Fr. Emmanuel Chijioke Ogbuowelu ( firstname.lastname@example.org)
Honour your father and your mother so that your days may be long in the land which the Lord your God gives you (Exodus 20:12). Though the Catechism of the Catholic Church extends this law of obedience to superiors and authorities, this write-up focuses strictly on the relationship between the children and their parents in the light of the fourth commandment.
The Oxford Advanced Learners Dictionary defines honour as great respect and admiration for somebody. The Catechism of the Catholic Church calls respect for parents, filial piety (CCC 2215). It defines filial respect as true docility and obedience (CCC 2216). In explaining these two attributes, it quotes Proverb 6:20-22. “my son keep your father’s commandments and forsake not your mother’s teaching….when you walk they will lead, when you lie down they will watch over you and when you awake they will talk with you.”
There is an Igbo adage that supports, unequivocally, the notion that a child must be under the complete direction of the elders – whatever an elder saw sitting down, even if a child climbs a tree she cannot see it. In most Igbo families, it is parents that decide the wives or husbands of their children. It is equally the parents that decide the occupation of their children. It may not be a deniable fact that a few persons, who may have followed their parents’ suggestions even in the choice of profession and marriage partners are enjoying their lives today.
The above method apparently maintains order in the family. It apparently promotes obedience and respect for authority as a legitimate source of rules and regulations. It equally reduces anxiety from the parents since the child dances to their rules and regulations. Gradually the child learns that he is good when he is approved by the authority. It also feels bad when it is reprimanded for an offence. Thus authoritarian method that sees the development of a child as obedience to authority’s rules and regulations and avoidance of evil produces a self, composed of direction, strength and unquestioned values and attitude of the authority figures, who looks for a “significant other” for approval.
How can an adult who when he was a child was formed with an authoritarian model that provides everything for the child through the restriction of initiative and multiplication of rules, automatically develop the capacity for a trusting relationship to dialogue with the parents as the Catechism of the Catholic Church states? Even in such a dialogue, the adult will most of the time end up in slavish service of the parents’ initiative or the child simply goes to the parents, a “significant other” to seek approval before any decision making. In the critical analysis, we end up having robots as adults who cannot make their own decisions because they will be dancing to the tune or programme of rules and regulations laid down by authorities. Thus the adult ends up lacking inner strength, self-acceptance, initiative and competence.
It is common to find a lot of wives and husbands regretting their marriage and becoming mad at themselves for having allowed their mothers or fathers to decide it for them. It is not uncommon to find priests, doctors or lawyers who at best can be described as neurotics because their parents decided their profession for them. Most common is the fact of indecisive Christians who come all the time to priests for ‘already made’ answers and decisions to almost all issues and situations in life.
In the gospel of Luke 2:41-51, we find Mary and Joseph finding the lost Jesus in the temple, inquiring from him why he had treated them in that manner. Jesus responded –Do you not know I must be in my father’s house? Mary must have felt so sad. Is it not fitting that Jesus should obey his inner calling in order to fulfil his mission? Here, we see Jesus’ initiative, confidence and sense of autonomy threatened by the anxious love of his parents; Is Jesus going to remain under Mary and Joseph forever? His parents were very anxious; they were more interested in the safety of Jesus than in his development. In the gospel of John, we find Jesus rebuking his disciples to leave the children to come to him because the kingdom of heaven is of the people like them. This approval of children by Jesus shows that children’s initiative and contribution are not to be compromised; they are not unimportant. If children are those who make it to heaven are we not to emulate and love them and not to foreclose their decisions all the time?
“And going on a little farther, he saw James, the son of Zebedee and John his brother who were in their boat mending the nets. And immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired servants and followed him” (Mark 1:19-20). I wonder how Zebedee could leave his sons to follow Christ. The passage did not tell us that they took permission from their father. Imagine how the father would have felt at losing his precious and hardworking sons. He would have felt so sad.
Jesus wants mature Christians and that is why he left us with the free-will either to choose him or to reject him. There are some people in the gospel of Luke 9:59-62 he called to be his disciples, they gave reasons, and he did not force them. I do not think Zebedee would have had sons as saints if he had stopped them. I do not think that if Jesus had remained under the custody of Virgin Mary he would have redeemed us. According to Fr. John Powell, “all of us must have the liberty to make our own decisions and our own mistakes, to live with them and to learn from them. There is simply no other way to become mature (J. Powell 1989)”. Peter denied Jesus three times and later became Pope. Mary Magdalene of whom seven demons were cast out as recorded in Luke 8:1, later became the first person to see Jesus after his resurrection.
