Discipline for Life
Habits ingrain either vice or virtue. Most adults are a mixed vessel of both. Focusing on the virtuous adult, one can often see their growth in virtue stretching back in time to childhood. Today, Catholic parents can ensure that their children grow in virtue by instilling consistent discipline, not only as a consequence administered for bad behavior, but as an overall discipline of life.
Discipline as a way of life is a consistent regimen of self-restraint combined with occasional consolations, or rewards. It is a balanced, deliberate, and careful way of life. How can Catholic parents raise their children with this balance of discipline without pushing them too hard and thus driving them out of the Church?
Pause occasionally to reflect on your child’s future. You are raising a future Catholic adult. Your child is not your own; this is a child of God, and He has entrusted you with the child’s care. You are the one responsible for this child’s upbringing, his Catholicity, his innocence, and his virtues. You are the one who needs to instill a consistent prayer life. At the same time, the child’s faith must eventually grow to be his own. If an older adolescent only goes to Sunday Mass to fulfill his parents’ wishes, by age 21 he will no longer darken the door of a church.
Thus, the motivation for instilling discipline in your family must be love. The theological virtue of charity is your guiding light. This animates everything, from the constant compromising of your will to maintain harmony with your spouse, to dragging your exhausted body upstairs to kiss the kids good night, as well as everything else you do in your family life.
Discipline is a tiered process that flows in proper order. When any level is wanting, it affects everything below it. The first level is you. How disciplined are you?
There is a link between individual temperance and the ability to instill discipline in others. More temperance makes it easier to discipline others. Less temperance in oneself makes it more difficult to exact discipline in others, and especially in the various areas of your life.
St. Thomas Aquinas discussed temperance as one of the four cardinal virtues. Aquinas taught that prudence is in the intellect and justice in the will, but temperance and fortitude are in the sensory appetites. You need fortitude to temper your sensual appetite (an “appetite” here is your inclination toward pleasure and ease). You need to temper your appetite to be effective in guiding others toward a disciplined, virtuous life. In your own life, fasting, patience, humility, hard work, modesty, and abstinence may all be viewed as daughters of the virtue of temperance. These attributes are how temperance is practiced.
One might think that he may simply commit a mortal sin with impunity, or perhaps succumb to temptations of lesser sins because they are “private” and do not affect anyone else. This is not the case for a parent. Your imperfections, sins, and bad habits directly impact your children in two ways. The first, and more malignant, impact on your family is direct harm. By damaging your own soul, you also thereby cause harm to the souls of your spouse and children.
A material analogy is a parent who goes out and spends grocery money on vice. The children thus go hungry and directly suffer. When a parent commits actual sin, the children go spiritually and morally hungry. Demons thus see a way to get in your household. It may become harder for you to assert your parental authority because you lost, even temporarily, the Holy Ghost’s gifts of fortitude and piety. Life becomes harder. It seems harder to discipline the children. It seems that God’s angelic shell of protection over your family has cracked. Who cracked it?
The second consideration is what is lost. Sin and virtue are mutually exclusive. When you sin, you are not practicing virtue that will benefit your family. Thus, the secondary impact of sin is lost graces which are not bestowed upon your family.
A Disciplined Marriage
If the first level of discipline is the self, the second level for parents is sacramental matrimony. Marriage is like a business in that it never stays the same. It is always either growing or dying. There is no such thing as “maintenance mode” in matrimony. You either continue to work at it or the relationship begins to grow cold. Again and again. This requires discipline. Fortitude. Diplomacy. Patient communication. It requires true Christian charity for your spouse. Can you expect your children to obey you and grow in Catholic virtue if you no longer express love and respect for your spouse?
This is why it is so important to make time for your spouse. Find ways to build up both your affectionate love and spiritual love for each other. Affectionate love is a natural love that one mind has for another, but spiritual love is a supernatural love that one soul has for another, for the love of the God who created them both. Affectionate and spiritual love are necessary in marriage and require consistent attention each week.
Thus, discipline in the marital relationship can be practiced, among many other examples, by having a consistent date night each week, devotional practices the two of you perform together, mutual leisure activities on a consistent basis, and regular prayers for each other.
Discipline of Children
After self-discipline and a disciplined marriage comes the discipline of your children. This may be seen on the natural level as a combination of positive motivation (rewards, encouragement) and negative motivation (punishment, fear of offending, fear of punishment).
On a higher level, discipline of children should be regarded as a long-term plan of life and mode of being. What does a disciplined child look like? On the playground, or on a sports team in the heat of play, the difference between the disciplined and undisciplined child may not be apparent. This is because discipline is a balance and not necessarily rigid. Children need a lot of time outdoors to simply be themselves. Put both children in a theater, music hall, medical office lobby, or a church, and the difference is striking.
The parent who does not instill a disciplined life does no favors for the child. The child who grows to adulthood requires a lot of tenacity, fortitude, and sacrifice to conquer oneself and overcome the inflamed passions of young adulthood. These character traits may be seen as gifts from the parent who consistently trained the child for the child’s sake and out of love of God, regardless of how tired the parent felt or whatever else the parent wanted to do. When Johnny needs corrected, just do it! Forget whatever you are working on or the conversation in which you are engaged. Your child needs you right now.
Perhaps the final tier of discipline after that of self, marriage, and children, would be the proper operation of the household. This would include both the unity and microculture of the family, as well as its smooth operation as a domestic entity. Household concerns are a purely natural topic and thus outside the scope of this article. How the nuclear family presents itself, however, follows the lead of the family’s head.
It is not a Catholic practice for mom, dad, and each child to come and go as they please, each family member engrossed in his own video game or concern, without having consistent time together as a whole family. Families that operate in this separated manner practice a sort of functional divorce. A truly Catholic family eats at least one meal together daily, as long as your occupational circumstances allow it. A truly Catholic family performs lengthy, meaningful activities together as a family, even if they are only once or twice a year, such as day trips or deliberate planning of board games.
The more cohesive, united activities you deliberately ingrain into your family’s life, the less likely that you and your spouse will divorce. These unified activities also form the child’s character for the rest of his life. You want to deliberately, but perhaps subtly, build your child’s habits of virtue, guiding their leisure activities as well as their moral and faith formation. You as the Catholic parent will thus give back to God what He lent to you: A beautiful Catholic soul, created to love and be loved.
The four cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude are critical not only to you as an individual but for your marriage and family life. Discipline for life must begin and end with you. Your spouse and especially your children will reflect and manifest your virtues—or your vices. Consider the fact that sin is essentially choosing the self over God. Virtue is choosing God over self. Which choice ultimately gives your soul more peace?
The disciplined soul is a serene soul and naturally attracts others. St. John Bosco’s “preventive method” of education only worked because the saint’s virtues were attractive to those rough, undisciplined boys. Eventually the boys wanted to be good, disciplined, and educated on their own. That’s the preventive method: To make children want to behave. Applied to your family, your own practice of virtue will similarly be the foundation for your family’s disciplined way of life.