I don’t have much time to write today, but after posting two articles on parenting yesterday that probably beat parents up a little, I wanted to write something on what I’ve learned about repenting as a parent.
If you don’t know, I am a father of ten children, ages 17 down to 2. My wife and I are doing pretty well as parents, we have a happy Catholic family, our kids are obedient and respectful, we all love one another and we serve God together. It hasn’t been easy getting to this point and I’ve made lots of mistakes as a father, from which I’ve needed to repent. When a parent repents, especially a father, the whole family is affected. Family routines and activities will often need to change because when Dad makes bad decisions, the whole family follows him in that decision, and when Dad repents, everyone has to change course.
Now, the wrong way to go about this is with talk. What often happens is that Mom or Dad realizes they’ve made a bad decision and it needs to be un-made. Everything associated with that decision needs to be undone. We need to stop heading in the wrong direction, turn around, get back to that point where we went off course, and start again on the right way. So, usually on a Monday morning, Dad announces to the family that we have to make some changes and then goes on to talk about everything that is going to change. The kids groan, roll their eyes, huff and puff, even the other parent may complain, but we talk about how it needs to change and everyone needs to get on board.
Beginning by talking, or even worse by buying new supplies that are thought to be the means of changing things, is a clear sign that we’re not going to succeed. Talk is cheap and, eventually, if you don’t follow up on that talk, the family begins to tune out these talks and ignore them because they know it’s a bunch of baloney.
A Father’s Repentance
We need to realize that the family is not a democracy. God has established authority in the family just as he has in the Church, in the state, and in the universe. The Holy Spirit tells us that the father/husband is the head of the household just as Christ is the head of the Church. Now, whatever anyone says in opposition to Dad’s position in the family, they will have to say the same thing about Christ’s position in the Church. If everyone’s equal with Dad in the family, then everyone’s equal with Christ in the Church. Mrs. Smith the organist has as much say as Jesus does about how the Church should operate, what Christians should do, etc.. I would be wrong if I said, “No one believes that!”, because we can see plainly in many places that they do.
Dad, then, has to assume that position, and while it may bring some benefits to him, it also demands that he lead the family, not merely claim the benefits of authority while neglecting to actually be the head of the household. A good illustration of this is King Theoden in Lord of the Rings. He sits on the throne of the king, demanding obedience from his subjects, but the kingdom is in shambles and all the people in danger because he doesn’t do the work of the king. Once Gandalf gets rid of Wormtongue and delievers Theoden from Saruman’s control, Theoden is renewed in strength and begins to act like a king again. Many families are stuck in a similar situation.
When Dad repents, he does so with authority. He doesn’t need to hold a family meeting. He doesn’t need everyone to vote to approve of the changes that need to be made. The changes begin with him, quietly, authoritatively, and he merely needs to say, “We need to do this.”–and then do it.
His wife, after all, is commanded by God to be obedient. She is not the head and, regardless of what any modern priest or pastor may say, they are not “equals” in the family. If any woman objects to this, it is very easy to prove that she is wrong. When wives are commanded to obey their husbands in the New Testament, children are also commanded to obey their parents. Now, whatever anyone says about the meaning of the command “obey” with regard to wives, the same will need to be said of the command “obey” with regard to children. I have never seen a mother struggle to understand the meaning of “Children obey your parents.” I’ve never seen a woman suggest that she and her children are equals in family decision-making. I’ve never known a mother to have a hard time responding to her children with, “Because I’m your mother…that’s why.” Mothers understand very clearly what “obey” means–when they are the ones given authority. Therefore, the sudden confusion and uncertainty that arises when a wife reads the Holy Spirit’s words, “Wives, obey your husbands.” can’t be sincere.
When Dad is screwing up, it seems easy to justify Mom’s unwillingness to obey, but the God who commanded wives to obey their husbands knew their husbands when He said so. When a father knows that his wife will follow him, repentance becomes much easier for him, and his wife needs to understand how important that support is in such times. Dad, when he needs to repent, needs to simply tell his wife and children what needs to change and leave them to obey while he gets started changing himself. Once he changes himself, and proves that his repentance is real, he can begin helping his wife and children to come along with him. That’s what leadership is. “First, take the log out of your own eye…then, you can see clearly to take the splinter out of your neighbor’s eye.” Don’t worry about everyone else changing before you do, Dad. You change first. You’re the head.
