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It’s a common question: what do you do at Mass when your children are unsettled – babies crying, toddlers toddling off in random directions, younger children talking or fighting or banging toy tanks and fire engines, older children perhaps reluctant to be there. I collated a few suggestions in the Ten Ten Parents Booklet last year.

A priest friend of mine, who works in a large parish just outside London, has been mulling over these things. After discussions with parents, parishioners, clergy and the parish team, they have put together this leaflet to distribute to parents. It’s always a difficult one this. How do you encourage people, and be clear about some of the expectations and boundaries within the Liturgy, without creating a list of pharisaical rules or being unsympathetic to the huge struggles of parents and families.

This seems like an honourable try to me. What do you think? Any comments or suggestions in the comments box please, and then you can help my friend develop this as it goes along.

For parents at Mass with babies, toddlers or children

The presence of so many parents at Mass with their babies and children is a real blessing for our parish. It shows how vibrant, joyful and alive our community is. Seeing so many families really warms my heart and gives me great hope for the future. So, a huge “thank you” to all parents with children who faithfully come to Mass. You are, indeed, the first and best teachers of your children in the ways of faith. You are doing a great job.

Sometimes parents ask me about what is the best thing to do if their baby or child is behaving in a way that is distracting to others. Having asked the advice of parents, priests and other parishioners, here are some ideas and practical tips that might help and support you:

1. Talk to your children about the parish church. This is a special place because Jesus is there. When we come into God’s house, this is “quiet time” where we speak to Jesus, our friend, in our hearts, as well, as with our prayers and songs.

2. Weekly Mass attendance is important. When attendance is irregular, broken or happens rarely, then it is more difficult for our children to develop the ways of behaving that are appropriate at Mass.

3. When you come into the church, why not bless your child with holy water or, if they are old enough, allow them do it themselves and learn to make the sign of the Cross? These simple rituals will help your child to appreciate that they are in God’s House.

4. Try to get to Mass a little ahead of time, so that you can settle your child for this “quiet time” with Jesus. If parents are rushing into the church at the last moment or arriving late, this is almost impossible to do. It can also be distracting for other parishioners who are trying to prepare themselves spiritually for Mass.

If we are flustered and distracted, our children will pick up on this. If we all work to create a prayerful and composed atmosphere in the church, this will help our children.

A little time before Mass spent preparing your child for the “quiet, special time” with Jesus will help them to understand that the church is a different place to their homes, the park or the school playground. It will help them to distinguish between ways of behaving that are appropriate to different places and circumstances.

Maybe you could kneel down together and say a simple prayer? You might read or get your child to read the words of the opening hymn and reflect on it? Or just sit, bow your heads and offer thirty seconds of quiet time to God?

5. At the church we have a family room where parents can take their children if they are very unsettled. Please make good use of it.

6. We all need to be sensible about noise at Mass. After all, this is public worship with children. But, we all need to be aware of where we are, the sacred things we are taking part in and to have a real respect for those around us. So, don’t rush to take your child out if there is some very “light” noise or murmuring, but if a baby is crying or a child’s behaviour is disruptive, take them to the family room, go into the lobby or, weather permitting, have a wander outside the church.

7. Some parents find sitting between their children helpful, especially if their children talk or tease each other.

8. Walking toddlers around the church during Mass can be distracting for the priest and the congregation. If your toddler is restless then take them for a wander outside the main body of the church.

9. One of the toilets has a changing table for babies if parents need to change nappies. Older children should be encouraged to go to the toilet before they come to Mass. Children going back and forth to the toilet disrupts a prayerful atmosphere.

10. If your child needs distracting give them a “soft” toy or for older children, colouring or religious books. Bunches of keys or “hard” toys made of plastic or metal being shaken, squeaked or banged on the floor can become very distracting. Why not put together a “Jesus” bag or rucksack that has a couple of things in them and becomes part of the weekly preparation for going to Mass?

11. It is perfectly acceptable to bottle feed infants or to give your child a drink of water, but the use of food snacks should be kept to a minimum.

12. Parents must consume the Body of Christ when they receive Holy Communion and NOT give it to their children to play with or eat.

13. After Mass finishes, why not visit the Blessed Sacrament Chapel with your child? If they are old enough, teach them to genuflect before the tabernacle and to light a candle. Then, give them a few moments in “quiet time” thanking Jesus for his friendship and love. These rituals will help your child to appreciate that the Mass is where we meet Jesus in a very special way.

14. After Mass, make sure you bring your children to high-five or say “hello” to the priest or deacon.

15. Coffee and juice are available after the “Family” Mass – this is a good way for parents to get to know each other and for children to make new friendships.

16. Can we strike a balance between an appropriate firmness so that our children learn proper behaviour at Mass and also a certain “light-heartedness”? If our children are to love their Catholic Faith, I think we can.

All families and children are welcome here in the parish church. I thank every one of them for being part of the life of our marvellous parish community.

May God richly bless and protect you and your children.

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There have been a few articles recently about the advantages of the one-child family and growing up sibling-free.

Where the Wild Things Are graffiti in Streatham  by linniekin

Colin Brazier, Sky News presenter and father of six, puts the other side. The title of his piece is ‘Why having big families is good for you (and cheaper)‘. Here are some highlights.

Some of the most startling literature comes from medical research. It has long been known that siblings – by sharing germs at a young age and mutually priming immune systems – provide some protection against atopic conditions such as hay fever and eczema. But the latest breakthroughs suggest growing up with a brother or sister can also guard against food allergies, multiple sclerosis and some cancers. For reasons that have yet to be fully fathomed, these benefits do not apply to children simply by dint of spending time sharing bugs with other youngsters – as they would, for instance, in day care.

The other “epidemics” of modern childhood, obesity and depression, are also potentially reduced by exposure to siblings. A clutch of major studies from all over the world shows that the more siblings a child has, the thinner they will be. Put simply, siblings help children burn off fat. One American study honed its analysis down to an amazingly precise deduction: with each extra brother or sister, a child will be, on average, 14 per cent less obese. Reductio ad absurdum? We can scoff at such a definitive conclusion, until we realise that no one in medical academia has suggested that having a sibling ever made anyone fatter.

None of this is rocket science. When we compare like with like, regardless of family background, children with siblings tend to enjoy better mental health. Obviously, again, this is to generalise massively. The world is full of jolly singletons. But dig into some of the big data sets out there and unignorable patterns emerge. On experiences on which nation states hold a big corpus of statistics, events such as divorce and death, for example, strong correlations exist.

Cause is not always correlation, but it stands to reason that when parents split up or die, a child will benefit from having a sibling to turn to. That solidarity runs throughout the lifespan. After all, a sibling is for life, not just for childhood.

Indeed, policymakers with an eye to areas beyond elderly care may need to wake up to the shifting sands of family composition. In the late 20th century, the received wisdom among sociologists was that it mattered not a jot to society at large whether more people were sticking to one child. Now that assumption is being questioned. Is the valuable role played by siblings in elderly care factored into the welfare debate? Will an economy with fewer creative middle children be as competitive? How easy will the state find waging war when more parents are reluctant to see their only child march to the front?

More broadly, the last decade has seen a major evolution in academic thinking about siblings. They have ousted parents as being the key driver behind personality development. And where, 30 years ago, academics such as Toni Falbo argued that to be born an only child was to have won the lottery of life, now research is running in the opposite direction.

A slew of reports by serious scholars, such as Prof Judy Dunn of King’s College London, have chipped away at the idea that family size is the product of a consequence-free decision. Researchers have shown that “siblinged” children will have stronger soft skills and keener emotional intelligence than single children. They will be better at gratification deferment (because they have learnt to wait their turn) and hit motor milestones such as walking and talking more rapidly than those without sibling stimulation.

