Mr. Shaun McAfee, O.P. is the author of Reform Yourself! and other books, is the founder and editor of EpicPew.com, and contributes to many online Catholic resources. He holds a Masters in Dogmatic Theology from Holy Apostles College and Seminary. Shaun has made his temporary profession as a Lay Dominican and temporarily lives in Italy.
Fathering Catholic children is something I am still in the process of doing. They are: newborn, 2, 4, and 6 years old (the oldest two are going on 5 and 7 very soon). Given this, I’ve still got several years ahead of me until they’re free birds and making decisions on their own. Actually, scratch that—a Catholic father never stops being a father. But you get the point: the kids are still under my roof and they’re under my authority.
Not just authority, they’re under my example.
I was reminded of this recently when my kid lied to me. It was over something small. And this isn’t one of those instances where his blood sugar was low, he was tired, it was the end of the day, and he temporarily misremembered. No, my son flat out knew the truth and withheld it from me. Even worse, he told me something that wasn’t true in order to conceal the facts from me. That’s an elaborate definition of a lie, something you might say to adults, but my son definitely knew it was a lie—like when you ask them if they ate the cookies and they say no but the wrapper under their bed and the crumbs on the floor and the chocolate smear on their cheeks tell a different story.
Oh, I remember now. I’m working in another room and I hear “HEY!” then a *whack* after which some plastic slams to the floor and crying ensues.
“. . .”
“Did he hit you?”
“Did you hit him?”
“Well he says you hit him and I heard it, so what happened?”
“. . .”
Yeah, this is going nowhere. I knew the truth and persisted to ask him a question I knew he didn’t want to answer. And, if I know 6-year-olds—after being a crazy one myself—I know that he knows that I know.
Realizing this all within the same .5 seconds, I decided to change direction and confront him about hitting his brother, and explain how that is not tolerable behavior in our house, the hitting, and also the lying. Perhaps a moment of leniency from me, but the situation is resolved (somewhat) and life goes on.
Then, not ten minutes later I remember that I didn’t even have the chance to ask him how his day in school went. I will know if he behaved well and followed in instructions based on the color he reports, similar to a stop light. “Hey now did you do in school today?”
“. . .”
Wife: “He got a red. His teacher said he purposely stomped on someone’s foot.”
I immediately remember to not over react, but I demonstrate my great disapproval. We have a short talk about the incident and I proceed to explain his punishment. Crying ensued, which I expected. But what he said next, I could not handle.
“I hate myself! I’m the worst kid! I am never going to do things right.”
I know, especially after sharing this story that other parents have heard their kids say this. And judging from their reaction, the tone of their “oh, my kid does that, too” and the nodding with eyebrows raised to indicate its “normal,” the same look you get when you ask if someone wants tacos for lunch, like, “yes, exactly,” I can tell that many parents might see no issue here.
But I do.
I immediately got on my knees to his level, grabbed his shoulders, whipped his tears and lifted his chin to see me better. “Son, it’s good to feel bad when you do bad things. That’s shame and it shows that you recognize you did the wrong thing, and that you are sorry for it. But son, you are not a bad kid, and although what you did is not good, it does not mean I don’t love you.”
*Sobs and looks up*
“Son, you know the devil? Well what he wants is for you to hate yourself by making you feel like you can’t be loved, like the things you do are so bad that I can’t love you. That will never happen.”
*starts to wipe some tears*
“And you know what? He doesn’t just want you to hate yourself. Satan hates God, but Satan can’t hurt God. He knows that the worst he can do to God is to hurt God’s people, by taking them away from God. And you know how he does that?”
“By making them believe God doesn’t love them, by convincing them that God won’t forgive them. And that will never happen.”
“. . .”
“You are loved. I love you, God loves you. Nothing will ever stop that” and I hugged him.
Now he is too young, but I was going to add, “And you know, he does all of this because he wants you to throw away your life with God. If he can’t convince you that God doesn’t exist, then he’ll convince you that God doesn’t love you. He wants to make you hopeless. And there’s nothing he was love more than for you to jump out that window so that you die in that hopelessness. You see, disliking your sins is good, but causing it to believe that that is who you are, that you are a bad person, is a grave error.”
This is a true story, and I was visually struck when my son said he hated himself. He was six, he didn’t mean it, but what if he goes on thinking that even the hint of that notion is reasonable? What if any parent leaves this notion unchecked and uncorrected.
It was a lenient moment. Sometimes I move immediately to correction and punishment, but when he said that I had to stop everything and make sure that it was amended while it was fresh in his mind. I’m not a perfect father, but if there is one thing I consider essential to raising my sons, it’s the conviction that their image of God the Father, will inevitably come down to their image of their earthly father. And therefore, I want that to be one of mercy and justice together, with the guarantee of forgiveness at any moment and measure of contrition.