My 15-year-old daughter has recently begun asking how my day was at work. The first day she asked, I stammered an answer, “Um. Fine. I had some meetings.” As she continued asking each week, I began to answer more thoughtfully, telling her about an interesting project, a problem, or a funny colleague. As I spoke, I found myself looking at her to see if she was even interested in my story. She was, and I felt a bit incredulous.
More than growing taller or even getting a driver’s license, it’s a child’s ability to look at a parent as a fellow human being with his or her own thoughts, dreams, and struggles that is a mark of a coming of age and maturity. This ability to recognize the parent as a person beyond the role of mother or father cannot be forced. It comes gradually, and some people don’t fully realize their parents until well into adulthood.
Part of the reason parenting can be so exhausting is because of this lopsided relationship. We give all we are to our children, and on our best days they receive the gift of our love graciously. On our most difficult days they fight against the love and support we offer by rejecting our guidance. Yet healthy parenting is all about entering fully into this lopsided relationship. For children to feel grounded, loved, and ready to go into the world as young adults, parents must give a tremendous amount more than they receive during infancy, childhood, and the teen years. It is the nature of parenting.
St. Francis of Assisi was not a parent, but his prayer speaks directly to parenting.
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace:
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
and where there is sadness, joy.
O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
Luciana, whose teen daughter was recently diagnosed with anorexia, connects with these words: Grant that I may not so much seek to be understood as to understand. “I have learned the power of trying to understand and provide hope to my daughter with her eating disorder. She has stated on numerous occasions that if I don’t believe she will overcome it, she loses hope. She asks only that I tell her she can make it through to the other side. When I look like I don’t believe, she can’t believe,” Luciana says. “It is the most enlightening parenting moment I have had. Through my daughter’s struggle, I have learned that we must speak out loud our belief in our children when they are in their darkest times.”
While St. Francis didn’t mention the word “editing” in his prayer, if parents wish to show understanding or consolation often what we choose not to say can be more important than anything else. “I feel that I have avoided unnecessary conflict and advanced understanding by giving my children space to be who they are exploring themselves to be in that moment,” says Brigid, mother of four teens and young adults. “Kids need space to explore these things and rehearse their ideas. I find it important to ask questions rather than engage in criticism and commentary. It is important to do so with a tone of curiosity, not judgment.”
Brigid says that even as she is asking questions calmly, her heart may be pounding with the fear of what her child is thinking of doing—moving away, getting a tattoo, leaving the church. But while she worries about these things, she does not voice her worry—and this has paid off. “If I don’t make this about me, but about them, it can be a great moment to enjoy the excitement of getting to know this newly evolving human,” she says.
For Jeannie, part of bringing the pardon, faith, hope, light, and joy that St. Francis speaks of to her son, a freshman in high school, involves consciously taking a step back from how society asks her to judge her son. She finds herself each day praying that God will remind her to look upon her son with true understanding. “Our children are more than their test scores, grades, and final score of a basketball game,” she says. “It’s so easy to fall prey to measuring our children by these benchmarks. Our children are so much more.”
The St. Francis prayer, applied to parenting, requires us to be present to our children in a way that can be difficult when emails and laundry are piling up and the car needs an oil change. But in order to bring hope to a child despairing because of a fight with a friend, we must be present enough to that child to notice what may be wrong. St. Francis invites us to look up from our phones, put down our work, and see our children with a clarity that allows for the correct response.
Jenny, mother of three, says that it was the serious illness of a young mother she knew that caused her to have a perspective shift. “All of Molly’s struggles, challenges, and ultimate death made me reflect on how fortunate I am to have a day with my kiddos, even the tough days. She generously documented her journey and gave family and friends a deep insight into her daily struggles. For that I am so grateful,” Jenny says. “Her words made me think much more about soaking in the little moments and appreciating the time I have with my children, and that brought me much more patience and understanding in my parenting. I could actually feel a shift and change in my interactions with them. One more story at bedtime, one more request for help, one more thing to show me. . . . I am now able to more easily take a breath, live in the present, and feel gratitude for this moment in time.”
Jenny’s connection to the St. Francis prayer further intensified with the recent death of her father, who embodied the St. Francis prayer with a parenting style that focused on understanding and supporting his wife and three children. “My dad’s prayer card at his funeral included the St. Francis prayer,” she says. “After the funeral, I posted the prayer card on my dresser mirror as a daily reminder of his love and parenting style and how I want to embody those characteristics. I also placed a prayer card in each of my kids’ rooms as a subtle daily reminder for them, too, of my love for them.”
This article also appears in the October 2019 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 84, No. 10, pages 43–44).
Image: Flickr cc via Sarah Richter