Some of the most recent evidence even suggests that a child with a brother and/or sister will have more evolved language skills and do better at exams. This information is truly revolutionary. For decades, the assumption of academic ideas such as the Dilution Theory has been that less is more.

Have too many children and, as a parent, you will not be able to leverage your resources on to a solitary stellar-achieving child. Indeed, for parents who cannot stop themselves hovering above and over-scheduling their hurried offspring, a sibling for their one-and-only can be the antidote to pushy parenting.

I don’t think this is about a binary ‘right or wrong’, with the consequent stigmatising of one size of family over another. There are many different reasons why some families are larger and some smaller. But it’s good to be aware that some of the alarmist articles about the costs of raising children are extremely one-sided.

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When I was reading about Want-ology last week, I came across this wonderful phrase: the outsourcing of the self. It says so much, without needing to be explained; it gives enormous satisfaction by filling a definite lexicological gap.

outsourced self

This is how Rhys Blakely got onto the subject:

Look no further than the growing list of intimate tasks, or ‘hyper-personal services’, that can be outsourced to paid strangers in LA.

There are nameologists to name children, who are then potty trained by hired baby-whisperers; there are ‘elderly-care managers’ and professional graveside-visitors; there are love coaches and ‘decluttering consultants’, and I once met a banker who hired somebody to read his children bedtime stories down the phone.

So is it really surprising to learn that you can now pay someone to tell you what you want?

[Times2, p4, March 14, 2013]

It’s hard to believe some of this Californian excess, but there are plenty of more mainstream examples.

I don’t know if she actually coined the phrase, but Arlie Russell Hochschild is the author of The Outsourced Self. This is from a review by Judith Shuleviz.

In “The Outsourced Self,” Hochschild talks to love coaches, wedding planners, surrogate mothers, nannies, household consultants and elder-care managers, but also, and with deep empathy, their clients. A majority of these people are middle-aged or near middle age; the main thing is, they’re not young, which means they are not yet used to a virtualized and monetized social existence and can still express doubts about it. Most are women, who have long been the main providers of care, love and charity.

Hochschild’s consumers buy hyperpersonal services because they lack the family support or social capital or sheer time to meet potential mates, put on weddings, whip up children’s birthday parties, build children’s school projects, or care for deteriorating parents.

Or these folks think they just couldn’t perform such tasks as well as the pros. The providers sell their services because the service economy is where the money is, or because they take pleasure in helping others. Everybody worries about preserving the human element in the commercial encounter. Very few succeed.

Shuleviz gives this example:

Evan Katz is a love coach who teaches would-be online daters “How to Write a Profile That Attracts People You Want to Meet.” One of his clients is Grace (virtually all names have been changed), a divorced 49-year-old engineer who wants to search for love as methodically as she solves an engineering problem. Katz tells her “to show the real you through real stories.” When Grace comes up with a story about learning humility by scrubbing toilets at a Zen monastery, he reels her back in: “That might be a little too out there.”

On a mass medium like the Internet, the best “real you” is average, not quirky: “Everyone needs to aim for the middle so they can widen their market,” Katz says. He encourages daters to rate themselves from 1 to 10, and not to aim higher than their own rating.

On the other hand, he worries that daters will objectify themselves and others so zealously they’ll equate dating and shopping: “They want to quickly comb through the racks and snap their fingers, next . . . next . . . next. . . . You can be too efficient, too focused on your list of desired characteristics, so intent on getting the best deal that you pass over the right one.” Luckily, Grace escapes that trap when she agrees to go out with a tattooed, bald musician who doesn’t fit the criteria on her list, and falls in love.

We are outsourcing the self all the time. It’s part of what makes us human, that our personal lives are never completely separated from the culture, and that there is often a transactional element to this.

We share tasks; we give and take; we are responsible for each other in different ways. The line between what is personal, familial, cultural, technological, and commercial is always being re-negotiated. That doesn’t mean we can’t make mistakes or cross a line into a kind of existence that is almost depersonalised. This is the real question that Hochschild is raising.

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What did we do before the iPad? (By ‘we’ I mean ‘you’, because I’m the dinosaur stuck with the lap-top). The answer: We played all day on the Etch A Sketch.

"Say Anything" on an Etch-A-Sketch by methodshop.com

Hours and hours of my young life wasted/gained/lost/liberated: on the sofa, in bed, in the back of the car.

It has everything the iPad has: text (writing ‘STEPHEN’ in large, uneven letters across the screen); images (all those pictures of stick-men, houses, battle-fields, random animals and geometric patterns); video (the pictures morphed and developed in the making); audio (the faint screech of the wires, the white noise of shaking the filings back into place, using the screen as an improvised drum). It even had wifi: the fact that if your little brother was just finishing his Etch A Sketch masterpiece on the other side of the living room you could use a carefully thrown basketball to edit or delete the image at will; no troublesome wires, no worry about incompatible sockets.

And perhaps all of my present obsessive-compulsive tendencies stem from my discovery that if you systematically rubbed out every millimetre of the screen by bringing the horizontal line back and forward and edging it down incrementally, you uncovered the inner reality of the mechanism: the wires, the pulleys, the metal filings piled up below. This took about half an hour, and I couldn’t stop until not a single filing remained on the underside of the screen. A first taste of mystery, of engineering, of taking things just a little bit too far…

Why this reverie? I just discovered that André Cassagnes, the Etch A Sketch inventor, died last month at the age of 86. This is from Margalit Fox:

A chance inspiration involving metal particles and the tip of a pencil led Mr. Cassagnes to develop Etch A Sketch in the late 1950s. First marketed in 1960, the toy — with its rectangular gray screen, red frame and two white knobs — quickly became one of the brightest stars in the constellation of midcentury childhood amusements that included Lincoln Logs and the Slinky.

Etch A Sketch was inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame in Rochester in 1998; in 2003, the Toy Industry Association named it one of the hundred best toys of the 20th century. To date, more than 100 million have been sold.

The toy received renewed attention in March, amid the 2012 presidential campaign, after Eric Fehrnstrom, a senior adviser to Mitt Romney, described his boss’s campaign strategy heading from the primaries into the general election thus:

“Everything changes,” Mr. Fehrnstrom said. “It’s almost like an Etch A Sketch. You can kind of shake it up and restart all over again.”

The quotation, pilloried by Democrats and Republicans alike, was widely interpreted as an acknowledgment by the Romney campaign that its candidate had no fixed political ideology.

The complete eradicability of an Etch A Sketch drawing is born of the toy’s simple, abiding technology.

The underside of the screen is coated with a fine aluminum powder. The knobs control a stylus hidden beneath the screen; turning them draws the stylus through the powder, scraping it off in vertical or horizontal lines that appear on the screen as if by magic. (An early French name for the toy was L’Écran Magique, “Magic Screen.”)

To erase the image, the user shakes the toy, recoating the screen with aluminum; tiny plastic beads mixed with the powder keep it from clumping.

That is essentially all there is to an Etch A Sketch, and though the toy now comes in various sizes, shapes and colors, its inner workings have changed little since Mr. Cassagnes first touched a pencil to a powder-coated sheet on an otherwise ordinary day more than five decades ago.

And the discovery itself?

One day in the late ’50s, as was widely reported afterward, Mr. Cassagnes was installing a light-switch plate at the factory. He peeled the translucent protective decal off the new plate, and happened to make some marks on it in pencil. He noticed that the marks became visible on the reverse side of the decal.

In making its faux finishes, the Lincrusta factory also used metallic powders; Mr. Cassagnes’s pencil had raked visible lines through particles of powder, which clung naturally to the decal by means of an electrostatic charge.

Mr. Cassagnes spent the next few years perfecting his invention, which was introduced in 1959 at the Nuremberg Toy Fair. (Because the toy was patented by Arthur Granjean, an accountant working for one of Mr. Cassagnes’s early investors, Mr. Granjean is sometimes erroneously credited as the inventor of Etch A Sketch.)