To be sure, the general principles of Christian morality seem not to provide any immediate answers in all particular moral situations. These conditions remind our priests that they should not continue to form indecisive Christians (already formed through restriction of initiatives and multiplication of rules and regulations in most cases) who come all the time for already made answers and decisions to issues and situations.
Congar recommends that though the priest has to come into the picture of people’s problem and be the faithful mouthpiece of the Church’s teaching, he should do all he can to enter into people’s problems and help them to think practically, with God’s eye upon them; not deciding for them but helping them to think (Congar 1965).
This means that authority should be seen as a source of growth and not merely a means of laying down rules and regulations. Every indication of autonomy and initiative on the part of the child is approved, appreciated and returned to its owner as a permanent feature of its own competence, strength, independence and personal value. When things go wrong, they are recognized as such but the child is not invested with the sense of badness; fear or guilt plays a minor educational role. Since education among other things is forming character from the inside, not the dictated character of Eton and Harrow and grammar school (A.S Neil 1990). How can all this be done?
The schooling of the child is perhaps the most important issue on which the church and society has concentrated. Though the intellectual and physical development of the child is important, but emotional development is the most important of all.
It should however be noted that the physical, social and emotional life of a new child depends largely on the parents. The material needs of the child, its attitudes and values, its social experience which he uses in his environments are largely from the parents. The psychological disciplines have shown conclusively that the mind and will are no separate entities but faculties operating in and through the whole person and as such are influenced by the feelings the person has about himself and others. This feeling depends on the parents since the first decade of a child’s life is one of emotional growth.
Freud and most psychologists have posited that the first experience of a new child is dependence. Its response to such an experience is trust. The parents vested with responsibility to provide this trust should do so by providing the qualities of continuity, predictability and reliability; authoritarian mode that says this and does another, thus creating conflict in ‘trust’ development of the child. This trust is followed by autonomy.
This autonomy Erikson, an American psychoanalyst places at second and third years of the child’s life (Erickson 1963). The authority here which is largely the mother has the chance to allow the child to learn by trial and error and at its own pace. If the parent feels the child is learning too slowly or too fast and tries to force or restrict it, it damages the child capacity for exploration and verification. In treating failure, the child should not be invested with the sense of shame and sadness; otherwise he develops oversensitive or scrupulous conscience.” But if each failure is to be minimized and every success reinforced with approval, then the rudiments of self esteem and a positive acceptance of self is established” (J. Dominian 2008).
Within the fourth and fifth year of the child is the development of initiative and guilt. Hence the child, who has acquired independence, explores his home and neighbour, thus, raising anxiety on the part of the parents. The necessary limits to be imposed for child safety are to be differentiated from those which serve to minimize the parents’ anxiety. And according to J. Dominiam, often authority creates authoritarian personality which needs to control in order to feel safety.
The child brought up this way (authority as a source of growth and service through love) to adolescent age enters smoothly into a new relationship with the parents, a relationship which does not reject the parents but reflect equality of love. Similarly, such a person enters into a relationship with God his creator, not as a God who is with stick waiting to punish every offender, but the God of love; the God who in his infinite love entered into a new relationship of love with man through incarnation. Thus Jesus will say ‘I no longer call you slaves or servants but friends’(John15:15). This relationship of love with God does not in any way diminish God’s transcendental attributes; neither does it dismiss His immanence.
Thus authority as a source of growth for the child through service of love encourages spiritual growth, realization of one’s potential and good sense of autonomy. Accordingly, such a person reflects God’s image: a mysterious reality of autonomy, self acceptance, self love and as a result total availability in love to others.
This essay has tried to see briefly how the Catechism of the Catholic Church instructs parents to train their children. It recognizes the fact that children’s sense of worth is more important than intellectual and physical development. It admonishes parents to train their children not by multiplication of rules and restriction of initiative but by love, approval and an understanding attitude towards failure on the part of the child. Such a child smoothly enters into a loving relationship with God and the parent as an adult. Hence he reflects the image of God who came to establish a relationship of love with us. He or she becomes like God not in absolute power and authority but in absolute love which is his nature.