This time a year ago, my littlest homeschooler asked if she could go to St. Urban’s, the elementary school that serves several parishes in the region. We knew some of the families at the school and liked what we saw. She had made friends with girls her age at parish events. It was not an agonizing decision, because we had already been considering the move for about a year. We did a little more research and decided this was the time.
Our experience so far has been nothing but positive. Since this is Catholic Schools Week, let me share a few of the reasons we love our school.
Everyone is kind and friendly.
When I was researching the school, I spoke to a friend who had volunteered there and at a number of other elementary schools in the region. She said to me: “I can honestly say that St. Urban’s is what a Christian school should be.”
The administration actively works to promote kindness and encouragement among the students. Recently on the drive into town my daughter told me she had to write a persuasive paper, and she had chosen the topic ofwhether there ought to be school uniforms. She asked my opinion, and I gave her the long list of reasons mothers love uniforms (thank you, school, for a simple, stain-resistant, affordable set of uniform options). I finished up by adding, “And that way, for example, a mean girl can’t say oh your skirt is so ugly, because she’s wearing the same skirt.”
To which my daughter replied: “Mom. This is St. Urban’s. We don’t have bullies. The worst thing that happened is that Scholastica wanted to play with Benedicta at recess but not Ignatia, and then they all ended up playing together anyway.”
The friendliness is welcoming to me, too. The administration respects my time. The school’s academic reputation isn’t built on sending home young children with mountains of homework every night. We parents aren’t saddled with a bazillion overwhelming volunteer projects and fundraisers. When teachers or staff do ask for parent help, they take into account our varying circumstances.
I know some private schools have a “type” of parent, and if you don’t fit in you’re on the outs. Our school is truly Catholic — truly diverse. Not just in terms of race and national origin (though there is that), but also in terms of the parents’ professions, state in life, personalities, and dare I say it: social class. It’s not a prep school, it’s a parish school.
Our faith as Catholics is 100% supported.
The school Mass is both beautiful and edifying. Prayer is part of the rhythm of the day. There are Bible verses on the walls, a well-delivered religion curriculum, and an enthusiastic attitude towards Catholicism that permeates everything the school does. I don’t know all the teachers very well, but I know that the two teachers who have the most influence on my daughter both exhibit a sincere and profound faith.
Before she went to school, my daughter was homeschooled by me. There are ways the Catholic faith was shared in our homeschool that don’t happen at the parish school, but the reverse is also true. When I came to eat lunch with my daughter, I asked her as we sat down and pulled out lunch bags, “Do we wait for grace?”
“We already said grace in our classroom,” she said. “And also the Angelus.”
The children ate and then talked quietly. The teacher who was serving as lunch monitor complimented the children, as a group, on how her husband had been moved to tears by their beautiful singing that Sunday at Mass. The children swept up and prepared to leave. Before dismissal to recess, everyone stood and faced the massive crucifix in the cafeteria and prayed the second grace, thanksgiving after the meal.
My daughter’s teachers know her.
The school is small. There are about fifteen children in each grade (it varies), so that the total school enrollment hovers comfortably within knowable limits. (See here for the theory of Dunbar’s Number, andhere for TheNew Yorker’s explanation of it. I have found this to be true in practice.) My daughter has been with the school less than six months, and already knows the names of all the students except the very youngest. But more important me: Her teachers have time to know her.
When I went to the parent-teacher conference after the first quarter, the 5th grade teacher sat down with me and talked about my daughter. She talked about my daughter’s strengths and weaknesses; what she needed to work on; and how her transition to school was going. To all of it, my only answer was: Yes, you are correct.
I’ve been teaching and rearing this child for ten years, I know her. All these things you describe? That’s my girl. You’ve paid attention, you’ve gotten to see the real her, you obviously care about her. She’s not lost here. There’s a real relationship going on, rooted in both love and quantity-time spent together getting to know one another.
The curriculum is well-chosen.
Between homeschooling and my years of small-format teaching in religious education, chastity education, parenting classes, French, economics, logic, debate, apologetics, can’t remember what else, and maybe a little tutoring here and there . . . I’ve evaluated curriculum. Oh and I wrote a book that has a thing or two to say about how to structure a class.
If nothing else, I know how to see whether a class is working or not, and what is or isn’t successful.
Everything that happens at our parish school makes sense.
Sometimes the book the teacher is using is right off my shelves, sometimes it’s one I’ve never heard of before. But I am still waiting for the day when I see some assignment or activity and can’t figure out what the point is. Everything I’ve seen so far fits with the goal. I can immediately see why the teacher chose a particular activity, and how it fits into the bigger picture. There is no busy-work. Everything converges on a well-built whole.
Sure, I’d heard it was a decent school, but I wasn’t quite expecting it to be this good. I’ll take it.
The school makes the most of its strengths.
One of the mistakes people make about homeschooling is thinking that it’s supposed to be just like school. That approach doesn’t work. Homeschooling isn’t for that. Homeschooling has a dynamic that’s unlike school, and that’s part of the point. If you try to re-create school at home, you’ll be harried and overwhelmed. The trick to homeschooling is to make the most of the distinctive strengths that only homeschooling can offer.
My parish school does that too.
