He is the father of 10 adopted children, a clinical psychologist and author of two books. His energetic approach, witty style and wise counsel about raising children have earned him fans of his talk show on Catholic Family Radio and his column in Catholic Faith & Family. He spoke with Register correspondent Barb Ernster recently in Minneapolis.
Ernster: Your background as a psychologist includes appearances on “Oprah Winfrey,” “CBS This Morning,” and other national and local shows. How did this come about?
Guarendi: It's not unusual for a local producer of an affiliate station to become a national producer at some point in time.
If they like you as a guest, they have their little Rolodex, and they'll call you. I also did a book tour with my second book, which brought me into contact with some of the show producers.
And I learned quickly two things. Get your point across in sound bites and throw in a lot of humor. Those two things seemed to fit a television medium.
How did you come to have a show on Catholic Family Radio?
I had done a number of interviews for a Cleveland radio program and was approached by Catholic Family Radio to be a host. I flew out to San Diego to tell them my plate was full. But two things sold it for me. One, it was Catholic. Had it not been Catholic, there was no way I would have taken it. Second, I was allowed to talk the faith.
If I would have been told to just be a psychologist and present “morality” or “your own opinion,” I would have said no. I wanted to relate this to the truth of the faith.
Even though your parenting ideas might be considered counter to the pop culture?
They are probably not yet countercultural. They are countertrend, counterconventional wisdom. They touch a cord somewhere deep in what most parents realize still, and they think, “There's truth to what he says.” Even though many parents might not be practicing that.
You mentioned that 20 years of “experts” have messed up parenting. What has happened in your field of psychology?
“Media experts” have essentially reshaped the whole face of parenting. We have our theories and our ideas, and have thrown away traditional wisdom that people have gathered over the centuries. There is an arrogance when we say, “We now know better in the latter half of the 20th century than all of the people who went before us.”
We have abandoned a traditional view that children need to have a firm hand to be guided, shaped and taught. The reigning wisdom now is that children are by nature good and here to cooperate, and therefore they don't need that much parental force to keep them in line. They just need to be channeled, gently guided along the path, and they'll find their own way to mature adulthood. You, the parent, need to follow the lead of the child. That kind of notion has taken over the majority of the helping profession — social workers, counselors, mental health people, college professors — and that is the relentless message now aimed at parents.
How large an impact has the breakdown of morals and spirituality had?
Massive. Its impact is almost inestimable. The cultural forces at work are so many and so entrenched and so pervasive that much of my message has changed in the last 10 years as a psychologist.
I now am focusing the heart of my message on getting faithful Christians to stand strong in a culture that no longer sees faith the way they do. Where the more seriously you take your faith, the more of an oddball you are. And getting them to stand strong against all of their psychological insecurities. Because all but the most incredibly strong parent will take in these ideas and will doubt themselves, question their own parenting, become wavy in their standards. I draw the analogy that parents who want to raise citizens for the Kingdom of heaven now feel like they are standing in the middle of the Mississippi River with their hands out trying to stop the tide.
Have your ideas on parenting made an impact among your peers, or is there a trend developing in your field?
I think that in the area of therapy, where psychologists have to work with real people, you are seeing many psychologists come to the realization that we had better reassess the way we've been thinking. At the levels of college instruction, media psychology, or in the vernacular ivory towers, no, it hasn't happened. But you can't work with real people and not see that many of the ideas we've bought into just don't work.
You are a supporter of home schooling, and your wife home-schools your children. There are a lot of parents who are home-schooling and others who feel that perhaps our kids need to be in the public schools to help turn the tide.
Jesus never sent out children as missionaries.
Do you believe that parents should home-school?
It is an individual choice.
We are a cliché-thinking culture and so much of our thinking is dominated by very shallow notions. For example, home schooling is bad because children need socialization. What a shallow idea. What is socialization? If it is the imparting of morals and character, that is the parent's job. It is not a group of 8-year-olds’ job. …
Again, that's another expert idea that says you immerse children in this diversity of opinions, feelings, attitudes and worldviews and let them negotiate it. That's crazy. You don't throw somebody in a 20-foot-deep pool who can't swim. All of history has always protected its children. All of history has recognized that one of the standard ideas of a parent is “protect.” Protect until they are sturdy enough to deal with life as it is. We have abandoned that idea.
The idea now is, “Well, your little 8-year-old has got to fend off those sexual advances, and your little 8-year-old has got to learn how to negotiate her way around that kind of language and that kind of sexual titillation and that kind of coarse conduct. She needs to develop strength through dealing with that.”
That's one of the big reasons why I say to parents, “If you want to home-school, by all means do it, because probably the biggest plus of home schooling is the protection of innocence and the buying of time to add stability of the moral base.”
Tell me more about your family.
We have 10 adopted kids from 8 months old to 12, all adopted. Our most recent child was an “unplanned adoption,” a “change-of-life adoption.” We wanted to have a fairly decent-size family and we couldn't conceive, so it was like potato chips. We just kept eating.
My wife was a staunch evangelical when I was starting my drift back to the faith. When we met, I was the Catholic and she was the nominal nothing. She was a woman of great morality, but she had never been raised with a whole lot of faith, so she let me take the lead. Well, she had a resurgence of her Protestant roots and became very involved in her faith. I drifted into the evangelical world with her, attracted by much of the fervor that I initially saw. She started having her own spiritual struggles. So she studied the early Church and a little bit about the Catholic Church and found that she had fed off a lot of the misperceptions and raw nonsense. She converted to Catholicism three years ago.
Besides your psychology background, you also have a very strong Catholic background. Sometimes on the air you sound like an apologetics expert. Where does this come from?
I had a “dark night of the soul” in my late 30s, early 40s. [Guarendi is now 47.] I didn't just wrestle with doubts about my faith; I wrestled with doubts about it all.
So I prayed to God to take this from me: “Just please let me believe.” I would tell him, “You said if somebody seeks you, you would reveal yourself.”
And as is my approach to most things, I dove into it intellectually. I started reading and gobbling up everything I could get, not only on the Catholic faith, but on the debate of the existence of God.
Who was Christ? What evidence is there for Christ? What evidence is there for God, scientifically, archaeologically, the Bible?
In the process, not only did my faith come back, but my Catholic faith re-emerged. What I found after a seven-year excursion into the evangelical world was that the depth of the Catholic faith is beyond anything that I've experienced out there — biblically, logically, philosophically, liturgically, morally. It is a depth beyond anything I ever understood, and it alone answers the great questions of life. I have great respect for my evangelical brothers and sisters, but I couldn't get answers from within the evangelical world. So I turned to Catholicism for answers, and I found over and over again that the Church was mind-dazzling.
Do you know much about your radio audience?
We have a high percentage of very faithful Catholics. A disproportionate percentage of home-schoolers, and a disproportionate number of larger families. Most of my audience is women [80%] between the ages of 30 and 50.
You don't feel like you're preaching to the choir?
I realize now that much of what I do has been shifting into shoring up the choir. When our Lord says, “Let him who has ears hear,” he was speaking to those who were open to hearing what he has to say. I've discovered that most of what I offer is to help the strong parents be even stronger. Because if this culture is going to turn around, it's going to be by a determined minority, not an apathetic majority.
Is this a turning point in your career?
I don't know where God is going to take me. I would hope at some point to be able to have a broader apostolate in apologetics. Nothing is more important than talking the faith. It's the only thing that's eternal.