Monday, November 12, 2012

Recognizing and Overcoming Temptations

The Catholic Church teaches her children that every human being, save Christ who was conceived in perfect and Mary who was preserved from it by God’s grace from the very instant of her conception, is subject to original sin and has a predisposition toward choosing evil because of that original sin. However, the Church also teaches her children that they are capable of both recognizing the temptations specific to them and resisting those temptations by avoiding occasions which may tempt them into that sin, by calling for help when they are most desiring to give in to the sin, and by practicing virtues which strengthen them in the areas where they are weakest. In this way they can resist and even overcome the temptations which lead them into sin.

As parents imitating the Catholic Church, then, we see that responsible parenting starts by recognizing that our children have certain inborn weaknesses which are specific to them that will incline them toward disobedience to us and harm for themselves. To help them overcome those weaknesses, we must help them figure out what those weaknesses are, practice doing things that strengthen them in areas they are weak, formulate strategies that help them avoid those temptations, and then be there for them when they need help to overcome them.

We all have inborn weaknesses

"Every soul, then, by reason of its birth, has its nature in Adam until it is born again in Christ; moreover, it is unclean all the while that it remains without this regeneration; and because unclean, it is actively sinful, and suffuses even the flesh (by reason of their conjunction) with its own shame." Tertullian, On the Soul, 40 (A.D. 208)

Every human being has certain flaws which are inherited from his or her father and mother. Some of these flaws are genetically inherited directly from our parents. Some of these flaws come during our time in the womb by what we are exposed to through our mother. Thus we enter the world with these flaws and these flaws cause us to be weak in certain areas. 

These weaknesses predispose us toward sin 

Some children, for example, are born addicted to drugs or alcohol. These children will have a lifelong struggle with those things. This is not to say that they cannot overcome their weaknesses, but that those weaknesses will always be there. If they do not overcome these weaknesses, they risk destroying their health and possibly their lives with those addictions. Some children are born with an addiction to things that are sweet. This will cause them to seek those things out. If they are not taught how to resist the temptation, they risk a lifetime of poor health due to struggles with obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes, and tooth decay.

No parent wants their children to suffer more than is strictly necessary for their good. So to help our children avoid unnecessary suffering, we must teach them how to recognize and overcome those inborn weaknesses which lead them to choose things which are harmful to them and those around them. We cannot give them a free pass to give into those temptations or excuse their behavior based on their weakness because we know that it will not lead them to happiness.

There are those who might argue that our children are “born this way” and that, therefore, it is useless to teach them to struggle against temptation. The sad things is that many parents buy into this misguided notion and don’t give their children the tools to resist those temptations. As human beings, our genetics do not define us. We are not limited to our instincts or by our weaknesses. Our ability to overcome these things is part what makes us unique in the animal kingdom and entirely human.

These weaknesses are different for each of us

My first day as a sixth grade catechism teacher, we were teaching the kids about the Garden of Eden and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. One of the boys in my class had a giant pile of acorns and was shelling the acorns as I was talking and then tossing the shells on the floor. I saw in this a teachable moment. I walked over, confiscated the acorns, and then held one up for everyone to see. I told my students that in life, each of us has our own personal tree. In order to avoid sin, we needed to learn what that tree was so that we could learn to avoid it. For this boy, I pointed out, it was the acorns but we all have something.

Because our genetics and our experiences in the womb are unique to each individual, the weaknesses and predispositions we face are equally unique. It is usual and normal for human beings to have more than one weakness, and those weaknesses combine into a personalized cocktail of temptations. No two persons will ever share the exact same set. What tempts one child will not tempt another, and the weaknesses of one child will not necessarily be shared by another.

My brother and I were just a year and a half apart. We shared the same mother and father. However, my weakness was money. I couldn’t hold onto it. I loved spending it and dreamed of having more of it. I still have this weakness as an adult, and I have to be aware of it. I try to avoid going to the store when I know I don’t need to spend my money, or to bring a list. I have also learned over time that being generous to others with my money helps me to be more aware of and have better control over my money. So, I give to others out of every paycheck. I am not perfect, but I have gotten a lot better than when I was younger.

My brother never suffered from the material temptations. For him, saving and money management came as naturally as art does to me. His weakness was that he was inclined to be lazy. He tended to avoid hard work and was eager to let others do things for him. He wasn’t willing to exert himself unless he was utterly convinced that there was no other way to get what he wanted, and even then he preferred to find someone else to do the work of getting what he wanted for him. That was never a problem for me. I found joy in working and in mastering skills, so being lazy wasn’t really ever a temptation for me.

Identifying Weaknesses

You, as a parent, are in a unique position to be able to help your child identify the areas where they are weak so that they can then be helped to overcome them. You can do this by examining what it is they do that usually gets them into trouble. Do they get into trouble most often when they are alone or when they are with other children? Are they the kind of child that does homework and doesn’t turn it in, or just doesn’t do the homework at all?

Once you've helped your child identify his or her personal weakness cocktail, it’s time to assign them a strength training regimen to help them overcome those weaknesses. We overcome those weaknesses by practicing the exact opposite thing. For example, for a child whose weakness is self-indulgence, as mine is, helping them overcome that weakness means teaching them to deny themselves more often. Help them to create a budget where a portion of what they have is given to others, a portion is put into savings, and then the remainder they may spend only after they have discussed it with you to be sure it is something beneficial to them over the long term. No spending their allowance on candy or junk food because that is just another form of self-indulgence.

For a child whose weakness is laziness, the remedy is to refuse to help them until they have done everything they could to help themselves. It’s only when they have no one else around to help them that they become motivated to do it for themselves, so be sure you offer them no support until they have given it a sincere effort. Forbid your other children from helping them either. Hold them accountable for their failures.

Avoiding Occassions of Sin

The Catholic Church not only teaches her children to identify their weaknesses, but to avoid people and situations which might present a temptation to them where possible. It makes no sense to hang out in a bar if you're trying to get past an alcohol addiction, or to go to a casino if you're trying to get over a gambling addiction.  Going to places or putting yourselves in situations where you are likely to be offered things that you have a personal weakness against is not a good way to overcome that weakness - it just makes it easier to fall into that particular sin. This is the same thing we must teach our children. When they know where their weakness is, or have found things that tempt them to do what they know they shouldn't, they must avoid situations or people who lead them into a close encounter with that temptation. 


All human beings face temptation, and it's different for each of us. Helping our children to recognize what tempts them is the first step on the path to overcoming that temptation.  We as parents have a responsibility to help them in making the choices and exercising the virtues that allow them to overcome their personal temptations.

I hope you have enjoyed this chapter of Catholic Parenting: What the Catholic Church Teaches Us About Parenting. If you are just finding this series, you will find the introduction and earlier chapters by clicking on the link above. I hope you will join us tomorrow for chapter 31: Prioritizing Your Life. Thank you for taking the time to read this chapter. Please let me know what you thought by leaving a comment below. 

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