There are ways to teach and learn that can only happen when you’ve got a dozen or so students the same age. There are cooperative projects with other programs nearby that take advantage of St. Urban’s downtown location. Even the way the classes are organized teacher-by-teacher makes sense developmentally — at least in the upper grades, which is what I’ve seen, the right teacher is assigned to each grade and specialty subject.
My daughter loves it there.
No school can be everything to everybody. My daughter thrives on structure, gentle but firm discipline, clearly stated learning objectives, and frequent feedback via formal assessments. Any time a child changes school systems there’s an adjustment period. She didn’t arrive at school having mastered The Way Things Are Done Here. Her teachers brought her up to speed through a steady combination of clear correction and enthusiastic encouragement.
She’s a normal kid. Left to her own devices, she’d gladly sit around watching sitcoms and eating endless bowls of ice cream. There’s a time and place for leisurely pleasures, but what she gets at St. Urban’s — the reason she’s excited to go to school every day — is the profound happiness that comes from having her genuine needs met so well. Her need for love, her need for guidance, her need for growth: Everyone at the school works together to do their part in meeting those needs.
Addendum: About that award she got.
Some people from the parish who read this blog might be thinking You’re just all rosy in the afterglow of your kid getting an award after Mass this morning. Truth? It’s the other way around. I started writing this post in my head months ago, and sat on it because I kept waiting for the inevitable bad day to show up so I wouldn’t be all honeymoon-googly-eyes. I started writing this post on my PC earlier this week, but it’s been coming along slowly because my primary vocation keeps getting in the way.
And thus before I could finish writing, first semester Awards Day came around. You know what happened? They quick gave out certificates to the honor roll kids, and then moved on to the big event.
What’s the big event? Grade by grade, each teacher gave a short talk about two students in her class who merited particular distinction. One student was lauded for attitude, effort, and improvement academically — not for grades earned, but for the student’s perseverance and diligence regardless of academic difficulties. The other honored student was praised, in descriptive detail, for kindness, integrity, piety, generosity — all the virtues that aren’t about being Number One, and are about being more like Jesus Christ.
I was asked two related questions by parish friends this week, and I answered incorrectly:
What things do we do to help our kids “Keep Christ in Christmas”?
What are we doing for Advent?
I thought the answer to both was: Nothing. This year, anyway.
I was sorely mistaken. Since both these are going to be discussion topics for our Family Fellowship group this week, here are my notes so I can keep my facts straight. These are things we do, and which have held together through the years, and which I think are probably helpful. Some are easy for anyone to do, some of them maybe not.
#1 Be a Disciple of Jesus Christ
When the SuperHusband and I first became Christians, I was a little disconcerted to notice how little our extended family’s observances of the feast involved any particular worship of Christ. It had not bothered me before, but now somehow it seemed wrong to gather together for a meal and gifts and not much Jesus-ing. A lot of years later, I’m not bothered. Those of us who are Christians get plenty of Jesus-ing all year long, including Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, and we don’t need every single moment of every single feast to have a little cross tacked on it.
(For the record, there is a very Christian grace before the big extended-family supper Christmas Eve and plenty of Christian-household backdrop going on. We’re not celebrating Festivus or something.)
My point is this: When every day and every week of your life is built around the worship and service of Jesus Christ, there’s not a need to make sure your wrapping paper has manger scenes on it. Both the “Christ” and the “Mass” in “Christmas” are patently obvious. Forgetting that Christmas was about the birth of Christ would be like forgetting what your own birthday was about. It’s unlikely to be problem.
#2 Dang I Love My Parish
My DRE has a passion for keeping Advent, and the pastor’s completely on board. (Yes, it unrolled in that order — she predates him on the staff roster.) Rather than rushing to quick celebrate Christmas with the kids before the break, there are Advent events throughout Advent, and Christmas is unleashed on — get this — Christmas. The religious ed classes host Christmas parties the first class back after the break, while it’s still Christmas season.
This is not just good for holding onto Catholic liturgical order. This is good because it causes us all to be keenly aware we are out of sync with the wider culture, and therefore aware of what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. It also gives me a little bit of ammo in my effort to keep things purple around the house, though admittedly that’s push-and-pull. Yes, in fact we do have the best Advent Lights on the block. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
But I would say the biggest help we get in terms of the parish enthusiasm for observing Advent is that it completely prevents our brains from equating what we do as Catholics with that merchandising event going on at the mall.
#3 We’ve got a great Advent calendar.
The one we happen to own is the Tony Wolf Advent Calendar, which I reviewed when I first got it years ago. Each day from December 1st through 24th there is a mini boardbook ornament that contains a Bible story, prayer, hymn or carol. All put together you get the highlights of the story of Christmas from Adam and Eve forward. There is no Christmas Advent tree up yet this year, so I told my ten-year-old to hang the ornaments on the hooks on the mantel where our stockings will eventually go.
She loves this. She loves reading aloud the day’s mini-book, singing along if it’s a hymn, and keeping all the ornaments organized on their hooks. The other kids are older now, so the ten-year-old’s the chief user. I remember myself having a little mini-book Christmas ornament and how much I liked to read it (mine was The Night Before Christmas). Bite-sized books are captivating.
