There is a myth in some quarters that children are born as sweet, little things who, if left to their own devices, would develop into rational, altruistic beings who would establish a nation of light, peace and justice.
The reason we don't live in a perfect society, according to this line of thinking, is because of parents and society's institutions which drag these innocents into a conflagration of violence, prejudice and greed. It's the elders who are the source of the problem. Leave the kids alone and everything will work out just fine.
Fortunately, no society has tried to consistently live out this view of the child as the untouched innocent and the elder as the evil ogre. William Golding tried to describe such a society in his book The Lord of the Flies. By Golding's reckoning, a society of children without adults would rapidly descend into mayhem and murder. Well, what did he know? He's only a novelist.
Frankly, I don't think Golding is far from the mark. The baby is by nature the centre of his own universe. All he knows are his own feelings and desires. The mass murderer is not some innocent spoiled by well-intentioned parents, but rather someone who has emotionally never grown beyond babyhood. He is the only person in his own universe and everyone else had better watch out.
The role of the parent is to lead that potential killer to temper his or her reactions and desires and to have compassion for the world beyond the self.
It's an incredibly difficult job -- more of an art than a science. Every parent has to grapple with his or her own sinful inclinations, understand the uniqueness and potential of each child, and try to structure things so that the child gradually acquires something called self-discipline.
Parenting is like walking a tightrope. Impose too much external discipline and you squelch the child's spirit; apply too little and the child doesn't mature. If parents knew what they were biting into before they started to chew, many wouldn't have.
Most parents mess up regularly. Some mess up horribly and leave their children with a huge mountain to climb to get their lives in order. Ironically, those who were most messed up by their parents and who overcome the burdens of those early years seem to be among the most self-aware and compassionate people on the planet. They've refused to see themselves as victims and have climbed to great heights. There's hope for all of us.
The fourth commandment stands between the first three which talk about our relationship with God and the last six which focus on our relationship with our neighbour. The placement is not a coincidence. "Divine fatherhood is the source of human fatherhood," says the Catechism of the Catholic Church (no. 2214). If you honour God, you'll see your parents as God's messengers. Follow the fourth commandment faithfully and you'll do a good job of living out the last six commandments.
For some, this notion of parents as God's messengers may be too hard a pill to swallow. Their parents treated them horribly; why should they be honoured? Well, insofar as it's possible, they should be. They gave you life and made you what you are, good as well as bad. One should never honour the abusive and nasty characteristics of one's parents; but one should honour them because they are God's first representatives in one's life.
Further, the Catechism talks not only about the rights of parents and duties of children, but also about the duties of parents. Parents not only have a right to educate their children, but an obligation to do so. The Second Vatican Council said, "Their role as educators is so decisive that scarcely anything can compensate for their failure in it" (Declaration on Christian Education, 3). And Pope John Paul notes that "The commandment 'honour your father and mother' indirectly tells parents: Honour your sons and daughters" (Letter to Families, 15).
Part of "honouring" one's children is to hold them accountable to a moral code not of one's own making. Psychiatrist Hilde Bruch once yearned for "a father or mother who can say 'No' without going through an elaborate song and dance." The Catechism says parents can teach their children true freedom by providing "an apprenticeship in self-denial, sound judgment and self-mastery" (no. 2223).
We wouldn't need to bother with self-mastery if we were inherently good. We would just follow our desires and the world would be a better place for it.
Indeed, if one has a well-formed conscience and virtuous habits, one's desires and what is morally good may well be synonymous. Many people who get even close to that objective would say it's due in large part to -- not in spite of -- having had good parents.
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