Building Character: Children & Parents

Fr. Wilmar Zabala

22 October 2006


There is so much competition these days! There's so much pressure to get ahead. There's no group of people feeling this pressure the most than today's parents. If you’re parents raising kids today, I admire you. I really do. It’s tough to raise kids these days. It scares the heck out of me when I see on television or read in the newspaper what some parents are doing these days to get their kids ahead and therefore do better than everyone else.

For example, many parents these days, particularly mothers, feel pressured to put on a production for their child’s birthday. It starts at age one, when the party is clearly not for the kid. I know a couple — and they aren’t from the Tri-Cities, by the way — who spent $700 on their child’s first birthday. They rented the Community Center and catered a lunch for 30 people. And, of course, the kid had a meltdown!

These days, it seems like we define what good parents are by what they buy for their kids and what experiences they create for them. So even parents who aren’t materialistic in terms of spoiling kids with too many things often spoil them with too many experiences. The norms of our consumer culture are really affecting the way parents are raising their kids: More is better. Bigger is better. Super-size it. Super-size birthday parties.

Youth sports is another place where this getting ahead plays out. Here’s an example, a classic Minnesota example. The local hockey association sent a letter to the parents of every 6-year old boy saying: “We’ve noticed your son is not yet in hockey.” Listen to the language: It’s as if he hasn’t been vaccinated! The letter continued: “We just thought you should know that if you don’t get him into hockey, you can basically kiss away his chances for the high school varsity team.”

So, you have this little poor kid, and you don’t know what his potential is. But why would you deprive him of that possibility? So you get him into hockey, and early on, it’s mild, but five years later, you realize you’ve handed away your family life.

I find it quite interesting but sad that these days we find it very difficult to surrender to teachers, to clergy, to physicians, to the traditional authority figures. We view them as working for us. But the people who select our kids for teams and can supply these great once-in-a-lifetime experiences, we do surrender to them.

Parents will chew a teacher out for giving too much homework or for giving their kid a “B.” Parents will complain about too many requirements for their kids to receive the sacraments, but they will not question the coach who says, “All the three-day weekends this year are going to be spent at tournaments.” In our intention to help make our kids the greatest and the first, we’re turning them into people who feel that they’re entitled, that things should be handed to them, that other adults like their very own parents are there to serve their needs.

If we really want to get our kids ahead and therefore be the first and the greatest, then we might want to listen to what Jesus has to say in today’s gospel reading: “Whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all.”

Now, that’s quite the opposite of what our individualistic culture teaches us — that the focus is on our needs and our happiness! I wonder how many parents consistently teach their children that, yes, they have rights, but they also have responsibilities to the family and to the common good. I wonder how many parents consistently encourage their children to volunteer, not only because it’s good for their development, but, most importantly, because it’s something they as citizens ought to do for the good of their community. I wonder how many parents consistently say to their kids that we build character and depth when we make sacrifices and when we’re able to cope with powerlessness, inferiority, and humiliation, not when we score goals in a football game, not when we win awards at school, or not when we’re so beautiful that we become icons for an adoring public.

Isn’t a certain prior suffering and humiliation always the condition for glory? Don’t we all, like Cinderella, first have to sit in the ashes before the glass slipper will fit our feet? Isn’t precisely when we are vulnerable and unable to impress or overpower others that we are finally open to intimacy, love, and family? Aren’t self-sacrifice and self-denial, in the end, the way real love manifests itself?

I wonder, I really do, how many parents consistently teach their kids that it’s okay to be vulnerable; that it’s okay to depend on somebody for our well-being; that it’s okay to lose; that it’s okay to be powerless and humiliated. Powerlessness, inferiority, vulnerability, and humiliation indeed build character. Ultimately, it’s the example we show as parents that will help make our children truly become the greatest that we want them to be.

What kind of example will that be? That example will be whether or not we can show them that we can drink the cup.

I was recently made to see what this drinking the cup truly looks like. I did ask permission from this person, a parishioner, to use his personal story in my homily. This man went to a men-only gathering at a downtown hotel. He’s been married for several years, and he found himself attracted to one of the hotel managers, an attractive woman, with whom he had to deal all evening in terms of arranging food, music, and drink. She was attracted to him too, and, though nothing other than practical talk passed between them during the evening, the romantic chemistry intensified.

As the evening was ending, both did what comes naturally. They lingered near each other, not knowing what to say, but sensing a special connection they were reluctant to break off. They covered this by making practical talk about cleaning-up the room and settling the bills. Finally, the moment came to part. This man stalled, thanking her yet again for her help and graciousness, and, she, not wanting to lose the moment said to him, “I very much enjoyed meeting you. Would you like to get together again sometime?” This man, guiltily fingering his wedding ring and apologizing for not being more forthright earlier, did what few of us have the moral courage to do. He drank the cup and said: “I’m sorry. I am married. I should have made that clearer. I need to go home to my wife.”

That’s what drinking the cup looks like!

Whenever we stop flirting with an attractive, romantic possibility because we are already committed to someone or something else, when we go home because that’s where fidelity calls us, we’re drinking the cup that Jesus drank. Whenever we willingly, without resentment, give up some of our freedom, renounce dreams for a career, accept that we will never now be able to achieve some of the things we might have accomplished, because children, family, church, and other needs have their constrictive rope around us, we’re drinking the cup that Jesus drank. Whenever we willingly, without resentment, accept that some wonderful, legitimate opportunity for pleasure and enjoyment cannot be ours because something else is calling us to a deeper place, when we accept to settle for less because of the demand of higher things, we’re drinking the cup that Jesus drank. Whenever we decide to do something purely for the sake of conscience, to do what is right even when everything inside of us screams at its unfairness, we’re drinking the cup that Jesus drank.

My spiritual director in the seminary, a man of great morals, once said: “Unless you can sweat blood, you’ll never keep a commitment in marriage, in priesthood, or anywhere. That’s what it takes!”

If we really want to help make our kids be the greatest, then let’s show them that we can sweat blood, that we can drink the cup, and that it’s true that “whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all.”


Copyright 2007 by Fr. Wilmar Zabala