There are other similarly good options, it doesn’t have to be this exact product. I remember growing up that my best friend’s family had a homemade Advent calendar with pertinent Bible verses for each day — same principle. I think the takeaway here on why this concept works so well is that kids like to open a new thing every day, so they bring the momentum to the daily observance, and the day’s thing isn’t just a piece of chocolate or a picture from a snowy village, it’s a piece of the Good News.
#3.5 We Stink At Advent Wreaths, Forever and Ever Amen
For your amusement, here’s a photo from a glorious Advent past:
I would have kept the thing, but it was too bulky to store easily. This year we’ve got an assortment of mismatched white candles with purple or pink ribbon tied around the base. We never remember to light them.
I’m completely in favor of Advent wreaths. I have happy childhood memories of lighting the candles at dinner every evening. We just aren’t there. Sorry.
As we dropped the ball on this one in recent years, some friends have picked up the relay. Mrs. A who first started hosting an Advent tea party every year (most years) when our girls were little has merged that tradition with a potluck supper and caroling party afterwards. It’s a good event. We stick to classic Christian carols (Silent Night, We Three Kings, What Child Is This, etc.) plus We Wish You a Merry Christmas. We only plague neighbors who show evidence of celebrating Christmas, so we’re not foisting our zeal on innocent bystanders. The response has been 100% positive.
We’re up to 4/6ths of the family now singing in some choir or another at church, so the kids get a strong dose of sacred music there as well. We go to one of those parishes where the songs are all about Jesus, which is a big boost.
Or Bethlehem, as you prefer. Way back at the time of our first caroling party (before kids), I didn’t have a nativity set, so I made one out of Lego bricks. Since that time we’ve added humans to the family and all kinds of toys. Playmobil. Fisher Price. Little Woodzees. All that stuff. Thus we have evolved an annual tradition of creating not just the manger scene but a good bit of Bethlehem and environs.
We’ve had years that featured Herod’s castle and a Roman circus (the better to eat you with, my dear), though the best was during the preschool years when we had the big red barn with the door that mooed. A traditional nativity set can sometimes look too much like Camping with Baby Jesus — Pass the S’mores. The circumstances of the Incarnation hit home more soundly when you’ve got a neighborhood of cozy cheerful dollhouses, and then the Holy Family camped out in what truly looks to modern eyes like a place only fit for farm animals.
This year, having just pared back the toy collection, we’re focusing on the unrolling of the historic events day by day. Right now the angels are all up in Heaven, at the top of the bookshelf in front of the vintage Hardy Boys collection, waiting for the big day. (That is what Heaven is like, right?) Mary and Joseph are in a caravan headed towards the city of David. The Wise Men are still home watching the sky. The stable is busy being just a stable, though the innkeeper — you might remember this from your Bible study — likes to come by every day and visit with his pet bunnies. St. Ignatius Montessori, pray for us.
St. Nicholas 2015 was more festive, but this year, thanks to the wonders of iBreviary, a poor spiritual life, and my top most annoying-to-other-parents parenting habit, we just scraped out an observance of the feast.
What happened is that late last night I finally unearthed my long-interred blogging computer. Things have been good here. I took about two weeks to get over a cold, then a third week to pounce on the opportunity to turn my bed into a work table while the SuperHusband was in Canada for three nights on business, and forsook a return to blogging in order to sort and purge the wall of backlogged paper files that had been looming over me for about a year. Now, finally, the layer of dust on the screen of my tablet has trails of finger-marks where I returned to the internet last night, briefly, and am trying again today.
How to make me have a crush on you like I’ve got a crush on Ronald Knox:Announce that you’re hosting Stations of the Cross during Advent! Yes, friends, I’m living in the wonderland. Mind you I have not actually attended Stations at my parish this Advent, because the timing hasn’t worked out yet, but I can be all happy and joyous that other people are having their spiritual lives put in proper order, anyway.
Me? My 1st Week of Advent gift was showing up to Adoration for a half an hour before fetching the kids from school, and sitting there in the pew when guess who walks in? My own kid. The whole fifth grade, not just my kid, but my kid’s the one I was particularly pleased to see. How to make me have a crush on your parish school?Random acts of Eucharistic Adoration, thanks.
So that was last week. This week, the gift iBreviary gives to good little children with bad parents: Time Zone Problems. If you check my sidebar on this blog (click through if you are reading this from e-mail or a feed-reader), the iBreviary widget will take you to today’s readings. Except that iBreviary is from Italy, so today means What Italian people are experiencing. And thus, late in the evening in North America on December 5th, what you see is the feast of St. Nicholas of Bari.
Ack! A celebration!
So I quick summon children and remind them to put out their shoes, then wrack my brain trying to think up some festive item already on hand that I can stick in those shoes to mark the feast. Fortunately, the SuperHusband has had a bucket of biscotti from Costco stashed in a secret location. Italian-American is our theme for this year.
But sadly, no, it’s not that simple.
Naturally, I completely forgot to put the biscotti in the shoes. Thus it was a cold, dark, wet, barren St. Nicholas waking for us.
So let’s talk about lying.
People hate this. I mean, they can’t stand it. It makes heads spin. But here’s what we do at our house: We let our kids know how the world works.