After Ohio Art acquired the rights to the toy for $25,000, Mr. Cassagnes worked with the company’s chief engineer, Jerry Burger, to refine its design. Where Mr. Cassagnes’s original had been operated with a joystick, the final version mimicked the look of the reigning household god of the day — the television set. It soon became the company’s flagship product.

In later years, Mr. Cassagnes designed kites; by the 1980s, he was considered France’s foremost maker of competition kites, which can perform elaborate aerial stunts.

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It was good to visit the relics of St John Bosco at Westminster Cathedral at the weekend. You may have seen the photos: it wasn’t just a relic-sized casket, but a life-sized effigy of the great man himself, in his priestly vestments, looking very serene.

Don Bosco Relics Pilgrimages to Westminster Cathedral  by © Mazur/catholicnews.org.uk

I had a classic pilgrimage moment. I got in the queue, waited patiently for three minutes, started analysing why the queue wasn’t moving quicker (it was incredibly slow), began to lose my patience; then a moment of self-knowledge – realising that I was in ‘Tesco-queue’ mode, like a Pavlovian response, dashing to get out the door; then a grace-filled letting go, just being in the queue with my fellow pilgrims, remembering that I had nowhere to go and nothing to do, praying, thinking, interceding; then a moment of shame and interior humiliation, as I got near the destination and realised that the reason the line was moving so slowly was not because of some inefficiency in the logistics of the operation, but because people at the casket were actually (wait for it…) praying - devoutly, humbly, reverently, silently, patiently, taking their time, showing their heartfelt love for Don Bosco; and then, when it was my turn, I tried to do the same.

I’m not proud of this – I’m just sharing the interior craziness that often goes on in my soul when I step from the rush and distractions of Victoria Street and my own worldliness into the sanctuary of the Cathedral and in this case to St John Bosco’s shrine. Maybe (I say this to console myself) this is not too uncommon – the fact that the transition takes a few minutes, and that being in a place of sanctuary is what creates the possibility of seeing the habits of mind (healthy and unhealthy) that have unconsciously been shaping one’s life in the ordinariness of everyday living.

I have a great devotion to St John Bosco. For about ten years, I spent two or three weeks each summer as a helper (a ‘brother’) on the St John Bosco Boys’ Camp in Colchester. It’s run by the Society of St Vincent de Paul, but the whole philosophy of the camp is very Salesian, modelled on the educational vision of Don Bosco. It was great fun; and I learnt a huge amount; and I’m not sure I would be here today as a priest (or at least my vocation would have taken a very different path) if I hadn’t been touched by the priests, religious and laypeople on the camp – and the boys.

I don’t want to pretend to understand the whole Salesian pedagogy, but there were some simple principles about working with children that lay at the heart of the work there, and I think they go back to Don Bosco himself: keep them busy; lots of fun, lots of physical activity; always be kind; be a good example, a good role model; slip in some prayer and mini-catechesis during the day, but not too heavy and not too long; use stories and examples to bring the beauty and heroism of faith alive; and always be kind. Now I think about it, I’m sure there was some Salesian motto that was on the wall of the office somewhere, something like: ‘Reason, Religion, Kindness’. You can remind me in the comment box. And that wonderful photo of Don Bosco smiling benevolently.

When I went to Rome in 1992 to start seminary formation at the English College, I took the train from London (via boat – this was before the Chunnel) and stopped off at Turin to say hello to Don Bosco in thanksgiving and to ask for his prayers. His main shrine is there, in the church he built, next to school he founded. What an amazing priest he was. It’s good to meet him again here in London, and give him some more intentions!

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Stepping away from the politics and polemic surrounding marriage for a moment, how do you actually form children and young people – in an age-appropriate way – to understand the true meaning of love, friendship, sexuality and relationships?

A scene from the Play 'Nine Months' by Ten Ten Theatre

A scene from the Play ‘Nine Months’ by Ten Ten Theatre

 

I happened to see this article by Martin O’Brien that appeared in the Universe this month.

First of all, he recognises the challenges:

Educating children and young people with a sound understanding of Church teaching on relationships, sexual morality, love, marriage and family life remains one of the most challenging issues for any Catholic school.  Problems arise:  How we do we speak to children in their own language and culture but avoid reinforcing it?  Beyond the rules and regulations, what exactly is the Church teaching?  How am I supposed to teach it if my own life and values don’t live up to the ideal?

It was within this environment six years ago that Ten Ten Theatre – an award-winning Catholic theatre company – began devising, writing and producing a programme of Catholic Sex and Relationship Education which has now been established in hundreds of primary schools, secondary schools and parishes throughout the UK.

We take our inspiration from Blessed John Paul II’s teaching known as The Theology of the Body.  It has been our task over the last few years to identify some of the core values of the teaching and write accessible, contemporary stories to explore these ideas.  Karol Wojtyla himself was a keen actor and dramatist who believed passionately in the power of story and character to examine the human person.  At Ten Ten we aim to do the same, encouraging our children and young people to reflect on their own lives and experiences in order to understand more deeply their Call to Love.

Then he gives some examples from their work with teenagers:

The play “Chased” for the 13-14 age group follows the story of Scott and Carly who are so confused by the world they inhabit – pressure from friends, influence of the media, physical development – that they almost lose sight of their core dignity.  And yet through the story they begin to understand the deepest longings of the heart: to be honourable, to be cherished, to be loved and to love as Christ loves.

By taking the characters on this journey, and following it up with discussion, sharing, reflection and prayer, the young people understand what it means to be “in” the world but not “of” the world.

This begs the question, which O’Brien asks: What about primary school children?  How can we promote these values without corrupting children with sexual imagery and inappropriate information?

tt2

One example is “The Gift”, a lovely play for 7-9 year-olds.  It tells the story of twins Harry and Kate who learn about the preciousness of gifts: Kate’s treasured musical box, given to her by her Auntie who passed away, is accidentally smashed to pieces by Harry.  Harry doesn’t understand why Kate is so upset. “After all,” he says, “you can get another one from the pound shop… for a pound!” Through the story, both Harry and Kate (and the children watching) learn about the true value of gifts, what it means to make a gift of yourself and the importance of forgiveness.

These are precisely the same values we promote through the play “Chased” but at an age-appropriate level.   In the follow-up workshop to “The Gift”, the actors ask the children to think more deeply about the best gift they have ever been given, who gave it to them and why is it so special.  Sometimes the responses are material: Playstations and puppies are always very popular.  Other responses tell of something deeper: my life or my baby brother.

However, a few weeks ago at a school in Merseyside, one particular response really touched us.“What’s the best gift you’ve ever received?” we asked.   “My mum,” said the boy.   “And why is she so special?”   “Because she adopted me and without her I wouldn’t have been brought up happy,” said the boy.   The boy’s mother, in fact, also taught at the school.  Later that day, when she was told what her adopted son had said, she crumbled into tears.

I can understand why.  This woman has likely given her entire life as a gift to the boy, making a decision to love him, protect him and care for him with all of her heart.  Surely this is one of the greatest gifts that a person could choose to give.  And yet it is a gift that people throughout the world make moment after moment, day after day.  Now, as a result of the visit of Ten Ten, this particular mother knew that her seven-year-old adopted son valued and appreciated the great sacrifice she has made.

You can follow the Ten Ten blog here. For more information see their main website here.

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wedding rings

Here is the gay marriage question no-one seems to be asking: If it’s all the same, then what’s the difference? With so much talk about equality, love, commitment and stability, is there simply no difference between gay marriage and marriage between a man and a woman? Is there absolutely nothing distinctive about marriage as it has traditionally been understood?

