Do you ever have times when your children’s behavior is baffling? Last summer, All-Star threw a foosball at our sliding glass window on purpose. His aim was shattering. Why an intelligent, well-behaved boy would throw a hard foosball at a glass window on purpose, I’ll never know. He never gave me a reasonable explaination for what he did, at least not one that I could comprehend.
Understanding our children can be one of the most mystifying aspects of being a parent. There are times when our children’s behavior or words leave us perplexed and confused: a daughter who bursts into tears when you mention the weather, a son who becomes sullen and dejected for no apparent reason, or a healthy child who pretends to be sick. Try as we might to understand their motives and thought-process (or lack thereof!), we are sometimes left baffled and bewildered. And this can be frustrating because we want to help our children, but without understanding, we do not know how to deal with the situation.
Let us take consolation from Mary and Joseph, for even they had the experience of not understanding their Son:
41 Now every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. 42 And when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival. 43 When the festival was ended and they started to return, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it. 44 Assuming that he was in the group of travelers, they went a day’s journey. Then they started to look for him among their relatives and friends. 45 When they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem to search for him. 46 After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. 47 And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. 48 When his parents[a] saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.” 49 He said to them, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”[b] 50 But they did not understand what he said to them. – Luke 2:41-51
I love this gospel passage because it shows that the Holy Family was truly human. Even between Mary, conceived without sin, and her beloved Jesus, perfect God and perfect man, there seemed to be a misunderstanding.
In her book, A Child’s Book of Prayer in Art, Sr. Wendy Beckett writes about a painting which depicts the Holy Family right after the finding of the Child Jesus in the Temple. My kids think that this painting, Christ Discovered in the Temple by Simone Martini, is almost heretical. For in this painting, Mary is looking at her son sternly, and Jesus is scowling at his mother. Just look at his arms crossed in front of himself. St. Joseph has one arm around Jesus, but he seems to be siding with Mary. (And understandably so. He, too, had scoured the streets of Jerusalem, anxiously searching for Jesus for three long, exhausting days.)
“Mom, Jesus and Mary would never look at each other that way!” my kids exclaimed adamantly. “And look at the way St. Joseph is frowning at Jesus! He never would have looked at Jesus that way!”
I do not know if this painting is theologically correct, but the fact remains that even the Holy Family had to deal with at least one misunderstanding. And there is much we can learn from them.
First, we consider Our Lady’s words, Child, why have you treated us like this? Here, perhaps, is the most gentle of reproaches. But notice that Our Lady is seeking to understand her son. She is not passing a judgement. She does not say, “You inconsiderate child!” or “You thoughtless, careless boy!” And how easy it is to judge our children, especially when we are stressed and annoyed! But, when we judge our children, we bar the way to understanding them. Of course we can say that an action such hitting a brother is wrong. But we must avoid judging and condemning their motives or character. If we can not help harboring judgmental thoughts, we must keep them from leaving our mouths. No one likes to be judged, and if we judge our children often they will begin to close the doors to their hearts. And how shall we ever understand our children if their hearts are not open and trusting? Rather than passing judgement, let us always give our children the benefit of the doubt, let us try to see things from their point of view, and let us always seek to understand.
The gospel passage ends with these words:
51 Then he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them. His mother treasured all these things in her heart.
52 And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor. – Luke 2:51-52
We see here that His mother treasured all these things in her heart. Our Lady pondered and prayed. She shows us that when we do not understand our children, we must pray. Of course, dialoguing with our children is an important way to understand what is going on in their hearts, but sometimes these conversations are unsatisfactory. Sometimes they only end with greater conflict. Before we try to understand our children by talking with them, let us first seek the aid of the Holy Spirit, the giver of wisdom and understanding. Through prayer, the Holy Spirit gives us insights and inspirations, the right words to speak, and the patience and grace to accept the times when, despite our best efforts, we still can not seem to make sense of our children. We need to treat each child’s heart like a sacred sanctuary, entering in respectfully and only with God’s blessing, a blessing obtained through prayer.
Finally, whether or not our children understand us, they must learn to obey. They must learn to imitate the child Jesus, who went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them. It is not enough for us to love our children. It is not enough for us to understand and accept our children for who they are. We must teach them to obey, not for our own convenience, but because obedience is the forerunner of humility and self-control, and therefore true freedom. Furthermore, obedience is a necessary virtue for living out one’s vocation. Religious must obey their superiors. Spouses must obey each other. And we all need to live up to our responsibilities, obeying the duty of the moment, God’s will in our every day lives. Christ’s humble childhood obedience towards Joseph and Mary prepared Him for His ultimate sacrifice of dying on the cross for the reparation of our sins:
“Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.” – Luke 22:42
Our children’s obedience to us will prepare them to live out that unique and special calling for which God created them.
We all know that teaching our children to obey can be extremely challenging. But we have the grace of our vocation to help us and our God-given authority to strengthen us. Christ, although he was God, was obedient to Joseph and Mary. What an example of humility! Let us teach our children to imitate Him.
So, even in the best of families, misunderstandings are inevitable. But the Holy Family teaches us how to handle them:
- Seek to understand without passing judgment.
- Pray for wisdom and understanding.
- Teach your children to obey even when they do not understand or agree.
If we imitate the Holy Family in these things, we need not be disturbed when our children’s behavior is enigmatic or perplexing. Rather, we can trust that somehow this is a part of God’s plan and that at some point we will understand our children. Above all, we can joyfully carry in our hearts the hope that, like the Christ-Child, our children will increase in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor. – Luke 2:51-52