With so many crazy things happening in our world today, we can easily lose sight of the “long game.” At times, we may become short-sighted and fail to choose the best course of action. With regard to the current coronavirus crisis, we have a duty to our children to form them appropriately and well.
But what does this mean?
For one thing, the journey of formation needs to be rooted in the virtue of prudence over fear and irrationality. While the most prudent course of action may need to be discerned based on particular circumstances, here is a guiding principle that might be helpful:
Do what you can do to preserve and protect your children’s innocence.
Sound simple? Well, maybe.
Sharing Enough … But Not Too Much
It is safe to say that every child will process things differently, as will every family. During the current crisis, our very youngest children—infants and toddlers—are likely carrying on with their lives as normal, somewhat oblivious to what is happening. Older children, though, need an explanation of why their lives have suddenly changed. They might be experiencing a “grief of loss”—the loss of their friends and playmates, at least in person—during this time of restriction. To us, as parents, this might not seem like a big deal. To children, however, friends and playmates make up a large part of their lives. Think about how many kids the average six-year-old typically interacts with on a daily basis. Now imagine if that same proportion of friends were suddenly removed from your life—and without the chance to say proper goodbyes.
The point is that, depending on the strength of the bond your child has with another child, the impact can vary. Obviously, those who are feeling this loss more deeply need more “repair work” by mom and dad, as they try to navigate the realm of changed (or temporarily lost) relationships. Keep it simple, offering them hope by acknowledging their experience and helping them see the “bigger picture.”
This “repair work” can be aided by reframing how your kids see suffering. We need to shift the focus a bit. Rather than seeing suffering as something we should run away from, we should see it as something we can embrace when it comes. (Not that we should seek it, of course.) We need to communicate that, in striving to embrace suffering courageously, we can more closely model the life of Jesus, who is our model of love. We can bring our sufferings to Jesus and unite them with his suffering on the Cross in a gift of love. Rather than “wasting” our suffering, we can let God use it to draw us closer to him.
If our children can see that any suffering can be turned into a gift of love, then they can learn how to use their suffering to become more hopeful by seeing it as an opportunity to unite their lives more fully to Jesus and Mary. If children are able to enter this awareness, then difficult times—including the present crisis—will be less taxing on them. The hope is that they may even learn how to radiate joy in the midst of their suffering, much as the saints did.
Are we, as parents, willing to strive to help our children learn to see suffering in a new light? Are we willing to step outside of the realm of a “safe” and “sanitized” Christianity? If we do this, then we can foster a desire in them to follow Christ more deeply, especially on his way to the Cross.
Keeping Them Innocent but Aware
We can help our children retain their innocence while not keeping them in the dark about life’s difficulties. We can relay stories to them, using language they understand, to give them familiarity with suffering without shielding them from all awareness of it. We can give them the tools to cope with “bad things” in a way that helps them be at peace.
Do we have faith that God can use us in this way, to prepare our children like this? As parents, do we trust that he can use us as his instruments? We should. Perhaps the current coronavirus crisis will be an opportunity for us to discover (or rediscover) how our faith in God can truly move mountains.
The Proof Is in the Pudding
With my own eyes, I have seen how this innocence can be retained amidst stories of profound suffering. I have seen the hearts of children radiate with joy in knowing that they will meet Jesus if they follow him. They have learned that, even if their heart hurts today, there is a better story for them tomorrow—if they stay close to the Lord.
Here’s an example: Catholic children often read little books of stories of saints who were martyred for their faith. In these brief stories, they learn the value of suffering—and even dying—for Jesus. Such stories celebrate the lives of the martyrs and show children (and parents) how we can look up to them as heroes. This goes a long way in turning something as grisly as martyrdom to something that can be seen with a degree of peace and joy.
In my experience, when we introduce stories like these to our kids, we discover that they are less prone to being anxious over suffering. It is as though these stories of the saints serve as a “prep” for what comes in life —and it frames it in a way that is honorable and even desirable to emulate. In the lives of the saints, we see a great cross of difficulty is courageously accepted … and children are very keen on following the example of someone who has courage (as are adults!).
Re-Shaping Our Approach
As parents, we will need to address these issues with our kids at some point. Depending on how things unfold, some of our conversations will have to deal with the suffering of those they know who are ill and perhaps even those they know who have passed away. We need to be confident that God will give us the right words to minister to our children in an appropriate way, allowing us to express ourselves in a way that is age-appropriate while not minimizing the reality of suffering. While our first instinct might be not to expose our children at all to the difficult situation around us, this would actually be a disservice to them, as the bubble they have grown up within inevitably pops. Our children will not be worse off with this greater awareness, provided that we encapsulate stories of suffering within the greater victory of Christ—who overcomes all suffering and brings us hope for the life hereafter, as the true Victor over death.
If there is one thing I learned while teaching in an Islamic school as a practicing Catholic, it is this: Leader-males want to follow a victor … and where the leader-males go, so too does the critical mass of follower-males, as well as females. This is why re-framing Jesus Christ to be first and foremost a Victor may be more important than ever. I have seen this dynamic play out with my own eyes. Young kids— especially boys—are far more likely to want to stick around. Why? Because they see the victor as having courage.
More than ever, perhaps, now is the time for us as parents to communicate the narrative of redemptive suffering because of the courage that it requires. If we got on board with this, perhaps our children might become more “comfortable” with the idea of suffering for the Faith, such that when they become teens and adults, they will be less likely to abandon their faith altogether when the suffering occurs.
We know that many abandon their faith in a time of suffering. Perhaps this is the perfect opportunity to lead our children into a new awareness of how peace—and a deepening of their faith in Jesus—in the midst suffering is possible. This is surely a reason for joy.
After all, if they don’t learn this profound truth from us, as parents, from whom will they?
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Hudson Byblow is a Catholic speaker and writer who presents at conferences throughout Canada and the United States. He shares his personal testimony to clergy, schools, and parishes and consults for various Catholic agencies, speakers, and educators. He focuses on his story of overcoming trauma while pursuing greater self-honesty and truth. Today he strives to elevate the conversation through clear language while revealing the joy of living chastely in his newfound freedom in the Lord. His website is www.hudsonbyblow.com.