St. Catherine of Siena. Our Toyota Sienna minivan has an extra “n,” and on our busiest days I could be known as Annemarie of Sienna. (I did not include “Saint” before my name.) But I admired St. Catherine of Siena long before I needed three rows of seats to transport our family.
St. Catherine of Siena said, “Be who God meant you to be and you will set the world on fire.”
Those words resonate so strongly for parents. Our family has a huge dry-erase calendar on our kitchen wall, and each day of the month has a large square. From dentist appointments to birthday parties to soccer practice, the calendar shows what’s going on in our kids’ lives.
That calendar symbolizes for me the paradox of parenting: On the surface, we seem to have a thousand things to do for our kids—find the cleats, wash the uniforms, drive to practice, supervise homework, make dinner—yet at the same time, all of what is required of us is summed up by St. Catherine. Our main job is to help our children become who God means for them to be. We need to help them become aware of their own souls, to see the truth of who they are and the gifts they have. We need to lead them out to the greater world, so thirsty for people living lives that God intends.
The complicated truth is that we need to help our children become the people they were created to be while we are finding the cleats and driving them to soccer practice. We need to help them discover their call and their authentic selves while we are quizzing them on Spanish and reminding them to clean under their beds. And as much as we may wish God would just descend on our family dinner and announce the plan for every family member as we pass the mashed potatoes, that is not God’s way.
Limiting technology can be a gift
Helping a child become the person that God intends often involves structuring a child’s world in a way that limits outside interference. Jeremy, father of two, says that after his daughter received a few low test grades as a freshman in high school, he and his wife decided to take her cell phone away after 9 p.m. “It wasn’t so much a punishment as it was an understanding that it was impossible for her to concentrate with all the texts coming in,” he says. St. Catherine might have said it like this: “The texts are preventing your daughter from being the student God means for her to be.”
For many parents, the struggle with technology and children is constant and can get in the way of children becoming fully who they are called to be. Snapchat allows friends (and non-friends posing as friends) to visit our children any time of the day or night. Gaming wreaks havoc on many families as children neglect schoolwork and time outside in pursuit of another win and a higher score. Gossipy texting and inappropriate photos can turn a mundane night of homework into an evening of hurt and heartache.
Kids and adults alike stand ready to persuade our children to become what may be profitable or convenient, rather than the people God means for them to be. The thinking parent’s role in this new technological world is a cross between IT director and guard dog. “As much as I love my phone for myself, I see the danger in overuse for our kids,” Tim, father of three, says. “It’s not a just a phone, it’s a powerful computer, and kids need their parents to limit the power.”
When to guide and when to step back
LaKeesha, a mother of twin seventh-grade girls, says that both girls were reticent to join activities at the start of middle school, and, seeing this, she decided her responsibility was to make sure they got out of their comfort zones. “Age 12 is too young to have full control over how you spend your time,” she says. “I require my girls to be in a club or sport after school. I don’t tell them what it has to be each semester, but it needs to be something. How are they going to learn what they love to do or what they may be good at if they don’t try things? Even an activity they don’t gel with has something to teach them.”
The church calls parents “co-creators with God” of their children. From this vantage point, we can see more clearly than others the pieces of our children that can stand in the way of their ability to become the people God means for them to be. As children move into the late teen and young adult years, parents see more clearly God’s perspective as it relates to free will. We may no longer swoop in and prevent disaster. Instead, we offer a presence and a history of care; we offer an availability.
Megan, who has a 22-year-old daughter struggling with addiction issues, is learning how to love her daughter and set boundaries at the same time. She and her husband, who provide a stable, loving home, see so clearly where their daughter must leave the path she’s on, get help, and move to a healthier course.
“My heart is so heavy,” Megan says. “My husband and I want to be there for our other children and enjoy the rest of the family, but the worry I hold for our daughter makes it difficult to think about anything else.” Megan says she is learning to parent from a different vantage point, one that involves observation of her daughter’s struggles along with an offer of love and support absent of the pervasive responsibility of earlier parenting.
I know I am called to hold my children accountable and help them move past their challenges, yet I am also aware that children are fragile, and if I push too hard for improvement, I risk causing a collapse of progress we’ve made. I want nothing more than for my children to grow up and set the world on fire. I want nothing more than for them to be the people God means for them to be. My constant prayer is that my husband, Bill, and I figure out how to work with God to make this happen.
Deep into my parenting journey, St. Catherine of Siena’s words call to me some days; haunt me on others: Be who God meant you to be and you will set the world on fire. Parenting carries the privilege and the burden of helping to shape the life of another. It can be so difficult to see the right path, to find the right balance, to say the right words.
I’m praying in the minivan.
This article also appears in the November 2018 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 83, No. 11, pages 31–32).