Friday, October 19, 2012

Picking Your Battles

One of the greatest things about Holy Mother Church is that she has such profound wisdom. She has been fighting the battle with Christ and their children long enough to know that you cannot win the war by fighting every battle that presents itself. You have to pick your battles. Picking your battles means that your boundaries are clear, but not overly restrictive. There is plenty of room for choices and plenty of room for doing things differently. In picking our battles, we learn from the Church that: 1) you must know why you are fighting in the first place; 2) you must communicate these reasons to your children; 3) the boundaries you set must be only what is strictly necessary to accomplish those goals.

Know why you are fighting

In Chapter 4: Setting Firm Boundaries, we talked about the fact that there are only 10 Commandments and 5 Precepts of the Church. These are the bare minimum that Catholics must do to remain Catholic. Nearly everyone who knows anything about the Catholic Church knows also that there are Dogmas which must be believed and accepted by all Catholics. These Dogmas are important because they establish Catholic identity and give us the “why” behind all the “what”, the reason for the boundaries and the reason for the battle.

The first three dogmas, as the first three of the 10 commandments, cover the nature of God. It’s a detailed and precise answer to the question, “Who’s your Daddy?”. After all, how can you honor your father if you don’t know him? The fourth dogma covers the nature of Mary and what we as Catholics truly believe about her. The fifth Dogma covers God’s role in the efforts of man to be good. Had Martin Luther understood this dogma, he would have realized that he was right but didn’t go far enough. No man can ever achieve the standards God sets for us by themselves – it is God’s grace and gift operating through our desire to be united with God that allow us to achieve perfection. How sad that he never understood that and spent his life in misery as a result, rather than in joyful union.

The sixth dogma covers the Catholic Church. It’s an explanation of the role the Catholic Church plays in God’s overall plan for salvation. The seventh covers the communion of saints, that living body of holy souls who, through the body of Christ, continue to help guide and protect us. The eigth through fifteenth dogmas cover the sacraments, or how our Heavenly Father acts through our Mother, the Church, to visibly and publicly prepare us for an eternity with Him. The final dogma covers the ultimate goal behind all of the other dogmas, and all the boundaries: our eternal life.

The Catholic who understands the reasoning behind the dogmas begins to see the purpose behind the laws, and can begin to actively cooperate with the Church in bringing about the purpose. So, too, a child who understands the reasoning behind the battles his parents are fighting and realizes that they are motivated by love and a desire to free the child from harm can begin to actively cooperate with his parents rather than fighting them.

Communicating the reasons

When my son was younger, we struggled every single year with his education. We couldn’t put into words why an education was important, although we knew it was, and every effort we made failed. Finally, in his 7th grade year, when we knew there was no way we were going to be able to salvage his grades enough so that he could actually pass – I gave up and did something it had never occurred to me to do but should have long ago – I prayed over it. I told God I was at my wits end and had run out of hope. I needed help to fight this battle, because I didn’t know how.

It was a few hours later that I realized that what had been missing in his life was a profound “Why” – one that meant something to him. The reason we hadn’t been able to explain to him the “why” behind his need for an education is that it hadn’t ever been communicated to us. I got mine because that’s what my parents told me I needed to do, so I did it without asking “why”. My husband got his because the law required him to do so. It was that simple. Even though I had earned an Associates Degree in Elementary Education, not one teacher had ever even addressed the “why” behind the “what”. We were taught how to teach, what to teach, when to teach it, and even different ways of presenting the same material – but never “why” we were teaching these things in the first place.

When I figured out the “why” – that education is really just a tool box passed on from one generation to the next that contains every tool a person needs to answer their own questions about life, the universe, and their specific place in it – suddenly it made sense. I went home and explained it to my son. I could see in his eyes that he finally understood. It wasn't about controlling him, it was about helping him to control his own future.  I had finally given him what he needed to embrace it on his own.

Most people who have kept up with the Catholic Church over the last century know about the Second Vatican Council, held in 1962, exactly 50 years ago. The Council was held to “open the windows of the Church” and let the fresh air in. It was really all about picking your battles. During that Council, the Church reaffirmed what she has always taught from the very beginning – that there are two kinds of traditions: Traditions with a capital T that cannot be changed. These are the things that every Catholic must believe and do in order to be Catholic, and then there are traditions with a little t. Traditions with a little t are things that we do because that’s the way we’ve done them for years, but it isn’t necessary for us to do them that way.

The aftermath of the Council wasn’t pretty. Some people misunderstood what the Council was saying and decided it meant there were no boundaries. Some people misunderstood what the Council was doing and warned that this would lead the children of the Church into grave errors. The truth is that the Church was RIGHT to affirm the differences. It was her children who misunderstood and misapplied the lessons. Unfortunately, because some of those children were in positions of leadership, it created a huge mess in the Church family, and the cleanup is still going on. What we can learn from this is that when you pick your battles and set your boundaries, or when you make changes to those boundaries, you need to be able to explain to your children the motivation behind the boundaries.

Only What is Strictly Necessary

Picking your battles necessarily requires that you know what it is your battle hopes to accomplish. The Catholic Church held the Second Vatican Council because she saw that too many of her children were focusing on the law and not enough of them were focusing on the reasons for the law. They were risking the loss of their salvation through a vice few people understand or talk about – scrupulosity.

Scrupulosity is a form of spiritual pride where you see your sins as too many for God to overcome. Martin Luther, founder of the Lutheran Church and catalyst for the Protestant Reformation, suffered greatly from scrupulosity. It’s the entire reason he rejected the Catholic Church’s teachings about being able to be washed clean of sin through Christ Jesus. Rather, he believed that we could never be free of our sins but that God, through Jesus, covered over these sins. He thought he could never, ever achieve the standards God set for him and he allowed that fear to lead him into greater and greater sin.

When you lay down too many rules, and there are too many ways for your children to disappoint you or to trespass against the boundaries you set, you risk creating in them this same sense of discouragement. If they believe they can never please you, eventually they stop trying altogether and give up. This is the reason that the Catholic Church tries to have very few, and very clear, rules which all Catholics must do and believe in order to be Catholic.

Applying it to everyday life

This is fine, you may be thinking, but how do I apply this to my own life and my own parenting? Simple. Rather than arguing with your teenage daughter about skirt length and telling her you don’t want her going out looking like a tramp, you set the boundary: “In our house, we dress modestly”. You then explain to her that because you love her, you want men to see her the way you do – as beautiful, precious, and worthy of respect. You talk to her about the fact that dressing modestly requires a man to get to know her personality first and to earn the right to see more of her by pursuing her for the right reasons. In explaining the reasons behind the boundary, your daughter may not initially agree with you but she will come to see that the boundaries you are setting are not for the purposes of controlling or ruining her life and her chances at a happy future, but are for the purposes of helping her find a man who will always strive to create that happy future for her because he truly cherishes her – and not her body.

Kids need to know that the boundaries we set aren’t there to control them. They are there to protect them from harm and help them achieve all of the things they truly want out of life. When we communicate that message to them in ways they can understand, they can become partners in our battle rather than opponents.

Your Turn

Thanks for reading today's chapter in Catholic Parenting: What the Catholic Church Teaches Us About Parenting. If you're just joining us, you can find the other chapters by clicking on the link above. I hope you'll join us tomorrow for our next chapter, Obeying Lawful Authority.

If you found this material helpful, have a comment, want to ask a question, or have something to add, please leave a comment below and let me know. I'm always listening :).

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