Opinion

Advice to a young father

byMichael Pakaluk
6/6/2014

You asked, Anthony, for advice about how to be a good father, now that your first child, a son, has been born. Thanks be to God for this gift.

I have been hesitant to offer you advice, because I am painfully aware from my own experience how easy it is to give advice, when it is so difficult to take and follow advice. Also, words are tedious, and there can be no end of them, when deeds rather than words are needed. But perhaps the following main points can be helpful to you.

Above all a Catholic father must cultivate an "interior life." What do I mean by this? I mean that he has hopes and dreams; he stands for something, and is willing to die for something; he has wisdom to share -- which he has worked out and embraced for himself in the presence of God. You see, a father is essentially someone who conveys life. But the life of a man is spiritual more than physical ("man does not live on bread alone"). It is laughably easy, pleasant, and a brief task to become a father simply of the child's bodily life. But to be a father as regards a child's "spiritual" life, and convey this truly human form of life, is the difficult task of a lifetime. And you cannot convey what you do not already richly have.

Such an interior life requires that we put ourselves and our life into order. I must locate myself correctly in the true hierarchy of authority. I am not my own authority. I am not "autonomous." I do not own my body or my time. Rather, I am under my Creator and answerable to him, when I stand before his judgment throne at the end of my life. In my judgment in matters of religion and morals, I am not my own pope but under the teaching authority of the Church. In my household, too, I am not my own man, but must heed my wife as is fitting.

What is salient for me in my past life must also be in proper order. Ask yourself, what is the most important event in your past life? Not getting into that prestigious college or shooting the winning free throw of that basketball tournament, but rather when you gained the true faith -- when you converted as an adult, or, if someone is a cradle Catholic, from the moment of his baptism. (Do you know your day of baptism? The pope has asked that every Catholic know and commemorate this.) Next in importance is the anniversary of your marriage. Everything else -- jobs, achievements, and so on -- is a distant third.

Your loves, those things and activities that you positively want to do and enjoy, must similarly be correctly ordered -- because your child will see how you act and imitate you connaturally. Do you love God above all, or perhaps money, "free time," and sports? You will ineluctably convey your loves to your child. A child will discern infallibly whether it is his piety and good character which spontaneously please you the most, or instead his cleverness, his being "better" and more advanced than other children (such comparisons should be avoided!), or his prestigious achievements. Of course we all need grace and so-called "ascetical struggle" to make our affections match what we objectively recognize as the order of true value.

Do not be naive and understand, too, that you are inevitably engaged in spiritual warfare. The devil is a roaming lion who will look for openings to sneak in and lead your child astray, into destructiveness. Thus, for example, a Catholic father cannot have any "dark" or "hidden" sides to him. If you secretly indulge impurity of any kind, you implicitly invite the devil into your home.

Needless to say, fatherhood implies a complete gift of the father to the child. We sometimes acknowledge this in sentimental ways, but perhaps we do not always embrace fully the consequences. Such a complete gift implies such things as: giving your child your complete attention, undistracted by anxieties from work, smart phones, and other toys. (Look into his eyes when you talk to him!) It implies spending enough time with your child, especially when he is young, so that he naturally grows up to be your friend.

It also implies above all fostering a good relationship with his mother, your wife. Your child is constituted from his mother as much as from you: it is impossible, then, to love this being well, if you fail to love one half of that child's being. The best gift you can give your son is the unity you have and safeguard with your wife.

There is so much to say. If I had more time, I would address some particular failings which seem to entrap fathers today. Young fathers, often struggling hard to support the family, can be filled with anger: but outbursts of anger risk alienating, perhaps permanently, a young child. Authority and firmness, yes, but with tenderness always! Again, young men in our society tend to be immature, like grown up teenagers. Therefore, search for signs of immaturity in yourself and ruthlessly root them out. But while aiming at maturity, stay youthful and a child in spirit--as these are hardly incompatible; in fact, they imply each other.

You'll do well if you can keep this advice.

Michael Pakaluk is chairman and professor of philosophy at Ave Maria University.