The answer is obvious but too easily forgotten: A life-long commitment between a man and a woman is a relationship involving sexual difference, involving male-female complementarity. For this reason, it allows children to be conceived and born within the life-long union of their own natural parents, and it is a form of commitment and family life that allows children to grow up with their own natural parents over a lifetime. This simply isn’t possible for a same-sex couple.

This doesn’t mean that a man and a woman are obliged to have children, or that they are always capable of having children. It’s simply a recognition that one distinctive aspect of this kind of male-female relationship is that, in ordinary circumstances, it can involve conceiving and bringing up their own children. (It’s not uncommon to talk about the ‘distinctive characteristics’ of something, even if there are exceptions. For example, it’s a distinctive characteristic of human beings that we use language; and the fact that some human beings cannot talk or choose not to talk does not undermine this).

This is not a religious argument (appealing to the Bible, the Anglican marriage service, or the Pope); it’s not a historical or sociological argument (highlighting national traditions or cultural norms); it’s not even a moral argument (although it does have moral implications). Nor is it a crude ‘biologist’ argument, reducing people to their genitalia and their reproductive capacities, because sexuality involves the whole person and not just procreation.

It is actually a humanist argument, appealing to an irrefutable truth about human nature that any rational person can acknowledge: that children can only be conceived by a man and a woman, and that marriage between their own parents is a form of family life that will allow children to grow up within the life-long embrace of their natural mother and father.

We have a word for this kind of life-long and public commitment between a man and a woman: it’s called marriage. It doesn’t exclude the fact that there are many other kinds of relationships, some of them involving love, stability and life-long commitments; nor does it rule out other forms of family life that come about for all sorts of different reasons. We have an assortment of words to help us understand some of the distinctions (‘marriage’ being one of them), and we need these words for the sake of clarity and honesty about some of the differences there are between different kinds of relationships.

This is why it’s misleading and even deceptive to claim that allowing gay marriage would make no difference to traditional marriage and to all those men and women who are already married. It’s often asked, rhetorically: What harm would it do? What difference would it make? Is it not just about allowing more people to share in the benefits of marriage? Is it not just about adding something rather than taking something away? Are we not simply increasing rights and widening the franchise?

This is simply untrue. If marriage is redefined to include gay marriage, it means that the core understanding of marriage will no longer include that aspect of sexual difference and complementarity, and that aspect of creating a family where one’s own children may be conceived and raised (even if this doesn’t happen for every couple). The definition of marriage will be narrowed (or perhaps we should say widened) to a relationship of love, friendship and mutual support. This is not just an addition or a minor change; it is a radical undoing of marriage as it is commonly understood. It makes it impossible for a man and woman to have their marriage recognised as a union that involves sexual-difference, because they are being told – in the new definition – that their sexual difference has nothing to do with the nature of their marriage. A right has been taken away and not just added.

There is a strange and perhaps unintended effect of the proposed legislation. It will not actually allow gay people to marry (where marriage keeps its traditional meaning); it will change marriage into a form of civil partnership. It will mean that marriage as it has traditionally been understood will cease to exist; and for a man and a woman wanting to commit themselves to each other in a life-long partnership, their only option will be a form of commitment that replicates the present civil partnership commitments for gay couples.

The fact is, of course, that many men and women will continue to marry, and the majority of them will conceive and raise their own children. Marriage as it has traditionally been understood will seem to go on, but we won’t have a specific word or public institution for it any more; and the irony is that if we are not allowed to use the word ‘marriage’ we will have to invent one which describes exactly what the word marriage used to describe.

But this is not just about words and definitions. Our whole society, not just ‘the state’, has until now recognised that marriage (as a life-long commitment between a man and woman) has been a relationship that deserves special recognition and special privileges. This is not because it is the only kind of life-long or loving relationship (it’s obvious that there are many others); nor is it because society scorns these other relationships (it’s got nothing to do with homophobia or gay rights); it is simply because – to state the obvious once again – marriage between a man and a woman, unlike a same-sex relationship, allows children to grow up with their own natural parents.

This non-religious and non-moral humanistic fact does lead to a moral question: Is it good and desirable, all things being equal, for parents to conceive and bring up their own natural children, and for children to be brought up within the loving union of their own natural mother and father? Most people would say yes. This isn’t to discriminate against other forms of relationship and other forms of parenting and family life, it is simply to acknowledge the unique meaning of marriage between a man and a woman, and to recognise that this distinctive relationship brings particular benefits to individuals and to society. That’s why we have a special word for this relationship, ‘marriage’; and that’s why this relationship is ‘institutionalised’ and given a special place in our society.

To deny the distinctive nature of marriage between a man and a woman, and to promote gay marriage, is actually to deny the commonly held assumption that (all things being equal) it is good for children to be brought up by their own natural mother and father. This might seem like a big leap of logic, but it’s true: To define marriage only in terms of love, commitment, stability, etc – to make gay marriage ‘equal’ – means that there will no longer be any social or legal recognition of the particular family unit where children are conceived and raised by their own natural mother and father in a public and life-long commitment. At present, we recognise different kinds of family life, and we preserve a special place in our society for the kind of family where parents can try to raise their own natural children in the context of a life-long and public commitment, and where children can grow up with their own natural parents in this same context. If gay marriage legislation is passed, it will no longer be possible to promote the idea that marriage between a man and a woman has a distinctive meaning and a particular benefit for children and for society.

Let me try to summarise all this. The distinctiveness of marriage between a man and a woman is not something that depends on religion or tradition or morality: it is a fact of human nature and of the nature of society, that this kind of relationship (unlike a same-sex relationship) involves sexual difference and complementarity, and that this kind of relationship (unlike a same-sex relationship) is a union in which parents can conceive and raise their own natural children – even though there may be particular reasons why a particular couple are unable to do this.

But the argument against gay marriage is a moral one, because it involves what is understood to be good for children, for family life and for society. This is not because of any prejudice against gay people; it is because society recognises the particular benefits that come when children can be brought up by their own mother and father in a loving and life-long relationship, in a commitment that has been made to each other and before others. This isn’t always possible; but when it is possible, it’s a good thing – to be loved by your own natural mother and father, and to be supported by their own continuing love for each other; to love your own children, and to know the continuing love of the person with whom you conceived these children. Very few people would deny that these are good things, for individuals and for society, even if they are sometimes difficult to achieve. That’s why we should acknowledge the particular relationship that can allow and nurture them. That’s why we should keep marriage as it is.

[Last edited - in response to feedback - on 19 Dec 2012]

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I had a great discussion on Sunday with a group of young adults about the morality/wisdom of telling your children that Father Christmas exists and delivers their presents each year.

 

Is it a form of lying? Is it, rather, a kind of mythology or fairy-tale that does no more harm than reading them bedtime stories, and actually does them good in helping them to develop their imagination and sense of wonder? Is it simply harmless? Or does it lead to a traumatic break in child-parent trust when they finally realise that the reality they have been told about by their parents is simply not true?

And – an extra question for Christian parents – if you are telling them stories about Santa Claus and Jesus at the same time, with the same awe-struck tone of voice, does it mean that the Jesus stories crumble as easily as the Santa ones a few years later?

I think your answer partly depends on your own experience. Some people never really believed in Santa anyway; there was some sixth sense that told them it was just a story, an act of make-believe. Some people really are traumatised when they discover The Big Lie that everyone around them has been conspiratorially involved in; and there is a questioning of what it means to trust their parents.

Others, much more low-key, remember a sense of disappointment and minor shock when they found out – they made a connection for themselves, or a big brother or sister told them, or they found the presents in their parents’ wardrobe the week before.

The other issue that came up was the fact that your decision as parents has an influence on others. Does it mean that your enlightened three-year old goes into the play group and tells all the other children it’s all a load of nonsense – to the consternation of the other parents?

