mama!
-Give her a metal can with a slot cut in the lid, and a bunch of coins. Such a satisfying sound as they tumble in! If you’re nervous about her eating coins, give her a milk jug with a hole cut in the side, and a supply of clothespins. Or give her whatever she wants. Give her your wallet. Give her a goldfish. Give her the gold bouillon you’ve been saving for your retirement. Give her live ammo. Just check her diaper later.
-Give her a knife. No, just a butter knife, and some, some, some play doh or celery or whatever to chop. Fine, let her have the real knife. Fine, let her cut you. You have more blood to give, Mama, I know you do.
-Watch Octonauts. Watch it and watch it and watch it.
It’s the end of vacation, when all the things we meant to do over the summer cascade into guilt and regret. “Tree house” and “ocean” and “art museum” come off the list; “haircut” and “school shopping” go on. We should have done more! When I was little, I remember doing more.
On the radio, I heard the end of an essay by a man trying to connect with his elderly father, a father who had been harsh and distant for decades. I gathered that the one happy childhood memory the narrator had was of their annual, extravagant beach house vacation. The kids would run and play and whoop it up, while the dad would glower and retreat to the couch to watch TV. Still, he made it happen year after year.
Now, forty years later, the man finally asked his father if he had fun on those vacations — and if not, if he hated them as much as he seemed to, why did he make such a point of taking them every year?
It turns out that the old man, now almost eighty years old, was still smarting from the sting of his childhood, from the first day of school, when the teacher would assign that dreaded essay, “What I Did On My Summer Vacation.” The only true answer would have been: “We gathered peaches to pay the landlord” or “We shot rats in the turnip field so we wouldn’t starve come winter.”
So he and his brothers would make up something to write about, something that would prove that they had been having fun like the rest of the world. He resolved that his own kids wouldn’t have to resort to fantasy. They’d do something real on summer vacation, something wonderful. Something to report.
When my kids were all little, I used to accuse myself of not so much striving to make a happy childhood for them, as striving to create evidence that they had had a happy childhood. A baby book full of carefully edited anecdotes and cute dialogue; a photo album of high points and rare good days. Maybe, day to day, they had to cower away from me and my mood swings, and maybe they longed for me to just sit down, relax, and play with them, rather than frantically crafting towers of glorious expectations, and then collapsing in tears when it all caved in under the weight of real life. Maybe so. In the words of an old guide to confession: I am unable to judge the severity of my actions.
Either way, I had some hard evidence. I could point to the salt clay figurines, the stretchy loop potholders, the quirky animal sewing cards I had made just for them, using the back of a Crispix box and my own lifeblood, and I could say, “The proof is here. Only a loving mother would have done this. Remember how I let you make muffins with me, even though you drive me crazy? Let’s laminate this photo of you petting a goat at age 2, and let’s not laminate the memory of me crying over how much money we spent to get in. You liked that goat, you liked it very much. But you won’t remember, so I need to nail it down now, to present to the judge, I mean put in your baby book. And look, you were wearing a dress that I sewed myself.”
Behold, the gulf between love and intentions. Oh, the longing to love, the longing to be loved, the longing to have been loved. Oh, the clumsy swipes we take at that shining, shifting goal of happiness.
We are all, maybe, hoping to pacify the demands of the past, striving to bridge the gulf, to reach back over all those summers and tell our own selves as children, “Yes, you were happy. Here’s the proof.” We’re telling that long-dead teacher, now moldering in the grave, “You wanted an essay? You wanted to know what I did? Here’s my child, and he had fun on his summer vacation. Here’s the evidence you demanded; it’s all there.”
Here are the things I remember about my childhood, along with the vacations and the treats, the parades and the birthday parties — and also along with the mood swings and strife, the tensions and shouting, tipped-over tables slammed doors. Here are the things I remember, from summer and from winter, from the long, empty, formless days of vacation and the long, empty, formless days inside the lonely, needy heart of a child looking for some definitive proof of love:
I remember my mother putting down her book (more precious than rubies) and looking me straight in the eye when I called her name. My father pausing for a minute before he answered me, staying silent a little too long, muscling past his first impulse to criticize or refute. My big sisters praising me for so skillfully walking down the stairs with only one foot on each step, instead of two, like babies do. I remember being on rented skates and being swooped up from behind, a rescue just as the floor loomed up to pound in my face. I remember someone holding a pajama zipper away from my belly, protecting my skin as they zipped it up. I remember being protected.
There’s the evidence, and I’m writing it down now. It is the end of summer. We have something to report.