I know! Thus over time they learn all kinds of adult secrets, like where babies come from, and that there’s a moment in the mandatory confirmation retreat when you open a heart-warming letter from your parents, and also that Santa, the Tooth Fairy, and the Easter Bunny are all games of pretend.
Is our home life thus devoid of all magic? By no means.
The real world is far more, dare I say it, amazing than some cheap sleight-of-hand holiday trick.
If you tell your kids Santa is real, whatever. Not my problem (I’m not going to tell your kid that, but you can). So be it. To me, orchestrating such moments of artifice is a pale and pathetic imitation of the beauty of faith in the real world, where real miracles, both natural and supernatural, happen all the time.
I don’t object to figurines of Santa at the Nativity; but today (December 6th) in particular, and every day more generally, we get St. Nicholas adoring Christ, for real, at the Holy Mass.
Is that too abstract for children? By no means. Children know very well that what something looks like is different than what it is. They know that there is real supernatural power in this world. The game of Santa or St. Nicholas is, if you let your children play the game rather than hogging it for yourself, like a game of house or soldiers or any other dress-up: We’re children playing at real things, trying them out.
The game is marvelously fun, even when you nearly forget it, twice.
If your children are in on the game, the wonder of it no longer depends on falliable you. It now can rest on its own power, and wreak its real marvels even when you yourself are a few marvels short of a shooting match.
Thus, today, as I was rushing out the door at 7:10 to quick drive a teenager to school before coming back for the 5th grader, said 5th grader noticed the shoes were still empty.
Oops. Time is tight, but the feast is only once a year. “Run back to your room, quick, so St. Nicholas can come.”
I grabbed a stool, she went and hid in her room for a minute, and I found St. Nick’s stash of biscotti and quick doled it out, one-per-shoe.Magic accomplished.
And in that moment, I can tell by her face that no one has updated the chart. It still says Conversion on the line for diagnosis. Nobody has put in the test results and new diagnosis from last October. I can see it as plainly as I can see that her eyes are brown. We’re still suspect, and this still isn’t over.
Feeling proud about what I had accomplished through daily exercise, I shared my marathon story with one of the intern doctors who was assigned to me. Rather than congratulating me, he basically accused me of faking my asthma. His words were ” There’s no way you could’ve walked a marathon if you have severe asthma.” I found out later that in my chart he actually wrote, “patient presents with factitious asthma, claims he walked a marathon“. That probably explains why some of the nurses were treating me so strange during the hospitalization. A rumor had spread that my asthma was very mild and probably psychosomatic in nature. I remember some of the medical staff trying to convince me that my breathing difficulties were all in my head and that I had some kind of generalized anxiety disorder. Are you freaking kidding me! And even scarier, this happened at a well respected teaching hospital.
That incident caused me a lot of grief and took over 3 years with lots of letter writing by my pulmonologists to have that false information removed from my medical record. The reality is that these are the kinds of screwy preconceived generalizations that people have about the way sick people should look and behave. And if I want to be completely honest here, there have been times when I’ve guilty of the same.
For background: Gaudet is a respiratory therapist who is treated by one of the top pulmonologists in the nation.
Just about every Dysautonomia patient with whom I’ve spoken over the last few years has, at one time or another, been told that the symptoms they were experiencing were all in their head. Diagnoses such as Anxiety disorders, Depression, Conversion or Somatoform disorders, and even Bipolar disorder are haphazardly applied to patients when no clear aetiology can be discovered to explain their symptoms. Normal reactions to abnormal situations, and purely medical/physiological symptoms are over-pathologised or misdiagnosed with alarming regularity, and to the detriment of the patient.
When unfounded these diagnoses leave a mark on the patient, a wound which if left untended will follow and influence all future relationships with the medical professionals. It also leaves a glaring mark on medical records that will be incorporated into future investigations and the overall diagnostic process. Even when unsubstantiated or proven to be untrue following psychological assessment, it can prove extremely difficult to remove such diagnoses from a patient’s medical file.
It is possible that what may be interpreted as “red flags” of Munchausen’s may alternatively be attributed to the demands and anxiety related to care of a very sick child. For example, anxious parents may not give a good history, or may “doctor shop” because they are unsatisfied and may be unhappy with the care their child is getting, especially when they feel that no one can actually diagnose, treat or understand the problem. Certain conditions, especially mitochondrial disease, will present with intermittent symptoms, and it will take a skilled and patient clinician to arrive at the right diagnosis – one that is an illness not Munchausen’s by proxy.
Psychologists have described that the population of patients and parents of children with Mitochondrial Disease are much more vulnerable to a false Munchausen’s by proxy accusation simply due to the nature of the disease. In fact, a hallmark characteristic of mitochondrial disease is the presentation of several unrelated symptoms that together, “don’t make sense”. Clinicians who feel that a parent is intentionally making symptoms appear, is behaving to insure that the illness continues, and consults multiple physicians may suspect Munchausen’s – but should still “trust, then verify.” In other words, believe the parents, run appropriate diagnostic tests, seek the input of every part of the child’s team, and take very seriously the responsibility to the child to act as an advocate and do no harm.
