The spiritual direction we receive comes early in our lives. And our parents, aware of it or not, contribute to our spiritual growth in ways far more practical than many a book may do later on. In fact, I would go so far as to say that many of our frustrations as parents occur because we fail to notice those key moments when our children need a spiritual director rather than the warden. But recognizing when we are dealing with spiritual realities is not enough either. As one mother put it, most days I feel more like my child’s exorcist than their spiritual director. Fair enough. But while there may be the rare or not so rare occasions for these so called exorcisms, the spiritual direction of our children is an ongoing reality that takes listening, discernment and guidance.
So if you haven’t thought about this already, here are some things to consider as you make a new start and actively accept the role that you have had all along.
Help them to understand their virtues and vices
Like the rest of us, children tend towards certain virtues and vices. And once they understand that these habits are at play within them, they can then work on minimizing or maximizing their effect.
It is amazing to see our children recognize this. In our house, we have found that between the ages of 4 and 5 the child can understand and point out their virtue or vice at work.
Further, we allow every person’s virtues and vices to be openly discussed, if it is to praise the virtue or help the person struggling with the temptation associated with the vice.
Give them the information they need
A large part of providing spiritual direction for our children is providing the information that they need to make informed choices about their decisions and behaviour. In particular, children need to know God’s Word as it is found in the Bible, the many and varied examples of the saints, as well as the moral law appropriate to their maturity and level of comprehension. While these areas are generally covered in any Catholic educational curriculum, it is still important that you, their spiritual director, ensure that your children have received it.
Teach them to listen
One of the nuggets of wisdom that was somehow passed on to me was a question, and I have been using it with my children from the very beginning. Whenever I find that my child is just not listening to my direction, my instruction, my warnings etc. I sit them down, look them in the eyes and ask, “How can you hear the voice of God the Father when you cannot hear your dad’s voice?”
This is helpful for the child but it is also helpful for me. Because while I would like to think that I am always calm, cool, and collected, I am pretty sure that my kids would disagree with me. By asking this question, it points me back to the reason for it all, that divine appointment that I have to live up to. I have to help them hear God’s voice.
Another way to do this is to ask quite simply at the dinner table, what did the Holy Spirit say to you today? Expect a response, even if it is I’m not sure. Your children may not know what the Spirit is saying to them, but they will start to listen more intensely for it. And if you do this on a daily basis, your children will come to learn that in their lives there is something to be listening for that is unlike everything else. Further, they will learn that this something, the whisperings of the Holy Spirit, is so important that it has the power to captivate the attention of mom and dad.
Give them the tools to evaluate their spiritual growth
An examination of conscience is so powerful. And when it is done at the end of each day, it has the ability to alter our habits for the better. But examinations of this kind are not just for adults, children need (and enjoy) them as well.
At least once a week I make it a point to sit down on my child’s bed and discuss their day with them. Our conversation is driven by questions: How was your day today? What was the hardest part of your day? Can you think of a time today where Jesus must have been very proud of you? How did you conquer your vice today? Did you do anything that you feel really bad about? If you could do something differently tomorrow to make it a better day, what would you do?
I always try to finish the conversation with this question though: How do you think I can be a better dad tomorrow? It is amazing the insights that they have, but it also lets them know that mom and dad want to become saints, and we need the help of others to get there.
Be available to them with no judgment
As you help your children to grow in the spiritual life, you will begin to see their strengths and weaknesses, challenges and victories in a whole new light. You will know them better, and they will know that you do.
It is precisely at these times when your children need to know that they can be safe with you. Spiritually, it is important for them to know that they can come to you even in the midst of their temptations and receive no judgment. Instead, you will offer a listening ear, tactical solutions, and possibly even reward for risking the embarrassment that often comes with revealing our vulnerabilities.
Dad, I really wanted to steal that cookie in the kitchen. But I didn’t, says child.
Wow, you resisted the temptation just like we talked about the other night. I am so proud of you. So how about you and I go and pick something out together. Maybe that will help you fight your vice even more.
Being a spiritual director is never easy, especially when you live with the person you are directing, but it has its own rewards. For one thing, we love these children, and it is amazing to see them mature spiritually right before our eyes.