What children understand to be true, good and beautiful is profoundly shaped by what their parents invite them to see, hear, taste and feel.
The greatest threat to children today? Their parents. An exaggeration? Let’s see. Parents are the premier guardians of their children, and the gateway to their souls and bodies. Do our children appear spiritually, morally and physically healthy, well on their way to fruitful and God-pleasing maturity?
Following a terrorist attack at a recent pop music concert in England, I did a bit of research on the music parents buy for their young children and the concerts to which they take their children. I found lyrics that are so obscene that I dare not quote them here. I found videos of onstage “dancing" at these concerts that can only be described as simulations of sex acts. This is what parents are permitting, paying for and even sharing with their children.
The senses are the gateway to the soul. What passes through the five senses enters the memory and imagination, affecting the intellect, the will and the heart. What the children understand to be true, good and beautiful is profoundly shaped by their early sensory experiences, especially those endorsed by the authority of their parents. What happens to children who are taught by their parents to sing of group sex while watching live “soft pornography" onstage at a concert?
I had planned to write, “Parents would not allow their children to eat poisonous food—so how can they allow their children to consume poison for their soul?" But that’s not quite right. The epidemic of childhood obesity in the United States shows otherwise. Children cannot eat junk and cannot live an unhealthy, sedentary lifestyle without at least tacit parental permission. The effects of physical malnutrition are readily apparent; what about the effects of spiritual malnutrition?
I spent 20+ years teaching young adults who arrived at university with malformed habits of mind and heart. Permitted to consume whatever the popular culture offered, aided by parental acquiescence and finance, these troubled men and women struggled with and often failed to benefit from the intellectual, moral, spiritual and social opportunities that a good university education can offer. They wasted years and a lot of money.
The sources of the sickness they’re absorbing isn’t limited to food and popular culture—there’s an ecclesial sickness too. If parents make available to their children beautiful churches and worthy worship, children will be able to draw certain conclusions about God and the Catholic faith. If children see only ugly churches and shoddy worship, children will be able to draw a different set of conclusions about God and the Catholic faith.
So much for lamentations—how about recommendations? Let’s start by noting the gravity of the situation: God will surely ask us about how we formed our children who are really his children. Teachers, parishes, family, but above all parents have a decisive role to play. The physical, moral and spiritual health of our children will be thoroughly shaped by what we allow, foster, approve and concede, both explicitly and implicitly.
Especially in early years, what shapes the souls of children is what parents allow to enter the senses. Their moral imagination will be shaped by what they see and hear. Love among family members, stories of saints and heroes, a fervent sense of Sabbath and holy days, habits of prayer and sacraments, can foster souls able to grow into readiness for Heaven. What is likely to grow in the absence of all these?
Let’s turn to prayer. We need to intercede for our children with a most fierce and stubborn love, to protect them from a world that would seduce and enslave them, and from spiritual enemies that would poison their souls against God.
Let’s turn to those who have been getting it right. I think of parents I know who have been reading to their children nightly since infancy. A few years later, their children would find it unthinkable to end the day without books. I think of a family whose after-dinner entertainment for years was reading aloud together The Lord of the Rings, a chapter at a time.
Let’s turn to wise people for diagnosis, prescriptions and guidance. Start with Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death. Then turn to Senior’s The Death of Christian Culture, which includes a list of 1000 (!) good books to read with your children between the ages of 2 and 18. Follow up with his The Restoration of Christian Culture, which offers Saint Benedict and Our Lady as role models.
Make no mistake. There is a battle on for the souls of our children. It seems to me now that the world, the flesh and the devil are winning. It is time for all of us, parents, families, friends, schools and parishes, to fight back.
When I write next, I will speak of meeting people who give me hope. Until then, let’s keep each other in prayer.
You can hear Fr. McTeigue discuss this piece with radio host Drew Mariani, here
Father Robert McTeigue, SJ, is a member of the Maryland Province of the Society of Jesus. A professor of philosophy and theology, he has taught and lectured in North and Central America, Europe and Asia and is known for his classes in both rhetoric and medical ethics. He has long experience in spiritual direction, retreat ministry and religious formation and is a member of the National Ethics Committee of the Catholic Medical Association. His book on preaching, “I Have Someone to Tell You: A Jesuit Heralds the Gospel" is now available at Amazon in both paperback and electronic form.