Non-psychiatric misdiagnoses happen, too, of course. It is frustrating when a physician (or team of physcians) flubs a diagnosis through honest error — we humans aren’t ominiscient, so it’s bound to happen. It’s galling when the misdiagnosis involves dismissing serious serious symptoms as some much more benign illness that doesn’t fit with the case history. But pushing off a poorly-substantiated mental health label on a patient with an atypical presentation is both physically and emotionally harmful to the patient.
Unfortunately, this dangerous habit is actually enshrined in medical practice.
I Guess You’re Just Nuts, Then?
Many misdiagnoses are just idiocy. Some popular lazy-diagnoses include fibromyalgia, depression, and anxiety disorders. All of these disorders have specific criteria you can use to evaluate yourself (or your patient) and see if they apply. It’s almost helpful when a physician throws out with confidence, “I think it’s probably just ________” and inserts some illness utterly outside his or her specialty, and which a quick Google search would immediately rule out. Then you know you have a stupid doctor, done. It’s wearying, and can put you off the medical profession for a while, but it’s possible to come to a definitive conclusion one way or another.
There’s at least one mental health diagnosis, however, that can’t be ruled out by logic and good medicine.
Conversion Disorder, which is what Ella Frech was persistently misdiagnosed with (despite presenting with symptoms of a known side effect of one of the medications she was taking), is where modern medical practice bares its hubris.
Many of you would argue that I didn’t go nearly far enough- that there should be no ‘Somatic Symptom Disorder’ at all in DSM 5 because there is no substantial body of evidence to support either its reliability or its validity.
. . . I am sympathetic to this view, but realized that it would have no traction with the work group and chose instead to lobby for what seemed to be clearly essential and relatively easy changes that would solve most, if not all, of the problem.
. . . My letter cautioned DSM 5 that it was invading dangerous territory. Here was my warning to the DSM 5 work group:
• ‘Clearly you have paid close attention only to the need to reduce false negatives, but have not protected sufficiently against the serious problem of creating false positives. You are not alone in this blind spot—in my experience, inattention to false positive risk is an endemic problem for all experts in any field. But your prior oversight needs urgent correction before you go to press with a criteria set that is so unbalanced that it will cause grave harms.’
• ‘When psychiatric problems are misdiagnosed in the medically ill, the patients are stigmatized as ‘crocks’ and the possible underlying medical causes of their problems are much more likely to be missed.’
• ‘Continuing with your current loose wording will be bad for the patients who are mislabeled and will also be extremely harmful to DSM 5, to APA, and to your own professional reputations.’
I also raised the point that this could lead to a boycott of DSM 5. Pretty strong stuff, I thought. But totally ineffective.
Somatic Symptom Disorder (which is the umbrella term in the current terminology under which Conversion Disorder falls) is thus a particularly hazardous diagnosis because it has no symptoms of its own.
It is literally a disorder whose defining symptom is, “We the physicians don’t know what you have. Therefore, it must be psychological.” This is an awkward assertion for a profession that has evolved more in the past century than any other field of human endeavor. The developments in medical research just in the past twenty years are astonishing and marvelous. My children’s high school biology textbooks are utterly different than mine, because the depth and scope of our knowledge about human cells and the chemistry of the human body is orders of magnitude past what we knew a generation ago.
It seems, therefore, ludicrous that any sane person could hold that our knowledge of medicine is now perfectly complete. But this is the implicit assertion of somatic symptom disorders.
I sometimes joke that idiopathic means that you and your doctor both agree the other person is an idiot. But really it just means we don’t know. That happens. Humans aren’t all-knowing. What is the sane response to ignorance? It isn’t to fabricate some fanciful explanation to cover over your lapse. The sane response is to humbly admit, “I’m sorry I don’t know.” And, where the stakes are high, the sane person adds, “And we should keep investigating until we get a solid answer.”
Last week was our parish’s first week of religious ed, and my 7th grade daughter came home with an example of ordinary catechists in a traditional classroom program doing a great job at supporting parental involvement in their children’s faith.
There were three parts of the memo-from-the-teachers that made me swoon with gratitude.
1. Invitations (lots of them) for parents to come join the class anytime.
I’ve known our DRE for many years and she’s always had a very warm and open attitude towards parents’ involvement in their children’s formation. But to have the teachers repeatedly invite parents to come sit in class any time at all communicated an important message: They want us! They’re happy to have us. They’re happy for us to see what the kids are learning and take an active part in weekly faith formation.
Inviting parents to class does change the dynamic. It takes confidence and good teaching skills to be comfortable working with an audience. (And the reality is that watching people teach religious ed isn’t always the most exciting way to spend an hour. It can be, but sometimes you’re maxed out on sacrament charts and so forth.) But I love that my daughter’s teachers want me to know I’m not getting in the way. Me showing up and being involved is a good thing, not a hindrance.
That’s a rightly ordered relationship (even if I never take them up on the invitation), and I think their understanding of that relationship is why they did such a stellar job on the other two very simple helps they added to the class.
2. Weekly bring-back-to-class assignment: Noticing God’s action in our lives.
I’m sure the day is coming when we all bring in mini-tubes of toothpaste for the homeless, or spare change for missions, or whatever other project it is the kids are undertaking this year. Corporal works of mercy are good. But those works have to spring from a lived relationship with God, or the Catholic faith becomes just another option for Ways to Be Kind to People.