Me? I can’t remember ever believing it – Santa Claus; reindeer; coming down the chimney; etc. I’m not saying I never did, I just can’t remember; and I can’t remember a moment of discovering it wasn’t true. My memories, perhaps quite late (5 or 6 years old?) are longing to fall asleep, knowing that mum and dad wouldn’t bring the presents in before then.

Comments please! Did it traumatise you? What do you tell your own children about Santa?

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When I was reflecting on the Year of Faith in Cardiff, I spoke about the power of witness. I gave the “40 Days for Life” movement as an example of what this can involve, and how effective it can be.

In case you haven’t heard of it before, 40 Days for Life is a peaceful prayer vigil that takes place outside a number of abortion clinics in the UK and throughout the world. At this very moment, people are keeping vigil. It’s not a protest or a political campaigning group but a form of witness.

There are three aspects to the project: prayer and fasting, education, and offering practical support and alternatives to women and men who are seeking abortion with an unplanned pregnancy.

40 Days for Life is not about trying to win an argument. There has been a feeling amongst many within the pro-life movement that the arguing, the dialogue, the political campaigning, have only taken us so far. It shows the limits of dialogue; not the futility – just the limits.

So there was a need for another strategy: witness.

First, the witness of prayer. Not just private prayer, which is hugely important, but also praying in public. With this public prayer, part of the purpose is to show that prayer matters, that there is another way of changing hearts, that we’re not alone in our struggles and sufferings – but that God is with us. This may sound a bit ‘pharisaical’. Didn’t Jesus ask us to shut the door and pray in private? Yes, but he also prayed with and for people, drawing them into his own prayer, and witnessing to the central importance of that prayer for all people.

Second, there is the witness of truth: offering information, leaflets, education, conversations, insights, etc. Sharing the simple scientific facts about human development; the physical, psychological and moral dangers of abortion; the practical alternatives. Being prepared to speak about this in public, to help those who are asking questions. And always to speak with patience, kindness and peacefulness; sometimes in the face of aggression or anger.

And third, and most importantly, there is the witness of charity, of love, in the 40 Days for Life vigil: offering real, practical support to women who are considering an abortion, very often because they have no support from anywhere else, and feel pressured into this choice by others or by circumstances. So this is not just the offer of leaflets or kind words, but very concrete assistance: helping them to find a supportive advice centre, giving them possibilities of financial help if they need it, even offering them a place to stay during the pregnancy and birth if they have been pushed out of their own home.

40 Days for Life really changes lives. I don’t just mean the number of women who decide to keep their babies because of the vigil (although, by the grace of God, there are many of these). I also mean the powerful and often unexpected effects of this witness on so many others: men and women who walk by and feel drawn into conversation, many of whom will have been touched by abortion in some way, because at last they have found someone who understands the sadness and the seriousness of it; people drawn to pray, simply through the witness and faith of those who are praying on the street corner there; people who stop to talk and enquire and even disagree – some of them having their minds changed, softened, or challenged in a non-aggressive way.

Another miracle is the effect that the vigil has had on so many of those who work in the abortion clinics. Over the years, internationally, quite a few abortion workers have had powerful conversion experiences, or small changes of heart, that have led them to leave the clinics and find work elsewhere. This isn’t because they have been pressured into this, but because through the witness of those on the vigil they have had the opportunity of seeing others who see things differently. The witness to life gives another way of looking at the world, another possibility, that awakens something deep in their hearts, and actually fits with what they secretly believed all along.

I am not putting this forward as an ideal model of what Christian witness looks like, and my purpose is not actually to open up the life issues themselves. I simply use this as one example of what witness can involve: prayer, words, and the work of practical charity and love. And I hope it gives an encouragement to all of us to see how powerful our witness can be.

[For more information about 40 Days for Life, see the international site here, and the London site here. I shared my own experiences of the vigil in this earlier post.]

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TV time should be limited for children, and under-threes should be kept away from television altogether – writes Sarah Boseley.

These are the conclusions of a recent report.

A review of the evidence in the Archives Of Disease in Childhood says children’s obsession with TV, computers and screen games is causing developmental damage as well as long-term physical harm. Doctors at the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, which co-owns the journal with the British Medical Journal group, say they are concerned. Guidelines in the US, Canada and Australia already urge limits on children’s screen time, but there are none yet in Britain.

The review was written by psychologist Dr Aric Sigman, author of a book on the subject, following a speech he gave to the RCPCH’s annual conference. On average, he says, a British teenager spends six hours a day looking at screens at home – not including any time at school. In North America, it is nearer eight hours. But, says Sigman, negative effects on health kick in after about two hours of sitting still, with increased long-term risks of obesity and heart problems.

The critical time for brain growth is the first three years of life, he says. That is when babies and small children need to interact with their parents, eye to eye, and not with a screen.

Prof Mitch Blair, officer for health promotion at the college, said: “Whether it’s mobile phones, games consoles, TVs or laptops, advances in technology mean children are exposed to screens for longer amounts of time than ever before. We are becoming increasingly concerned, as are paediatricians in several other countries, as to how this affects the rapidly developing brain in children and young people.”

The US department of health and human services now specifically cites the reduction of screen time as a health priority, aiming “to increase the proportion of children aged 0 to two years who view no television or videos on an average weekday” and increase the proportion of older children up to 18 who have no more than two hours’ screen time a day.

The American Academy of Pediatrics has also issued guidance, saying “media – both foreground and background – have potentially negative effects and no known positive effects for children younger than 2 years”. The Canadian Paediatric Society says no child should be allowed to have a television, computer or video game equipment in his or her bedroom.

Sigman goes further, suggesting no screen time for the under-threes, rising gradually to a maximum of two hours for the over-16s. Parents should “encourage” no screens in the bedroom, he says, and be aware that their own viewing habits will influence their children.

But what can you do?

The RCPH’s Professor Blair said there were some simple steps parents could take, “such as limiting toddler exposure as much as possible, keeping TVs and computers out of children’s bedrooms, restricting prolonged periods of screen time (we would recommend less than two hours a day) and choosing programmes that have an educational element.”

But Justine Roberts, co-founder of Mumsnet, said it was hard for parents to compete with technology. “It would be great if someone could invent a lock that could automatically ensure a daily shut down of all the different devices in and around the home after a designated period. Until such a thing is invented, it’s going to be an ongoing battle to keep on top of everything,” she said.

Any thoughts from parents? Is the no TV ideal possible? Is it realistic? Is it even desirable?

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Following on from the Evian pro-life campaign in May, I saw an astonishing poster at Leicester Square tube this afternoon. In a single image, it manages to proclaim the humanity of the unborn child, the vulnerability of this child, and its utter dependence on the goodness of those adults in whose care it finds itself – and on the rest of society.

So there is the tag-line, superimposed on the pregnant mother’s tummy: “Her baby can’t ask you for help, but we can”. A pro-life charity couldn’t have designed a more effective advert.

I wonder if in some small way this will help to change people’s perceptions of the unborn child, to raise consciousness; or at least prod people to join the dots in their moral thinking: Why, as a society, do we want to put money and resources into helping vulnerable children in the womb, when at the same time we are taking away their lives through abortion? Whatever your moral view, it doesn’t make logical sense.

I’d never heard of Sparks, which is running the campaign. So I guess that makes it a successful campaign! It’s a charity ‘For children’s health’, and the vision statement at the top of the website reads, ‘Help more babies be born healthy’. Yes indeed!

You can see their website here. The Bump Campaign page is here. And all the other bump posters of pregnant mothers are here.

I’m not promoting the charity, because I don’t know what its attitude to abortion and selective screening is, or where the money actually goes. Here are the aims from the ‘about’ page:

As a leading children’s medical research charity we are dedicated to funding and championing pioneering research into a range of conditions affecting babies, children and mums-to-be.

