Raising kids, raising parents
By JUDITH BROMBERG
OK! Listen up, you parents out there. Also you teachers, directors of religious education, youth ministers and even small-group facilitators. This review has something for you.
All five of these books start with the premise that children and families are worth our effort. Effort translates into time and, aside from necessary time-consuming tasks, time well spent translates into the sharing and passing on of Christian values. Each of these books is either a pep talk for parents or a handbook for intergenerational faith- and value-sharing, or both.
Kathleen Chesto has a broad background in family ministry and religious education, all grounded in her personal experience as a mother. Raising Kids Who Care is a series of essays exploring the "spiritual and moral development of children and the particular problems they face growing up."
The essays are directed at "those who feel we are capable of making a difference in creating a more loving, less violent society for the next generation."
All children seem to be born with some degree of empathy, she contends. "How that empathy develops into moral reasoning and what we as parents and teachers can do to enhance that development" is the focus of the first part of her book. "Empathy," she asserts, "is the most basic [route] to morality," and from empathy she moves into shame and guilt, sharing, rules and decision-making.
Shame and guilt are not necessarily destructive feelings. They are, as they should be, "uncomfortable feelings" and as such can prod us to a higher standard of behavior. "Sharing" is her litmus test of morality. "Real sharing represents the ability to consider not just the rights but the feelings and needs of others. ... Real sharing is the child's introduction to the gospel's fundamental option for the poor."
Under "rules" she writes that a child's respect for authority is the single most important moral legacy we pass on to our children and, moving on, that "decision-making is one of the most important life skills to be acquired in early childhood."
With this grounding in basic values, Chesto advances in Part Two to address some of the common dilemmas young people face today, examining such issues as cheating, lying, jealousy, bullying and sexual issues, and ends with the need for real heroes and the necessity of prayer in the lives of children.
Each segment concludes with follow-up questions, discussion ideas and possible activities for parents and teachers. That these essays first appeared as columns under the heading "Helping Today's Children" spotlights both their strengths and their weaknesses: They are short, pithy pieces usually with one strong point to make as one would hope to find in a well-written column, but lacking sustained analysis. From this book, parents might surely pick up many good ideas but they won't find many solid answers.
When I came to this next book, Growing in Wisdom, Age and Grace, by Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, I hoped it would be really, really good, or else I'd have to be really, really agile with my words. Stand by while I tiptoe my way through this one.
When he learned he had terminal cancer, Bernardin hastened to complete the projects dearest to his heart, one of which was this book. In a beautiful opening letter to parents, he acknowledges that parenting can be a lonely and overwhelming task and that this guide was intended to affirm and support parents in their efforts to share their faith. He envisions the book as a kind of gift to parents as they live out their "great and beautiful vocation to nurture a new generation of loving, informed and committed followers of Jesus."
In its six sections, the book first describes family life today, then looks at five developmental plateaus and shows how each can be shaped into a spiritual platform as well. It is a visually attractive book, full of color photographs. Each section closes with salient quotations from a variety of church documents.
As a bequest to parents, it is more than enough to let them know they have his prayers and support, but not enough to be really helpful. It is long on common sense and the broad brush strokes that make up Christian parenting, but short on the deft, defining and enlightened insights that a person of Bernardin's passion and stature might bring to it. He offered this, as noted, as a gift to parents. To tweak the metaphor, the book seems more like a keepsake greeting card than a mighty, meaningful heirloom.
Now if you want specific, practical guidelines and down-to-earth, usable suggestions, have I got news for you! Laurie Bowen looked around for just such a book, found none and so wrote her own, gathering "theories, ideas and resources into an easy-to-use and idea-sparking manual."
Whereas the project was conceived initially for home-schooling families, any family with children in public or parochial school who wants to practice faith-sharing at home will find in Food for Your Family's Spirit a wealth of ideas and resources they could adopt or adapt.
In the first part Bowen describes several models of family spirituality by incorporating the teaching of four renowned developmental specialists: Piaget, cognitive; Erikson, psychosocial; Kohlberg, moral; and Fowler, spiritual. She also discusses the ways people learn: common-sense, analytical, imaginative and dynamic.
She correctly concludes that whereas each of us has "one preferred method of learning, material that is experienced all four ways is learned best." She uses the Emmaus story as a unifying motif and observes that "in that moment the events of the last supper, [Jesus'] death and resurrection, the current minute in Emmaus and all future worship came together."