So every week, the teachers are asking the kids to report back one instance when they became aware of the presence of God in their lives — whether in prayer, in the created world, in the action of others, whatever it be.
Does this sound too Spirituality Lite? Let me offer firm correction: This is an age-appropriate way for kids to start crossing the bridge from an inherited faith to personal ownership of their faith. It is an age-appropriate way for the kids to become comfortable with talking about their relationship with God. It is an essential exercise, because awareness of God’s action in our lives is the foundation of the spiritual life.
Not Lite at all — it’s rock solid stone. The beautiful twist on this assignment is that by getting the parents involved, my daughter’s teachers are handing us, like a weekly subscription to the spiritual goldmine, an easy way for we parents to get comfortable with talking about discipleship with our kids. If you actually take the teachers up on this opportunity for the next twenty weeks, they’ll have helped you the parent build a habit of discussing the faith in a profound, personal, and non-adversarial way with your teenager.
This is the catechetical mission lived large: Genuinely assisting parents in their role as the primary teachers of the faith.
3. Weekly do-at-home assignment: A question for parents.
But that’s not all! Our catechists are taking it one deeper by sending home a second discussion question as well, which will change every week. Week One’s question was about promises: What promise have you made recently, and what was the outcome? What was something someone promised to you, and what was the outcome?
I liked this question a ton because it fits totally with the topics that came up in class (vocations and sacraments), it fits with questions about the moral life, and it’s not a “religious” topic even though it’s a religious topic. It’s not a question that has a “right answer” for the kid to parrot back. It’s a question, though, that hits a big tender spot in the faith. If you habitually break promises, or the people who are forming your faith (Mom and Dad) are flagrant promise-breakers, you’ve got a cracked foundation you’re building on. There’s repair work to be done. Healing work.
In contrast, if the question reveals you’ve got a solid foundation, then look what’s coming: We need to keep that relationship of trust strong through the next five or ten years. Further, for you my child who’s preparing for confirmation in the next few years? We need to think about what it is your baptismal promises mean, and what they entail.
That’s a lot impact for a discussion that took about five minutes in the car when I happened to get a snatch of time alone with my daughter for uninterrupted conversation. Twenty of those through the course of the year? The possibilities are breathtaking.
Inviting the Parents to be the Parents
The beauty of these assignments is that they help us parents do the part of the job that only we can do. Catechists can review facts and fill in gaps in the kids’ knowledge, but discipleship is parent-work. (We were also gently encouraged to get our kids to Mass regularly — another job that only a parent can do.)
I was very impressed by our first week because I felt like my daughter’s catechists understand what’s important and how this all works. When I went by the classroom, they were visibly happy to meet me and get to know me.
As far as I know, my daughter’s teachers are just a couple of ordinary catechists — goodhearted people who love God and love the kids and want to give it their best, but just normal people. And that to me is a very hopeful thing: Normal people are out there doing smart, simple, easy things to help me raise my child in the faith.
So here’s a weird story that was a wake-up call for me:
I was getting the high school kids signed up for youth group, and one of the forms was a bit of information from the parents — contact info, are you available to chaperone, does your kid have dangerous food allergies, etc. Necessary stuff. Now right after the parent email and phone number lines was:
Preferred method(s) of contact: ____________________________________
Because I am a bad person, I answered the question honestly.
Preferred method of contact: In person.
Now allow me to say right now that I don’t actually expect our youth ministers to personally hunt down me and every other parent of a student in the program just to let us each know that they need someone to bring plastic cups this week, thanks. I do live a little bit in this century. (And I solemnly promise to clarify that on the form before I turn it in tonight.)
But this lapse of mine got me thinking. Why was my writing that answer such a radically crazy, even potentially offensive or alarming thing to do?
Let’s review the facts:
The youth ministers and our family attend the same parish. We’re part of the same Christian community. (We even show up at the same Mass most Sundays — which defies the odds, but we’re lucky that way.)
The youth ministers are taking on the task of mentoring our children through their final years of Catholic youth. Next stop is full-fledged adulthood.
These are the years when kids make tremendous decisions about their vocations, their relationships, and even whether they’ll continue practicing the faith.
For the next few years, it’s quite likely that after my husband and myself, the kids’ youth ministers will be the other set of practicing Catholics with whom my children have the most frequent and most significant contact on a regular basis.
This is a big deal.
What youth ministers do — their role in the work of the Church — is huge.
But our concept of communal life in the Church has become so watered down that I feel brazen for even suggesting that such significant persons in our children’s lives should speak to my husband and me in-the-flesh as an ordinary, habitual mode of communication.
We’re used to this. In my years as a catechist in a traditional religious ed program, I typically met my students’ parents one- to -three years after the school year ended. (Format: I’d run into the kid at a parish event and ask, “So are these your parents?” and that’s how we’d finally meet.)
Once I had the chilling-but-fortunate experience of being in the room while a parent explained to the DRE about a problem in my religious ed class the previous year. [Sadly: A problem I could have fixed if I’d known about it, but it was the sort of thing you can only know if the parent or student tells you.] The reason the mother felt so comfortable laying out her problem right there in front of me is that she had no idea I had been her child’s teacher.