Since 1991, we have committed over £23 million into pioneering research projects across a wide spectrum of medical conditions including childhood cancers, cerebral palsy, premature birth and spina bifida. In total, the charity has funded 233 research projects in more than 80 hospitals and universities across the UK.

Through the research we fund, we aim to improve the quality of life for children and families affected by serious illness or disability today, whilst seeking ways to better diagnose, treat and prevent these conditions in the future.

The medical breakthroughs we make possible, make a difference not only across the UK but for thousands of children and families around the world.

The key phrase is: seeking “to better diagnose, treat and prevent these conditions in the future”. Prevention, for many in the UK, means selective termination or embryo screening that results in the destruction of discarded embryos.

If anyone from Sparks ever reads this and can reassure me that the goals of the charity are strictly to help children with medical conditions and not to screen out unhealthy children, then I will be very happy to endorse them! I’m just being cautious because there is so much moral ambiguity in a lot of medical research today.

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Since the 40 Days for Life vigil during Lent, I have been thinking not so much about the morality of abortion, but more about its effects on individual women and men, and on society as a whole. I read for the second time the seminal book by Theresa Burke, Forbidden Grief: The Unspoken Pain of Abortion – I’ll try to post about this later, together with something about Rachel’s Vineyard.

But the book that really hit me was a collection of personal experiences from Australia collected together by Melinda Tankard Reist, called Giving Sorrow Words: Women’s Stories of Grief After Abortion.

In some ways it is a much harder read than Forbidden Grief, because there is not the faith perspective, so many of the women find no resolution or reconciliation, just an outpouring of grief with nowhere to go. Even this heartbreaking acknowledgement of what they have truly been experiencing, however, seems a gain, compared to suffering in silence or having their grief denied.

Reist put an advert in various Australian magazines and newspapers asking for women who would share their experiences of the effects an abortion had had on their lives.

Two hundred and fifty responded, and many said that for the first time in their lives just seeing the heading of the advertisement (‘Abortion Grief’) had itself given them permission to open up, perhaps for the first time, what they had been going through. Eighteen stories then found their way into the book, to represent the breadth and depth of the responses, with many more quoted in Reist’s Introduction.

Reist’s Introduction sets out some of the convictions she had as a pro-life feminist before she started – convictions that were reinforced as the project came to fruition.

The women who tell their stories here have all suffered abortion-related grief: a depth of grief they were not prepared for and which many still carry.

But they go unheard. Emotional trauma after an abortion is treated with disdain; dismissed by abortion’s advocates as an invention…

Conventional wisdom has it that abortion is mostly trouble-free. Because of this, those who are troubled are made – indeed, often forced to be – invisible.

The grief of the women documented in this book is real. But their stories, and the stories of women like them, have been disqualified – even by those who say we must listen to women’s voices and credit women’s experiences.

Attitudes towards women overwhelmed by grief following abortion demonstrate a cruel indifference to women’s pain. Their suffering is considered a figment of their imagination; their guilt and remorse a byproduct of social/religious conditioning. In short, they are an embarrassment.

There is another constraint on their expression of grief. The politics surrounding abortion has drowned out the voices of women harmed by it. Women whose lives are shattered by the abortion experience… are cast aside as over-sensitive, psychologically unstable, big teams of socially constructed guilt. Their experience is trivialised.

A woman’s abortion pain is discounted and minimised due to the prevailing view that a termination is really no big deal, ‘just a currette’, an easy fix. Abortion is promoted by many who dominate the discourse on the subject as a procedure without repercussions. Because of this, attempts to discuss women’s abortion suffering have been constrained.

Suffering post-aborted women feel a resentment towards a society which ignores or neglects their suffering. They are not allowed to acknowledge or mourn their loss openly. The disdain for women suffering after-abortion trauma sends the message: you’re only upset because you’ve chosen to get upset…

This sort of response to women’s abortion-related suffering makes them feel they’re being melodramatic, over-sensitive, attention-seeking. But many women are suffering emotionally from a procedure which was portrayed as emotionally benign. They are filled with feelings of self-loss, daily haunted by their abortion experience…

Their arms feel empty, they don’t like looking at babies, they often cry. They ask: What would my baby have looked like? Was it a boy or a girl? Would-have-been birthdays are quietly marked year after year.

As Margaret Nicol points out in her important work on maternal grief, it is a myth that a mother only bonds with her child after birth. A woman never forgets the pregnancy and the baby that might have been. When the baby is lost and there are no memories of visible reminders of the baby, ‘The feeling of emptiness and nothingness becomes pervasive and it is this an easy and anxious avoid that makes women wonder if they’re going crazy.’

I’m sorry the book is not more widely available in this country. There are a just three copies here on Amazon UK from other sellers as I write.

But hang on: I just found these excerpts from the book here – well worth looking at:

Excerpt 1: “This Wasn’t Really Counseling At All”


Excerpt 2: Disclosure and Coercion


Excerpt 3: “They Didn’t Prepare Me for the Horror”


Excerpt 4: “A Conspiracy of Silence”

I don’t know much about Reist. You can see her website here.

And just in case you see this and don’t see a follow up post about Rachel’s Vineyard, you can see their website here, which offers support to women and men who have suffered an abortion. The Good Counsel Network help-page is here (they are based in London). And the ARCH website is here (Abortion Recovery Care and Helpline) – I don’t know much about them, but I saw a leaflet for their services recently.

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Baroness Jane Campbell of Surbiton was on Desert Island Discs recently. You can listen here.

She was born with a degenerative condition and her parents were told she would not survive infancy. Now in her mid-fifties and a cross-bench peer, she’s spent her adult life campaigning for equality for disabled people and was one of the leading voices behind the Disability Discrimination Act of 1995.

There were some fascinating insights about living with a serious disability, and what it means for her as a person, and for society.

She was asked about the loss of privacy that comes through needing the help of a carer for everyday life. She said (I’m paraphrasing, and writing from memory) that privacy is not just about physical space, but much more about preserving your interior privacy – keeping that inner space you need for yourself, one that can never be taken from you, whatever is happening on the outside.

And then this got her speaking more generally about the experience of having a number of people over many years help her and care for her. It gives you an insight, she said, into what people are really like, much more than if you were on ‘equal’ terms with them in your physical abilities. You are ‘being cared for’, and someone is coming into your private space, but being in a position of ‘carer’ exposes not just you to them but also them to you in a way that wouldn’t normally happen in everyday society. You see the reality of the person they are through the way they treat you.

I’m reading into her comments a little more than she actually said, but I think it is justified. She was saying, in effect, that your lack of autonomy, which might seem to isolate you and put you at a distance from the autonomous development of relationships that usually takes place, in fact allows a degree of communion between persons, of vulnerability, insight and even intimacy, that wouldn’t be possible otherwise. You see more and share more because of the relationship of need and dependence. Autonomy isn’t the only way in which people can freely share their lives with each other and be brought into a profound relationship. Autonomy, in other words, doesn’t define you as a person.

Pope John Paul II touched on these questions in his Encyclical Evangelium Vitae:

[There is a] mentality which carries the concept of subjectivity to an extreme and even distorts it, and recognizes as a subject of rights only the person who enjoys full or at least incipient autonomy and who emerges from a state of total dependence on others. But how can we reconcile this approach with the exaltation of man as a being who is “not to be used”? The theory of human rights is based precisely on the affirmation that the human person, unlike animals and things, cannot be subjected to domination by others.

We must also mention the mentality which tends to equate personal dignity with the capacity for verbal and explicit, or at least perceptible, communication. It is clear that on the basis of these presuppositions there is no place in the world for anyone who, like the unborn or the dying, is a weak element in the social structure, or for anyone who appears completely at the mercy of others and radically dependent on them, and can only communicate through the silent language of a profound sharing of affection [...].

