Only One Thing Is Necessary
Raising a family well entails discerning the family culture you want to create.
As one of my friends observed, while discussing Christian seclusion, people tend to extremes, whether with literary characters or lifestyle choices (and, I might add, with political candidates, fashion, music, food, etc.). Sometimes the exploration of extremes ends in a middling sort of mean: a compromise that pays homage to all a person’s past experiences, without judging amongst them.
But judgment, in the sense of discernment, is essential to living a good life, especially if it is a life in which one must lead others, as a parent leads their children. Nowadays we might speak of the importance of living “mindfully”; Socrates, anticipating the concept by a few thousand years, remarked that “the unexamined life is not worth living.”
How then does one choose the shape of one’s daily life, and that of one’s family, if not through joining a tribe or attempting a mean between warring tribes?
The answer, as my mother would say (referencing not Socrates now, but Aristotle and Aquinas) is that one must look to the end.
How will you shape your family’s life today? Ask yourself what you want to see in twenty years. What sort of hobbies do you imagine the whole family engaging in? Where do you think you will be living? What sort of relationships will the family members have with each other? What sort of jobs and/or schools will engage the children? Turning from the outside to the inside, what sort of habits do you hope you and your family will have? What virtues do you particularly want to instill?
Having answered those questions—discerned the end—you can begin determining how to reach it. This may require research. If you decide, for example, that you want your children to be compassionate, then you may find yourself researching what builds compassion. Is it enough that parents talk in a certain way about the needy? Do you need to make charitable contributions? Do your children need to contribute too, perhaps from an allowance, or from earnings, or from their stock of toys and clothes? How soon can such education begin? Is it important that they do volunteer work? Are some kinds of volunteer work more developmentally helpful than others? Is there a way to do such work informally, within the family or among your immediate neighbors, especially if your family is large?
That is only one virtue, and fewer than half the questions that might be asked regarding how to build it—questions which will require thought, discussion with a spouse, and probably questioning people from the previous generation or two. It’s easy to see why defaulting to tribes becomes attractive: there is so much less thought involved in parenting the way everyone else (in your group) does. And for some things, defaulting to your tribe’s parenting mode is fine. It probably doesn’t matter for your children’s well-being whether their first food is squash or kombucha, or whether you minimalize their wardrobes or coordinate them. But woe betide anyone who thinks they can get by doing everything the way their tribe does.
For while I used a neutral example above, in the sense that anyone in their right mind would agree that compassion is a positive value, and one that should be developed in their children, there are too many areas where even one’s tribe might be—if not out of harmony with your family, at least playing a different tune than the one your family plays. We Christians can’t agree about Santa Claus, skirts, or Skyrim; and while we’re pretty sure that skullduggery is wrong, we disagree about whether smoking or swearing constitutes a serious species thereof.
Stereotypes in this area of debate hold that Christians on the left end of the spectrum tend to react with openness: “I’m OK, you’re OK; love God and do what you will; only one thing is necessary.” The stereotype of rightwing Christians is the reverse: “Absolutely no X, unless Y, and then only after the second full moon of October, unless it is leap year, but that’s only in the Old Calendar, and if you have altar girls everything is invalid.” Neither legalism nor the anything-goes philosophy seems to be quite biblical; perhaps here virtue IS in the mean?
Indeed; but once again, that does not mean that virtue is a compromise. For just as each family, with a certain end life in mind, ideally designs its days towards that life, and not by adhering to or compromising among the various tribes; so to the virtuous life is not a compromise among the vices but a certain ideal end state in itself. And the key virtue, if we are to take the Gospels seriously, is Charity. That is the sine qua non for a Christian; that is the point that is quite nonnegotiable.
But the nonnegotiability of charity leads to other nonnegotiables. “Love, and do what you will” (Augustine, Homily on 1 John 4:4-12) does not mean that human actions are irrelevant; rather, it means that the better one loves, the better one’s will—and thus one’s actions—become. That is the whole burden of Catholic teachings on finance, marriage, health, war … If you love, as the saints loved, you will see, as one with the insight of an angel might see, how sometimes actions that appear loving are in fact not (and sometimes actions which appear unloving are).
In the context of the family, of course, we are used to such contradictions. It might appear loving to let Jimmy eat the whole bowl of potato chips; but mom and dad know it’s not really in his best interests, and so he gets only a handful—and that only after he’s finished the meatloaf and broccoli. It’s not so much that charity dictates meatloaf-and-broccoli eating as that charity dictates raising healthy children, and on this particular day in this particular family physical health is going to be best served by—meatloaf and broccoli.
So family life is made up of a thousand inessentials—a thousand dinner battles over the broccoli, or the Backstreet Boys, or the bobby socks. And—contra the mentally of the tribe—these choices are, individually, inessential. But choices collectively do have an impact—collectively, they bring the family closer to its end, or drag it further away.
Only “one thing is necessary.” But we can’t achieve that one thing without being “careful” (hopefully never “troubled”) “about many things” (Luke 10:41-2).