Not knowing people is the norm in parish life.
This is wrong.
There are many causes of this problem and only one complicated, difficult solution: We Catholics need to spend more time living with each other.
That’s all I know for now. If our youth ministers hadn’t posed that foolish question, I probably wouldn’t have even thought about it, I’m so used to living with this problem, and so used to treating it like normal life. But at least now I’m more deeply informed of what’s not happening, and can start looking for ways to change my tiny part in all this.
Continuing with Book Week. Box #2 raises a question that doesn’t get asked often enough: What part do chastity-education programs play in teaching teens (and grown-ups) about the right use of their bodies?
My thoughts follow, but first you should show know what was in the box:
YOU from Ascension Press. I reviewed AP’s Theology of the Body for Teens: Middle School Edition some years ago, and liked it immensely. A first glance at YOU is similarly positive. It’s a much bigger and deeper program, and from everything I’m seeing among teens in the circles I run in (church-school-sports), YOU looks like a solid answer to a very serious need.
As I flipped through the books the other night, several things caught my eye:
The advice for how to teach teens is dead-on.
The parent booklet gets right to first things first. It’s like they know they only have a paragraph to win us parents over.
The curriculum, as will the best Theology of the Body presentations, starts with the bigger picture, lays the essential groundwork on the dignity of the human person, and leads from there into a positive message about the goodness and appeal of chastity.
YOU is working off ideas that have been tested with teens over and again and found to work. (Not surprising, given who the authors are.)
It’ll be a while before I get a chance to read the leader’s guide and parent guide (leader’s guide contains the full text of the student book) cover to cover, as well as watch the whole DVD series. Thus I wanted to flag this series now, because I’ve got a very positive impression at first glance, and if you’re planning programs for your parish you might want to request your own review set rather than waiting on someone else’s opinion.
Where do ready-made chastity programs fit into the big picture?
If you phoned me this afternoon (please don’t) and asked me what I recommended for taking your generic typical-American-parish from zero to full-steam-ahead on teaching teens chastity, here’s what I’d recommend:
1. Start with a good parent-centered introduction to chastity, such as Family Honor’sLeading and Loving program. There are lots of options for meeting formats, but (using L&L as an example) I strongly recommend investing the time and energy into spreading the program out over six weekly sessions rather than doing a single big-weekend event. This gives you time for parents to get to know each other, to have time to talk with the leaders in detail, and to begin to form a small group atmosphere. It lets parish leadership begin to identify the parents who are in the best position to help other parents. It also gives lots of time for listening, and thus for learning where parents in your parish are coming from and what questions or difficulties they are having.
–> Make sure you’ve got the depth of back-up resources to assist parents with their concerns. At a minimum: NFP instruction, good pastoral help with thorny marital irregularities, some resources for dealing with pornography, and access to support for parishioners grappling with same-sex attraction (personally or via a friend or family member’s situation) such as Courage. It’s no fair telling people they need to radically change their lives, then wishing them good luck and washing your hands.
2. When parents are ready to start sharing the message of chastity with their teens, do a parent-teen joint program. There are any number of options, and many of them (Family Honor is an exception) assume parents won’t be present. Don’t go there. You need the parents totally involved and on board. Your six hours in front of an eighth grader are nothing compared to the influence of the parents. Even if the program you select doesn’t call for parental presence, adapt it to make it a parent-teen program.
3. Keep working discipleship on all the parts of the Catholic faith. Salvation isn’t about sex-ed alone.
4. Programs like YOU will have the most impact if you roll them out after you have a critical mass of parents who are actively seeking to foster chastity in the home, and a critical mass of parishioners and parish leaders who are disciples.
I’m not saying there is no fruit that comes from grabbing a random teenager who’s fully immersed in the wider culture and subjecting the child to a few weeks of Catholic teaching. Good things can happen. But the reality is that an hour of your life in alien country rarely makes you want to join the aliens, if you were heretofore perfectly happy back home in Depravityville. More likely, you’ll go home thinking you met a bunch of crazy people and thank goodness you’ve escaped.
Making disciples is work. YOU looks like it’s got loads of potential as a help in that work, which is why I mention it now. But making disciples is long, slow, constant work. There are no short cuts.
I want to show you my daughter’s handiwork and explain how it got this way, because it’s a story about what parenting really is. When you are comparing your crazy life to some glossy home magazine spread, but it’s a real home inhabited by real people, I want you to understand that it didn’t come from nowhere.
So this is my backyard:
Isn’t it gorgeous! That’s the little grilling area off the kitchen. My daughter (age 14) completely overhauled this space a few weeks ago, with the help of her sisters. It was her response to the three of them being kicked outside until they’d cleaned the place up, on account of their not being able to be quiet inside for even one hour while I took a nap.
To the left, behind the grape vines growing up around the mailbox, is the famous green castle. When it was first built the castle looked like this:
That’s the top two stories, and in the photo above you’re looking at a portion of the bottom floor. It’s a bit worn down now, and we’ve replaced boards and added shade over the years. We built it because we only had this teeny-tiny strip of private, fenced backyard area when our kids were little, so we had to build up-not-out for the play structure.