At another level, the roots of the contradiction between the solemn affirmation of human rights and their tragic denial in practice lies in a notion of freedom which exalts the isolated individual in an absolute way, and gives no place to solidarity, to openness to others and service of them. [Para 19]

And in the following paragraph [20] he continues:

This view of freedom leads to a serious distortion of life in society. If the promotion of the self is understood in terms of absolute autonomy, people inevitably reach the point of rejecting one another. Everyone else is considered an enemy from whom one has to defend oneself.

Thus society becomes a mass of individuals placed side by side, but without any mutual bonds. Each one wishes to assert himself independently of the other and in fact intends to make his own interests prevail. Still, in the face of other people’s analogous interests, some kind of compromise must be found, if one wants a society in which the maximum possible freedom is guaranteed to each individual.

In this way, any reference to common values and to a truth absolutely binding on everyone is lost, and social life ventures on to the shifting sands of complete relativism. At that point, everything is negotiable, everything is open to bargaining: even the first of the fundamental rights, the right to life.

I’m not saying that Baroness Campbell would agree with all this – I’m just following my own train of thought from Desert Island Discs to Pope John Paul II.

Another lovely story that came across later in the programme was this: She said that as a child with a severe disability, nevertheless her parents loved her with an unconditional love, and never tired of telling her that she was beautiful; and this knowledge of their love and of her beauty has sustained her throughout her life and given her the courage and confidence to overcome the huge difficulties she has faced. I like the two sides of this, equally important but sometimes separated from each other: being loved by another – a subjective reality; and being beautiful – an objective or a transcendent reality. Your dignity, your worth, your goodness, your beauty: in the eyes of another (because they happen to be there), and in the eyes of God (because he made you to be who you are). For the common good, and for the rights of each individual, society needs both the subjective and the objective affirmations of human worth.

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I grew up in Harpenden, a small town off the M1 about half an hour north of London, with St Albans just a few miles to the south, and Luton to the north. I was back there at the weekend and took a walk along the River Lea, where I used to play as a kid. It was a place for swimming, fighting, fishing, general splashing around, and finding hidden treasure. Now and then it was a place of danger and nasty accidents – usually caused by the broken bottles on the river bed, or some unseen stretch of barbed wire.

The River Lea in Harpenden

Harpenden is only a few miles from the source in Leagrave, on the edge of Luton, so the river is only about 12 feet wide – not much more than a stream. But the walk got me thinking about its huge historical significance. I was oblivious to this as a child.

In the late ninth century the River Lea formed one part of the boundary between the Danelaw, the eastern area occupied by the Vikings, and Saxon England to the west. West of the Lea was the territory that King Alfred managed to hold, and to the east the Vikings had the run of the place. This was all codified in a treaty between Alfred and Gurthrum. So Harpenden (or the few hamlets in the area in the late ninth century) was right at the ‘national’ boundary between England and Scandinavia, between Saxon and Viking.

The Lea, with its course much altered over the centuries, runs through the Olympic Park at Stratford, and into the Thames near the Millennium Dome. You could never guess at its historical significance today, but there are a few remaining boundaries that betray its larger meaning. Part of the border between Essex and Hertfordshire, for example, follows the river’s course. And it’s interesting that when they were cutting off the Diocese of Brentwood from Westminster, the dividing line through east London is marked by the River Lea. So the ecclesiastical boundaries of the twentieth century reflect over a thousand years of territorial dispute, compromise, and eventual agreement.

Just for the record, I was born on the right side of the River Lea (Alfred’s/Westminster’s) at Tottenham Court Road, and lived on the Saxon side of the small valley that cuts through the eastern edge of Harpenden!

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A friend sent a link to this article by Tim Kreider about our need to be busy all the time. Is he being harsh? Is it really all self-imposed? Are we really this dysfunctional, this afraid, this disconnected, this fidgety?

Or is this really about America, or about New York – and everything is fine here in London thank you very much?

If you live in America in the 21st century you’ve probably had to listen to a lot of people tell you how busy they are. It’s become the default response when you ask anyone how they’re doing: “Busy!” “So busy.” “Crazy busy.” It is, pretty obviously, a boast disguised as a complaint. And the stock response is a kind of congratulation: “That’s a good problem to have,” or “Better than the opposite.”

Notice it isn’t generally people pulling back-to-back shifts in the I.C.U. or commuting by bus to three minimum-wage jobs  who tell you how busy they are; what those people are is not busy but tired. Exhausted. Dead on their feet. It’s almost always people whose lamented busyness is purely self-imposed: work and obligations they’ve taken on voluntarily, classes and activities they’ve “encouraged” their kids to participate in. They’re busy because of their own ambition or drive or anxiety, because they’re addicted to busyness and dread what they might have to face in its absence.

Almost everyone I know is busy. They feel anxious and guilty when they aren’t either working or doing something to promote their work. They schedule in time with friends the way students with 4.0 G.P.A.’s  make sure to sign up for community service because it looks good on their college applications. I recently wrote a friend to ask if he wanted to do something this week, and he answered that he didn’t have a lot of time but if something was going on to let him know and maybe he could ditch work for a few hours. I wanted to clarify that my question had not been a preliminary heads-up to some future invitation; this was the invitation. But his busyness was like some vast churning noise through which he was shouting out at me, and I gave up trying to shout back over it.

Even children are busy now, scheduled down to the half-hour with classes and extracurricular activities. They come home at the end of the day as tired as grown-ups. I was a member of the latchkey generation and had three hours of totally unstructured, largely unsupervised time every afternoon, time I used to do everything from surfing the World Book Encyclopedia to making animated films to getting together with friends in the woods to chuck dirt clods directly into one another’s eyes, all of which provided me with important skills and insights that remain valuable to this day. Those free hours became the model for how I wanted to live the rest of my life.

The present hysteria is not a necessary or inevitable condition of life; it’s something we’ve chosen, if only by our acquiescence to it. Not long ago I  Skyped with a friend who was driven out of the city by high rent and now has an artist’s residency in a small town in the south of France. She described herself as happy and relaxed for the first time in years. She still gets her work done, but it doesn’t consume her entire day and brain. She says it feels like college — she has a big circle of friends who all go out to the cafe together every night. She has a boyfriend again. (She once ruefully summarized dating in New York: “Everyone’s too busy and everyone thinks they can do better.”) What she had mistakenly assumed was her personality — driven, cranky, anxious and sad — turned out to be a deformative effect of her environment. It’s not as if any of us wants to live like this, any more than any one person wants to be part of a traffic jam or stadium trampling or the hierarchy of cruelty in high school — it’s something we collectively force one another to do.

Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day.

Read on here if you want.

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When I was ‘researching’ the parenting booklet, one of the topics that came up again and again in the responses was the importance of families sitting down to eat together regularly.

Since then I found this article by Richard Corrigan, a London chef, who explains why he is supporting a research project that is looking into the effects of mealtimes on family life and social cohesion.

I have always instinctively felt the truth behind the cliché that the family which eats together stays together. But is that hunch backed up by hard facts or is it a nostalgic dream, increasingly unobtainable in a world where many parents work long and unpredictable hours?

Well, the usefulness of family meals is no fantasy. You would expect me, as a life-long restaurateur, to argue in favour of the positive effects of people breaking bread together. I watch people do it everyday. It is one of the reasons I love my work.

But I am equally passionate about the importance of meals in the home. My wife, Maria, and our three children – Richard, Jessica and Robert – try to sit down and eat together as often as we can. This has always felt like common sense. It worked for me as a boy growing up north of Dublin and, although there is less greenery around us at our home in north London, it works for me as a father.

It is one of the reasons I agreed to become the patron of a British think tank which tries to put some hard science behind the soft glow of a good home. The Home Renaissance Foundation was founded by my friend Sir Bryan Sanderson, a former managing director of BP and chairman of BUPA. He wanted to promote an understanding and an appreciation of what our homes can do when they work well. Research by the Home Renaissance Foundation shows us that family meals should not be dismissed as so much 1950s retro.

