Matt and Ginny Smith are passionate about life.
Years ago, when the Watertown, Wis., couple were preparing for marriage, they studied natural family planning, looked for ways to counteract the culture of death and prayed for a big family.
God answered: As their anniversaries grew in number, so did their offspring. Today they have nine children, ranging in age from 25 to 7.
Through the years, they’ve expressed their gratitude for the answered prayers by staying involved in the respect-for-life movement. And by getting their kids involved, too.
Along the way, the Smiths have shown, by example, how to make pro-life activities a family enterprise — one that builds up participating families as beautifully as it benefits the pro-life cause.
“We’d pack up the kids even when they were really little to take part in the pro-life chain and sidewalk counseling,” says Ginny. “There we’d be, marching on the sidewalk with these little kids. We never questioned their involvement. It was a given.”
That hit a bump when some of the groups began using large and graphic visual displays during marches and counseling. The Smiths felt forced to reconsider how best to stand up for life as a family.
“As a mother, I had to think about protecting my own children,” Ginny recalls. “We wanted to remain active in the movement, but not at the expense of the children’s innocence.”
Determined to find another way, the Smiths joined with others in their community and started their own pro-life group. (Providentially, all the members were Catholic.) The group looked for family-friendly initiatives to promote the pro-life message — and found plenty.
The children pitched in according to their abilities and maturity. Some helped with mailings. Others pitched in when it came to organizing prayer services, erecting memorials to the unborn, soliciting baby items and holding baby showers for unwed and adoptive mothers. The older children participated in public forums and events.
“Their understanding of pro-life issues,” Ginny says, “grew with their understanding of biology.”
Never Too Soon to Start
Two key questions arise for every pro-life parent looking to involve the children: When and how much?
It’s never too soon to inculcate kids with love for life and respect for its sacredness. And all Catholic parents ought to be raising up joyful and courageous disciples of Christ. But little eyes and ears can be introduced too soon to the purity-robbing immorality that drives so many proponents of unlimited abortion. (Not to mention the complexity and confusion that attend public debates on medical research and end-of-life situations.)
“You know your kids better than anybody else,” says Dr. Ray Guarendi, the popular childrearing expert and Register columnist who is a pro-life dad to 10 of his own. “Use your intuition and prudential judgment.”
Guarendi recommends that young children, along with sensitive pre-teens, be kept away from activities at which violence or graphic materials might be used. Stay completely away, he advises, from potentially volatile situations: Children don’t have to be exposed to adult-like activities to make them strong in their faith.
“You don’t want to have children exposed to something they can’t digest,” he says. “You want your kids to be warriors for the faith, yes. But Christ didn’t send his apostles out at age 8.”
If it happens that a child witnesses a disturbing scene, Guarendi advises that parents address the circumstances directly. Dismissing the topic will only leave the child to struggle on his own, he says, so it’s best to answer questions honestly — while leaving out unnecessary details.
“Explain to them that, when people go against God, it gets ugly,” he says. “Most kids can handle the yucky stuff if adults allow them to handle it.”
Guarendi warns parents not to become “formulaic” in the way they make judgments about pro-life activities. Parents tend to expect their children to have the attitudes and compassion they want them to have, and when they want them to have it.
“Some wrap their arms around the pro-life cause at age 3, some not until 33,” he says.
Every Little Bit Helps
“Building an appreciation for the pro-life movement begins in the home,” says Dierdre McQuade, director of planning and information for the Pro-Life Secretariat of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. “Begin from the start to form in your children an attitude of gratitude for the life God’s given us.”
Making your own children feel truly loved and wanted is the best place to start, McQuade advises. Then make an effort to show your appreciation for all life. This can be shown in even the smallest of ways, like going out of your way to hold the door open for a pregnant woman or doing something to honor an elderly relative or neighbor.
Strive to use positive language that promotes life rather than degrading it, says McQuade.
“Kids can tell when parents think children are a burden,” she adds. “They catch on to how you talk to or about them or the comments you make about others like, ‘Oh no, she’s not having another baby, is she?’ Things like that really impact children.”
Beyond your own home, McQuade suggests working with your parish to form pro-life groups with activities for participants of all ages. Families and parish groups can do lots of simple things to help the cause, she points out before rattling off a few ideas.
Create displays for bulletin boards. Raise money for pregnancy-help centers. Host prayer events, vigils and novenas for the unborn. Help stock food panties. Write letters to the editors of local papers. Let your pastor know that your family is praying to support his pro-life prayers.
And, most of all, know that you’re not on your own. Your parish may already have programs up and running; be sure to ask before launching anything new. And the bishops offer a variety of materials to move things along, including liturgical resources, respect-life literature, Rosary reflections and novenas, and more. (For details, go to usccb.org/prolife or call 202-541-3000.)
Matt and Ginny Smith believe that a loving family is the greatest testimony the Church can give to the pro-life cause.
“If a family is larger or the children are more closely spaced, they come under even more scrutiny,” says Ginny. “Having a family in which everyone is well-kept, well-behaved, respectful of one another and makes a positive impression speaks volumes.”
Marge Fenelon writes from