Dr. Greg Popcak is the author of more than 20 books and conducts an active Catholic telephone counseling practice through the Pastoral Solutions Institute. An adjunct professor of psychology and theology at Franciscan University, he and his wife, Lisa, host More2Life Radio and were featured speakers at the 2015 World Meeting of Families. Learn more at http://www.CatholicCounselors.com
Moms and dads, I want to let you in on a secret. You don't need permission from your children's coaches, teachers, youth ministers, scout leaders, etc, etc, etc, to have a family life. All those people have to ask YOU permission to borrow your kids. NOT the other way around.
At my wife and my recent presentation at the World Meeting of Families, the above statement earned an unexpected ovation. In our talk, we asserted the completely counter-cultural and Catholic idea that family life, itself, is an activity and not an accessory. We are used to having a family life but working at everything else; school, sports, work, lessons, you name it. We have time for everything except working, praying, talking, and praying as a family. Worse, we have all come to accept this as normal and necessary when it is anything but.
Family: The School of Humanity
Family life has never been perfect, but it would not be overly nostalgic to note that as little as a generation or two ago, it was assumed that family life was the place where people learned to be human beings. Family life was the place where socialization occurred, where children and parents developed a sense of purpose, meaning, and values. Family constituted people's primary and most important relationship—in reality, not just in name. Children were permitted to participate in extra-curricular activities to the degree that they did not infringe too much on family meals, church, and other important family rituals.
Three generations of the culture of divorce have destroyed this idea. Today, about 41% of all children are born to unmarried women and about half of children have a step-sibling. In an age where so many people's experience of family life has been radically disrupted, almost every family—including intact families—have fallen prey to the idea that socialization, meaning, purpose, values, direction and significant relationships are supposed to happen outside the home while the family home is reduced to a train station where people pass each other on the way to the really important activities. Research notes that Millennials score higher on measures of narcissism than any other generation before them, but if that's true, it's only because we parents have all but closed the doors on meaningful family life—which the Church tell us is the School of Humanity where we all learn the virtues that help us live life as a gift (Evangelium Vitae).
We Should Do What?!?
Even suggesting to listeners of my radio program that they need to carve out regular time each day as a family to work together, play together, talk with each other and pray together is met with an almost existential level of angst. "HOW are we supposed to find time to do ALL THAT?!?" Catholic families have swallowed the secular lie that if our children are not enrolled in 3000 activities on Wednesday evening that we are depriving them and that they will be social outcasts if not completely socially inept. But what makes a person socially inept is not whether or not they know how to steal a base, but rather whether or not they know how to be a good husband and father, mother and wife. Such lessons can only be taught in the School of Humanity that is family life.
None of this is to knock extra-curricular activities. Sports, music lessons, classes and community involvements can play an important role in creating a fulfilling life. But when these things threaten the primary work of the family, it is time to make a change. I would like to suggest that it is time for Catholic parents to evangelize the culture—and insist on re-humanizing society—by reclaiming our families in three simple (if not necessarily easy) steps.
Take Back Your Family in 3 Steps
First, ask yourselves, "If we were to carve out a least a little bit of time (say, 15-20 minutes each) to work, play, talk, and pray together, each day what would we do?" Come up with a short list of ideas yourself, then discuss it as a family. Start doing some of those things now—even periodically—so that your family can get used to the idea of being intentional about being together.
Second, begin thinking of extra-curricular activities—including your own—as secondary to the need to make time to work, play, talk, and pray together as a family. If you actually gave yourself permission to prioritize your family life—as your Church asks you to—what else would there be time for? Perhaps the answer is "not much." That's OK. Your family is the single most important activity you can do in the course of your week. Start giving yourself permission to think of this as if it was.
Third, start setting boundaries. Tell your kids' coaches that your kids won't be attending practices or games when they conflict with family commitments—especially your family's commitment to attend mass together. Tell the various ministry heads to schedule you for reading, altar serving, and cantoring at the same Mass. You do not need their permission or approval. It is YOUR family that is at stake. Not theirs. Make them work around you, not the other way around.
It's time to start a revolution for the family. Chances are, the people you have let think they own your children won't like it. Tough. Revolutions are never easy. But in light of Pope Francis' witness at the World Meeting of Families, perhaps the best way to create a "Culture of Encounter" that brings Christ to the world is to simply do what he says and finally make time to "waste time with your children."