So, if the problem is that the family is spending time watching TV or movies and is not saying daily prayers, no one needs to see Dad’s war against the TV set or the DVD players. It’s not the equipment’s fault that Dad’s not praying. The equipment is not causing Dad to sin. The kids are not causing Dad not to pray. Dad needs to quit blaming everyone and everything else and start saying Evening Prayer–himself. Forget the family if everything’s a mess. The family is like a river. If the head of river is polluted, everything else will be polluted. If the head is made clean, everything else can be clean. Dad needs to make sure that the head is what it needs to be before he pretends that everyone below him should be right. If Dad sets the example and becomes a virtuous man, he’ll have much more respectful followers. Make the changes yourself, Dads, and be patient. Allow time for your good example to begin to work its way through the family.
A Mother’s Repentance
A mother’s repentance is a little trickier because she’s subject to her husband and needs to make sure that he supports the changes she wishes to make.
This is one reason it’s dangerous for a family for Mom to spend lots of times reading books and watching videos by other men (especially laymen) and allowing those men to take the place of her husband as head in her life. When St. Paul rolled into town in the early Church, he didn’t say, “Alright, all you ladies, listen to me.” He, the Apostle of Christ, said, “Obey your husbands.” Relax, I know what you’re thinking. “But my husband…” I know–and I believe God knows also. Unlike many modern priests and pastors, St. Paul went after the husbands and called them to repentance first, and he put the pressure on them to “love their wives” and “train up their children”. When pastors don’t do that and seem to become pastors only to the women in the Church, yes, it causes a double standard that really messes things up, I understand that. Nevertheless, Jesus tells us not to return evil for evil, but to overcome evil with good. If you are upset that you have to obey one who himself is not obeying God, becoming disobedient God yourself isn’t the answer. St. Peter offers you these comforting words:
“Humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you in due time. Cast all your worries upon him because he cares for you.” (1 Peter 5:6-7)
Nevertheless, it will rarely happen that a good husband opposes his wife’s sense for a need to make changes in her life and in the life of the children. In the same way as I described, for a father, a mother needs to realize that she has authority to make changes that will affect her children. She does not need to call a meeting. She does not need to ask her children to vote. She has the authority to make changes that affect her children, and their duty is obedience. All of the same problems need to be faced that I described above.
The Need for Patience
When we, as parents, repent, we need to allow the benefits of that repentance to work their way through our homes. When my children are not living as I believe God wants them to, I can always find my own mistakes, or sins, to be responsible. I blame myself first and repent of the things that are behind my children’s bad behavior. After all, I can’t reasonably expect purity in my children, if I’m polluting river up stream. As I said, if we stop polluting the source of the river, it will be a matter of time before the water downstream is clean also. We need to be patient and allow that to happen. When I repent of bad decisions or habits, it’s only a matter of time before the bad effects of those decisions or habits in my wife and children’s lives go away.
For example, our children are penniless. All the stuff they have comes from us. How, then, can a father, who pays for the garbage on television to be pumped into his house, complain that his children are watching it? Stop paying for it and it’s gone. Oh, but Dad likes to watch his own garbage on television. No, your rules for the kids aren’t going to be received too well, Dad. If a mother, who pays for the junk food that’s brought home from the grocery store, complains that her children are eating it, why not just stop buying it? Oh, because Mom likes her junk food. No, your rules for the kids aren’t going to be received too well, Mom. However, if you repent, you wouldn’t need to say a word to the kids, would you? Let’s face it, most of the problems are in us…not the kids.
If, after we make–and maintain–the changes to our own lives, we see problems in those under us, which they seem to be the cause of, we can deal with them justly and productively. If we, however, try and correct others for things being caused or encouraged or enabled by us, we’re setting up the destruction of our family. Yes, it’s true that Jesus said “Obey your parents.” and, yes, it’s also true that Jesus told His followers to listen to the teaching of hypocrites, but Jesus never gave anyone permission to BE a hypocrite, and it’s not reasonable to expect a child to practice a religion that the adults in his life don’t practice themselves. We must remove all hypocrisy from our families so that our children can be taught and disciplined justly, honestly and, because of our own experience in obedience, wisely.
As I said in the beginning, I don’t have the leisure today to get into this article any more deeply. The main point I wish to make is that while we may grumble at the idea of changing our own lives, we should be encouraged to know if and when we do, the lives of those subject to us will change for the better as well. We need to be courageous and endure the initial resistance we will face, but think of how our real Christian living will make our witness to our wives and children stronger and our words more respectable in the long run. I’ve had to accept a lot of opposition and criticism in my life from people who haven’t liked changed I’ve made, including my own wife and children, but I’ve never known any bad consequences to result from it. It’s only reasonable that those around us will be upset by changes that we make, especially when they make their lives a little less pleasurable or comfortable, but in the long run, our repentance will work itself out and sanctify those around us. That’s what we need to focus on.