Part of parenting is using the talents you have (my husband did the carpentry) and the resources you have to give your kids some space to grow. This is what we had to give.
Even after this month’s clean-up, there’s still some trashy-looking stuff behind those red doors, but at least it’s down to all purposeful trash. An example is an upside-down plastic flower pot that serves as a table during “City,” the kids’ economics game that is the successor to the even trashier (literally) “Medieval Game.” They make up all kinds of sociological experiments when I kick them outside.
More history . . . See this cute wooden bridge leading to the seating area?
We went to Las Vegas to visit my parents some years ago, and in the early morning while it was still cool out, we’d walk around the neighborhood. The front yard landscaping in suburban Las Vegas is incredible – just gorgeous. The kids took photos of yard ideas, because they wanted a pretty yard. One thing they all liked was a wooden bridge over a rock riverbed formation. Superhusband built them this bridge for the play yard, and it connects to a second patio where we have a laundry sink. That area is not very pretty, though it’s now 90% less trashy than it was a month ago.
Lesson in parenting: We’ve had all these moments where the kids recognize and appreciate beauty, and we build on that . . . and our yard is still mostly trashed. They’re still kids. Their aspirations exceed their self-discipline. We’re still tired parents who don’t make them clean up enough. But slowly the beauty-to-trash ratio improves, year by year.
Here’s some lemon balm my daughter totally stole out of my part of the yard, and put into a terra cotta pot she also stole. I’m good with that, she didn’t mess anything up.
I love to garden, but I basically stink at it. My kids have variable amounts of love of gardening, but it’s not like we’re this amazing family out singing hymns while we hoe all afternoon in the pumpkin patch or something. We buy plants or seeds, stick them in the ground, and most of what we plant dies of drought or flood or some horrible fungus you don’t want me to describe. But a few things survive, and we learn more about what will grow in our actual yard (the garden books are wrong and the internet is wronger), and slowly it fills with things that aren’t entirely dead or pestilent.
Every living plant you see in these photos was a gamble. Life is a gamble. You just keep trying things.
Aren’t these hanging cacti adorable? They are a little freaky if you look closely, because they are leftovers from a life science lab on grafting plants. She has to have franken-cacti because non-school plants are expensive. She took kimchi jars (I know! We buy it! We don’t make our own!) and sawed off the tops, then made the hanging knotwork out of string that came from who-knows-where.
If you want a kid who does DIY’s, you have to let that kid just raid the supplies and try stuff. This is how my home gets trashed. Yes, my home is mostly-trashed in the pursuit of either beauty or laziness, one or the other.
We fought bitterly over where she was allowed to hang her hanging candles. All supplies totally stolen from other parts of the house or yard. Hobby Lobby made zero money on this one.
Look at this pretty sitting area! I got those curtains cheap when the girls were little, and they get used when you want to hang pretty curtains someplace — like if you’re having a princess-themed birthday party or something. They are hanging over the clothes rods and clothes lines that were our attempt to make a place to store all our whitewater gear, but it didn’t work out and was a fetid mess. Blech.
I still don’t know what to do with the whitewater gear. It’s piled in my laundry room waiting for a new home.
All furnishings and accessories in this photo were raided from another part of the house or yard. In some cases there was a weak attempt at either covering up the gaping hole or putting an almost-as-good item in place (like: a bathmat set down by the front door where that rug used to be).
Also, I got yelled at because that rustic wooden box had yucky insects in it. It was super disgusting, I agree with her there — but she totally wanted me to drop everything and decontaminate just so she could have her coffee table. Darling, part of growing up is learning to battle insects all on your own, thanks.
Final thing: The monogrammed pillow. That was made by the 14-year-old express for this project.
Let me explain to you about this.
My kids have had virtually unfettered access to sewing supplies, including a varying number of rescued sewing machines, over the years. Prior to the massive clean-out, this porch was heaped with a crazy-mountain of every kind of craft thing. I don’t even have any sewing things, at all, any more, because my children have stolen them so diligently that now it’s easier to just make them do the sewing, done. (I was never any good at it anyway).
If you want kids who craft — who really get good at developing their own style (I never, ever, monogram anything, no child picked up that habit from me), and thinking up a project and giving it a try, and eventually get to where they’re producing good adult-quality work — you have to let them make a mess.
Maybe you’re good at having them clean up after, maybe you’re not. (I’m not.) But you have to give them space, and let them experiment, and not be horrible about insisting every project be perfect all the time. As I write this, my nine-year-old is baking cupcakes. I just stay out of the room, and she can come ask me questions, and I’ll help her with putting things in and out of the oven when the time comes. If they don’t turn out — whatever. It was only cupcakes.
I let my kids play with paint, and now when I needed a patio table re-painted, I could trust a child to paint it as well as anybody. I let my kids play with food, and now my son cooks dinner as his primary household chore. My kids aren’t perfect. Everything they do doesn’t turn out golden every time. When my daughter took these photos, she carefully framed them to not show the less-pretty parts of our life.
That’s real life: Part beauty, part mess. Sometimes you really need to pay attention to the mess, and sometimes you need to sit back and enjoy the beautiful.
Photos by E. Fitz, used with permission, copyright 2016 all rights reserved.