One of the most difficult but most important tasks of parenthood is developing integrity in children. Here are some tips from three Catholic parents.
Live the right way
One of Deacon Michael Cihak’s daughters once gave him a card with a sentiment on it that struck him. “My dad didn’t tell me how to live my life. He just lived his, and let me watch.”
That’s why we pray, says Deacon Cihak of St. Mary Parish, Corvallis. “We love our kids so much, and we raise them the best we can.”
He and his wife, Susan, raised eight children, including Msgr. John Cihak, a priest of the Archdiocese of Portland who serves in Rome.
“I’m sure everyone tries to do their parenting as best they can, drawing on how they were raised,” he says.
That variety of experience and circumstance means the only answer to how to instill integrity in children is to pray and to teach by example.
“Use words sometimes,” he says, noting that St. Francis of Assisi originated that tip.
“You can sit the kids down and tell them about integrity, but if you don’t live it your words are hollow,” says Deacon Cihak.
He suggests parents live their lives so they can sleep at night.
“I’ve told my children that as well,” he says. “Try to act so that you won’t have to be worrying about this or that.”
Forgiveness plays a large part of what builds character in Deacon Cihak’s understanding of the Gospel.
Parents need to be forgiving, of themselves as well as of their children’s shortcomings.
“I tell kids who complain about their parents that they should have picked better parents,” he jokes.
“I made mistakes, but I never knowingly hurt my kids — I don’t know anyone who has. We make the best decisions we can with the limited choices we have.”
Take time to talk
Monica Williamson, a member of St. Matthew Parish in Hillsboro, says social media has added new challenges to raising children with integrity and character.
“I want my kids to be good, kind, generous, faithful people,” says the mother of three boys and two girls, who span from 7 to 17. But helping kids navigate the word of constant sharing and comparing is “one of the hardest parts of parenting,” adds Williamson, who with her husband sets clear limits on media use and allows only older children to have cellphones.
When discussing Facebook “likes” — which have the power to influence self-esteem at all ages — Williamson tells her kids: “You’re going to spend a lot of time with yourself, so make sure you’re the kind of person that you like and that you can be alone with.” That’s the kind of “like” that matters most, she says.
For her, building character revolves around communication. “I have a lot of conversations with my kids,” she says, adding with a laugh, “so many that they are probably sick of it.”
When Williamson drops her younger children off at St. Matthew School, she’ll remind them that “if you see someone looking sad or unhappy, reach out.”
She says the family’s decision to send her older children to Jesuit High School was an effort to help cultivate strong character.
To fuel all her parenting efforts, Williamson says she “spends an awful lot of time having quiet conversations with Jesus.”
“Sometimes I feel like I’m winging it, but I keep reminding myself that God knows how it’s going to turn out, and that takes off a lot of pressure.”
“The most important thing a parent can do is act with integrity,” says Jesús Gomez, who coaches Catholic Youth Organization swimming for Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Vancouver, Washington. “Children learn best by example. You can take a long time telling them how to behave, but if they don’t see you acting with integrity, that is lost.”
For example, when Gomez is approached by a swimmer who says there is a conflict with a teammate, he never says he will address the issue and then fail to do it.
“If a coach says, ‘OK, I have your back,’ and then does nothing, that child sees the coach not living out his words,” Gomez explains. “But if he sees the coach talking to the other kid, he feels he will be in a safe environment. That kid says, ‘This person is authentic.’”
It’s a good lesson to a child to admit when you have made a mistake, he adds.
Gomez — whose three children are in their teens and 20s — says integrity and trust are close allies.
A child needs to have faith in an adult before taking the courageous step of acting with integrity.
For example, if a child steps forward and admits she has spilled milk, and then is met with immediate and harsh reprimand, she may think twice before telling the truth again. It’s better if the parent acts calmly and eventually explains that consequences will need to follow a misdeed.
That said, levying consequences is an important part of developing integrity, Gomez says. A reprimand that is too minor or not carried out will give the child the idea that it’s possible to get away with lies or disobedience.
— Kristen Hannum, Katie Scott, Ed Langlois