She got her sons’ permission to write everything she writes.
Yeah. So what? They are your children. Your relationship with them is not a contractual obligation where one party can sign away their rights to dignity and privacy just because their mom has a deadline and a grievance
A friend recently reminded me of this post I wrote about my mother in 2012. We’re just home from camping, so I thought I’d re-run it today, on her birthday (because my mother reduced, reused, and recycled long before it was cool, so she’d definitely approve of reposting). Please say a prayer for my mother, if you would. She has advanced Alzheimer’s, and while we’re very grateful she’s in a nursing home that takes good care of her, we miss her.
Here are the things that my mother always taught us (not always in so many words):
Reading is what people do, like breathing or blinking. Read to yourself, read out loud to your kids (any age), read with your spouse at night. Every time you turn off the TV, you’ve won back a little bit of your life.
Not everything that’s good is explicitly Catholic, and not everything that calls itself Catholic is good. True for art, music, ideas, lives.
But sooner or later, you have to decide which side you’re on. I think she said this to me when she saw the trashy cover of a CD I was listening to as a teenager. You can make excuses and give yourself passes, but your spiritual life is made up of these choices: there’s no such thing as (a) the religious part of your life, and (b) the rest of your life. If you want to be a Catholic, you have to live that way all the time, even if it means cutting out things you enjoy.
Functionality is beautiful. If it works, then it’s a good system, even if it looks silly.
There are worse things in life than being embarrassed. I remember hearing one of my parents’ friends telling his conversion story. The only part I remember is, “And right there, in the middle of the airport, I kneeled down and said to God . . . ” I remember rolling my eyes and thinking, “Boy, that sums it up.” It seemed like the rest of the world was the airport, going about its business, and our family was the weirdos, standing out, doing something different, acting like freaks — not always about religious things, but about everything. Well, it turns out that children (and teenagers) do not die from standing out. Also, when they grow up, they will be able to enjoy something the Normals never enjoy: the exquisite thrill of fitting in. I still get a delicious little transgressive frisson when I make cake from a box mix, JUST LIKE OTHER PEOPLE DO. Brrr!
Never lose hope about other people. Maybe you can’t change them — in fact, you definitely can’t change them — but God can. So keep praying for them. Even if they never know you’re doing it (and even if you never see the results yourself), it may be the most important thing you do for them.
Everybody’s tired. Nobody feels really well. Everybody feels like they’re no good at least some of the time. Now please get up and go to work anyway.
Accept the people that God sends into your life. My mother is a magnet for strange, needy, difficult people. They seem to realize that she’s no good at social chit chat, and will answer them directly, on whatever bizarre terms they choose to start the conversation; and she will help them if she can. She is ready and willing to talk about anything, as long as it’s interesting or important. When I was little, I hated having our house open to strange and unpredictable people, but now I wish I were courageous enough to have that kind of house.
A good idea is worth repeating, and repeating, and repeating. People may groan and say, “Not that again!” but they’ll thank you later when they actually remember it.
You go to Mass to worship God. If you’re there for anything other than that, you’re wasting your time. My mother would answer me any time I called her name, any time at all, except during the consecration and elevation. I remember being very young and being baffled that she didn’t seem to hear me when her head was bowed. Eventually I figured it out!
Go outside for a minute; you’ll feel better.
Home is where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in. My mother would love to live in a one-room shack with a cot, a computer, a hot plate, and a drain in the floor for easy cleaning. Instead, my parents maintain a dusty, cumbersome, 12+-room Victorian house, because sometimes people need a place to stay (as we did one year, when our entire family had a collective nervous breakdown and needed shelter).
Catholics aren’t afraid of science.
Catholics aren’t afraid of history, or sex, or death.
Catholics aren’t afraid of anything. Actually, of course they are, but they are the ones who are equipped to forge ahead anyway.
Charity believes all things. The good you see in people may not be the whole truth about them, but it is true. So start there, and make a fuss over it until it turns into something more.
Don’t pretend to know things you don’t know, and don’t pretend to like things you don’t like.
Poetry is meant to be read out loud. The first time you read it, just listen to the sounds. Then read it again and start to think about what it’s saying.
When in doubt, add more garlic.
I really hate the mantra that it doesn’t matter what kids read, as long as they’re reading. Of course it matters. I know we can do better than that, and I know how important it is to lay a deep, strong foundation of good ideas, powerful words and images, and memorable scenes and characters. Unfortunately, most of the books that are popular in my kids’ social circles don’t have any of these things.