Okay, okay, I admit it. The title was just a ploy to get you here to read this post. Before you pull out the knives, please agree to the following conditions and hear me out.
1) Put aside any personal affront you may take to what I am going to say and ask yourself “Does he make a valid point, in spite of any insult I may take from what is written?”
2) Don't post a reply that consists of some version of “Who does he think he is?” “I can't believe he is so judgmental!” “Does he think his family is above everyone else's?”
3) While it is always nice to read comments that affirm what I write, I am far more interested in hearing from people who can make a valid argument against what I am putting down here.
Agreed? Great. Let's get started.
To any of our friends who read this, please know that we love you, love your families and hope that this post won't do anything to harm that friendship. The only reason I am writing this post is because I truly think that the issue at hand is more important than the feelings that may get hurt.
I started writing this post eight years ago on the night before we moved from Dallas, TX to Denver, CO. That day we had several friends help us pack up a Ryder truck at our apartment and one family with several youngsters stayed for dinner. At this time we didn't have any children but had noticed a general tendency among our friends to be very lax about discipline and in many cases to be oblivious to their kids' behavior. We served pizza for dinner and one or more of the children thought that wiping the pizza on the dining room wall and on a pillow was a perfectly acceptable thing to do with pizza. To the best of my knowledge, the parents never knew this was happening. We took the pizza away from the kids and spent the latter part of evening cleaning the dining room wall (pizza sauce on a white wall) and washing bedding. What struck me about the incident is that the kids did this as if such behavior was normal and that the parents made no effort to keep the kids sitting in a safe place in the house while they were eating.
Over the years, we have witnessed in our own house:
- company who brought red koolaid in sippy cups that got spilled on our carpets
- numerous kids who wouldn't eat what was served and complained about the food
- numerous children who thought that telling their parents “no” was acceptable – and got away with it
- several occasions where a child would yell at mom, and dad wouldn't correct the child
- countless instances of “if I have to tell you one more time” or “this is your last chance” when it wasn't and neither were the next dozen times
- kids who intentionally dumped food on the carpet in front of their parents without any correction
- parents who let kids wander around with food after we had told the kids to stay in the kitchen to eat
- a caned headboard destroyed because a child thought it was a great thing to stick a toy sword through. Many times.
- a bathroom covered with poop. I am not exaggerating, I really mean covered.
All of this I have been able to handle over the years because these things happened in our home and not in public. However, last week I realized that this behavior wasn't confined to the privacy of homes where the general public couldn't see. Last Friday a Mass was celebrated by the bishop for the homeschoolers in our diocese. Apart from the bishop, there were three other priests and a deacon assisting at the Mass. After the Mass, the children descended like a Mongol hoard on the reception tables and carried off plates piled high with what they didn't destroy. By the time the priests and bishop had gotten their vestments off and come out of the sacristy, the reception tables looked like a pack of wolves had been romping on them. After this incident, I decided that it was time to write this post, come what may.
We homeschoolers and we with large families take a certain pride in being “different”. Unfortunately, that difference is frequently only visible by the magnified chaos that comes with having five undisciplined children instead of just one. Whether or not you want to admit it, homeschoolers and large families especially are highly visible in public, and people watch you. They watch you for two reasons: to snear or to find hope.
When they see you, which person walks away satisfied? Which one do you want to walk away satisfied? The Bible calls us to be lights on a hill. Pope John Paul II called the Church “a sign of contradiction” and by extension, parents who live out the Church's call of generosity to life and take seriously their call as the first and primary educators of their children are also that sign of contradiction. Can you honestly say that the way your children behave in public and the way you react to their behavior fits with that light on a hill? Is your children's behavior a sign of contradiction in a world where respect, manners and decency have been all but lost?
I would ask, no, plead with you to consider what impact you may have on those you encounter. When that unwed pregnant girl sees you with your five hellions at the grocery store, is she going to think that her boyfriend was right about a visit to Planned Parenthood? When the couple with two kids who is being pressured by their “friends” to “get fixed” see your family, are they more likely to agree with their friends? When the person who hates Catholics, Mormons or Christians in general because they “breed like rabbits” sees your family, are you giving them one more excuse for feeling the way they do?
Or, when those who live in the dreary reality of hedonistic America see your family do they think “This family is different. They have something I want”? Do people come up to you in restaurants and tell you how wonderful it is to see well-behaved children? I don't mean those that say you have a beautiful family, I mean those who specifically mention “well-behaved”. Are you actually able to take your children to a restaurant nicer than McDonald's without ruining others' meals?
If you are unsure of the reaction your family provokes, you need to take a serious look at how your kids are being raised. Like it or not, your family is a tool of evangelization and by taking on the responsibility of a homeschooling and possibly large family, you are also taking on the responsibility of being a “poster child” for those actions. I would suggest that the following list is a good “public behavior” standard to work towards. By public, I mean in Church, in society and in friends' homes. I fully understand (from personal experience) that for some reason getting the children to behave as wonderfully at home as they do in public is not always feasible. But I also have yet to meet a family whose children are angels at home but demons in public. What goes on at home always shows in public.
For the kids:
- I say “please” and “thank you” consistently, and, in general, without prompting.
- I greet and say goodbye to adults when I see them.
- I eat what is served without complaining.
- I don't say “no” to my parents or to hosts when they tell me to do something.
- I do what I am asked without arguing.
- I help clean up any toys so that the play area is at least as clean as when I arrived.
- I do not throw tantrums.
- I do not break toys or furniture at a host's home. If this happens accidentally, I tell the host right away and apologize.
- If I am old enough, I help clean the kitchen.
- I don't constantly ask my parents to buy me things when we are shopping.
- I do the best I can to help when my parents are running errands.
- I say “thank you” when I receive a compliment.
- If my parents say “no” to a request, I say “okay” and don't pout or ask again.
For the parents:
- I pay attention to what my children are doing. If they are out of sight, I check on them regularly.
- I do not let my children wander around with food or drinks. I make them eat at the table or I take the food and drinks away.
- I don't let my children have food or drinks outside of the kitchen that can permanently stain carpets or furniture.
- If a child tells me “no” I correct him. If he continues to say “no” I start taking away privileges until he either complies or is stuck in a corner for the rest of the visit or we leave.
- If I make a threat of punishment, I mean it.
- If I am the father and a child talks back to my wife, I discipline the child.
- I clean my kids' faces and hands before they leave the table.
- I make sure that my kids only take what they can eat or I serve them myself.
- I make sure that clergy are served before my kids.
- I insist that my children help clean up toys.
- I do not make excuses for my children's behavior.
Getting to the point when you can be reasonably sure that your children will make a good impression in public takes three things: consistency, resolution and patience. It will not happen right away but if you consistently expect a high standard, your kids will step up. If you mean what you say, your kids will respect you.
In the end you will find that not only do you get a lot more compliments about your family, you will also find taking your family out can be enjoyable.
So what's it going to be? Are you going to be a sign of contradiction? Are you going to be the kind of family that an old couple with fragile antiques and a white carpet would feel safe inviting over for dinner? Are you going to be a ray of hope in a world that despises children? Are you going to be the encouragement a couple needs to be open to life?
I end where I began – by saying that I am not trying to hurt people's feelings, nor am I trying to insult anyone. This issue – Is your family a positive or a negative influence on the culture? – is too important to get tied up in hurt feelings. If we are truly going to build a Culture of Life, we are the ones responsible for making it a place people want to be.
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