That remarkable insight leads her into ritual, and the importance thereof even in normal family life, to say nothing of the spiritual. Bowen quotes Gertrud Mueller Nelson, who said that "in our rituals we participate with God in fashioning the world."
The second part of Bowen's book is replete with ideas from literally hundreds of families on how they celebrate holidays, holy days, the seasons, life stages and special events. She attaches to each example a symbol noting which age level the activity is most appropriate for. The gesture is well-intended, but the symbols used were more confusing than helpful. I hope for the final draft of the book that more meaningful, recognizable icons might be substituted. But let this pettiness not distract from my enthusiasm for the scope and offerings of this section.
Part three consists of pages upon pages of publishers' names, books, periodicals and other media that offer resources to families seeking home-based spiritual growth. Obviously, this book, while intended for the home, needs not be limited to it. Religious education programs and classrooms could also find a wealth of enriching activities for multi-age groups.
I received this book in manuscript form; actual publication is intended for September 1997. You might consider it for a 1997 Christmas gift, or an appropriate remembrance to celebrate a birth or baptism. Godparents, take note.
Another book equally concrete and practical though more narrowly focused is Jesuit Fr. Michael Smith's Between Fathers and Sons. "The Fathers and Sons Program," writes Smith, "is designed ... to help and encourage fathers to foster the ongoing development of their sons into psychologically and spiritually mature men."
This is an 18-hour program that might be adapted in a variety of ways, the preferred schedule having fathers and sons meeting weekly for six three-hour sessions, but it might also unfold in a three-week program or even on one long weekend.
In any case, the agenda is outlined in exact detail from the suggested arrangement of the meeting space to the number and qualifications of facilitators, from specific weekly activities to the closure that invites follow-up. The topics covered are the father-son bond, becoming a man, dealing with anger, friendship with girls and women, the quest for identity, and blessing rituals for fathers and sons.
Smith asserts that these sessions are not intended as therapy for damaged relations but as a pro-active attempt to help fathers help their sons grow into spiritually mature men whose lives are grounded in a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Immature men ("eternal boys," as he calls them), who have not been appropriately guided into manhood, threaten the fabric of society. As in all such programs, openness, honesty and willingness to share are crucial for its success. Going along with that, he shows how a father's spirituality is equally crucial to his son's belief in God.
Naturally the book would be most efficacious if used in the manner intended. But even apart from these structured sessions, a father, by virtue of this text, could be empowered to relate to his son on a totally new level, and small-group facilitators could use it as a manual for smooth-running meetings and ongoing parish programs. It has many applications.
Finally, I definitely needed help with this next book, Can You find Jesus? -- a "Where's Waldo?" kind of book with 13 gospel stories depicted in a visual format. So I turned to two experts, my nephews Nicholas, age 11, and David, age 8, both fans of the "Waldo" and I Spy books. I gave it to them with no commentary other than to ask them to read it and then tell me what they thought about it. In less than a week, unprompted, Nicholas said to me: "You know that book you gave us to read? It's cool."
I visited with each youthful reader separately and got essentially the same response. Both liked the idea of the short narrative accompanying each illustration. In this way, it was better than "Where's Waldo?" they said. "Having a story makes you feel like you are in the picture," observed Nicholas. Both said they learned something new about Jesus and both said they enjoyed finding Jesus in the drawings as well as the various artifacts they were instructed to spot.
The reading level seemed appropriate to both boys, albeit they are both strong and avid readers. Whereas Nicholas said he couldn't put it down, David enjoyed going through it a few pages at a time.
Unbidden, their mother also read the book and from a parent's perspective volunteered that she thought the "hidden" objects were too obvious and too easy to spot, but she found the information and discussion questions in the parents' section especially meaningful.
Both boys agreed they would like to own this book and would consider buying it for themselves if given a gift certificate to a book store (a favorite kind of gift, I might add). In fact, when I asked David to get the book for me for the purpose of writing this review, he quickly extracted my promise to return it as soon as I was finished. (I did.)
What I like most about this book -- although the illustrations are not as intricate or as clever as in "Waldo," or as gorgeous as in I Spy -- is the underlying message of the book: We are likely to find Jesus in a variety of settings if we only take the time to look for him.
Judith Bromberg is a veteran Catholic high school teacher. Nicholas and David Bromberg are in the fifth and second grades respectively at St. Charles Borromeo School in Kansas City, Mo.
National Catholic Reporter, March 28, 1997