According to economics professor Dr Sophia Aguirre, who wrote a paper for the Foundation about this, family dinners generate “human capital”. Kids who sit down regularly with parents and siblings do better at exams than those who don’t. Rates of substance abuse, obesity and eating disorders are also lower. Her graphs show that what really matters is the quality of the time together. As soon as a television is switched on during a family meal, a lot of the good socialising stops.

Now, you could argue that, if kids have parents who are up to organising a family meal at the dining table, those children already have a headstart.

For one thing, many of the homes we build nowadays have no room for a dining table. And if it’s not the building, it’s the people. In chaotic families, the routine that regular meal times need just isn’t there.

But Dr Aguirre’s work also shows how it is precisely these disadvantaged youngsters who need formal family meals more than others. It is at the dining table that we impart some of the most important lessons of life: how to tell a story, share our recollections of the day and listen politely. It is where kids should learn something about manners. Not formal etiquette, but how to behave in company. It is easy to dismiss these things as irrelevant.

Here is the introduction to the ‘Meals and Food’ chapter of the parenting booklet:

Eating together, each day, without the TV or computer on, can bring so many blessings to family life. It gives your children time with you, and time with each other. It allows you to listen, to talk, and to share things. It gives rhythm and regularity to each day, and to the week – which is so important for the children. It puts the brakes on the constant rushing of modern life.

Eating together gives space for personalities to grow, for language to develop, for ideas to emerge. It gives a simple way of praying together, if you say grace before meals, and pray in thanksgiving after them. And you make sure that the children are eating well!

This is hard for many people. There are activities after school. Perhaps you have shift-work. The children want to go out or do homework or watch TV. Or the simple fact is that you are not in the habit of eating like this, and it seems like a big hassle to force everyone to sit together. But the long-term benefits are absolutely huge. Regular meals together – or as regular as is possible for you – are one of the keys to good family life.

And here is one of the quotes about how meals depend on tables!

Just having a table is important! Some of the families in our parish didn’t have a kitchen or dining table to sit round for meals at home. We spoke about this in the Holy Communion classes, and helped one or two to get a table. It doesn’t have to be expensive. They came back and said what a difference it made – talking, listening, and sometimes arguing, and then making up; just being together in a way that doesn’t happen if you don’t make time.

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It seems so obvious: you love someone, marriage is a possibility, you are not 100% sure or 100% ready, so you move in together to test the water and test each other. It will help you, surely, to get to know each other better, to deepen your mutual love, to see whether you are truly compatible, and to lay the foundations for a happy and lasting marriage. It seems so obvious, but it isn’t true.

Lino Print: Map To My House by Matt callow

I’m not speaking about ‘sexual morality’ here (although you can’t separate the moral aspect from everything else); nor am I speaking about a ‘Christian’ or ‘religious’ view of marriage. It is simply the psychological and statistical data that show how living together before you get married makes it harder for you to choose the right person and harder to prepare for a lifelong marriage together.

Meg Jay, a clinical psychologist at the University of Virginia, presents some recent findings in psychology and sociology:

Cohabitation in the United States has increased by more than 1,500 percent in the past half century. In 1960, about 450,000 unmarried couples lived together. Now the number is more than 7.5 million. The majority of young adults in their 20s will live with a romantic partner at least once, and more than half of all marriages will be preceded by cohabitation. This shift has been attributed to the sexual revolution and the availability of birth control, and in our current economy, sharing the bills makes cohabiting appealing. But when you talk to people in their 20s, you also hear about something else: cohabitation as prophylaxis.

In a nationwide survey conducted in 2001 by the National Marriage Project, then at Rutgers and now at the University of Virginia, nearly half of 20-somethings agreed with the statement, “You would only marry someone if he or she agreed to live together with you first, so that you could find out whether you really get along.” About two-thirds said they believed that moving in together before marriage was a good way to avoid divorce.

But that belief is contradicted by experience. Couples who cohabit before marriage (and especially before an engagement or an otherwise clear commitment) tend to be less satisfied with their marriages — and more likely to divorce — than couples who do not. These negative outcomes are called the cohabitation effect.

Researchers originally attributed the cohabitation effect to selection, or the idea that cohabitors were less conventional about marriage and thus more open to divorce. As cohabitation has become a norm, however, studies have shown that the effect is not entirely explained by individual characteristics like religion, education or politics. Research suggests that at least some of the risks may lie in cohabitation itself.

But why is this? It’s due to a factor called ‘sliding, not deciding’.

Moving from dating to sleeping over to sleeping over a lot to cohabitation can be a gradual slope, one not marked by rings or ceremonies or sometimes even a conversation. Couples bypass talking about why they want to live together and what it will mean.

WHEN researchers ask cohabitors these questions, partners often have different, unspoken — even unconscious — agendas. Women are more likely to view cohabitation as a step toward marriage, while men are more likely to see it as a way to test a relationship or postpone commitment, and this gender asymmetry is associated with negative interactions and lower levels of commitment even after the relationship progresses to marriage. One thing men and women do agree on, however, is that their standards for a live-in partner are lower than they are for a spouse.

Sliding into cohabitation wouldn’t be a problem if sliding out were as easy. But it isn’t. Too often, young adults enter into what they imagine will be low-cost, low-risk living situations only to find themselves unable to get out months, even years, later. It’s like signing up for a credit card with 0 percent interest. At the end of 12 months when the interest goes up to 23 percent you feel stuck because your balance is too high to pay off. In fact, cohabitation can be exactly like that. In behavioral economics, it’s called consumer lock-in.

Lock-in is the decreased likelihood to search for, or change to, another option once an investment in something has been made. The greater the setup costs, the less likely we are to move to another, even better, situation, especially when faced with switching costs, or the time, money and effort it requires to make a change.

Jay writes about her own experience of working as a clinical psychologist.

I’ve had other clients who also wish they hadn’t sunk years of their 20s into relationships that would have lasted only months had they not been living together. Others want to feel committed to their partners, yet they are confused about whether they have consciously chosen their mates. Founding relationships on convenience or ambiguity can interfere with the process of claiming the people we love. A life built on top of “maybe you’ll do” simply may not feel as dedicated as a life built on top of the “we do” of commitment or marriage.

And this is her non-moralising but very practical conclusion:

I am not for or against living together, but I am for young adults knowing that, far from safeguarding against divorce and unhappiness, moving in with someone can increase your chances of making a mistake — or of spending too much time on a mistake. A mentor of mine used to say, “The best time to work on someone’s marriage is before he or she has one,” and in our era, that may mean before cohabitation.

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I’ve been thinking about Simone Lia’s graphic novel Please God, Find Me A Husband! And especially about how the comic/cartoon format allows her to express herself, even to bare her soul, in a way that is unusually unguarded. There is a childlike simplicity about what is expressed within each speech bubble, even a naivety.

Somehow it works. It doesn’t feel like an awkward confessional novel; it doesn’t feel inappropriate or embarrassing. It’s as if the inner child that sits within each adult experience is allowed to speak. The simple truth put into simple words, without self-censorship, without filtering it for the hearer. Not everything in adult life, of course, is simple; but lots of it is – and we often make it complicated, for a thousand personal and social reasons.

It reminds me of two personal experiences. One is having to speak in a foreign language when you are no good at it. I went to Rome for my seminary formation, and the time given to learning Italian in those days was woefully inadequate. But it meant I had to form relationships, sometimes quite deep ones, using two tenses and just a few hundred words.

At one level I was constantly not being myself, because I could never say what I really meant; but at another level I was being more simply myself (or being more my simple self) because I had to become less eloquent, less considered, more straightforward, more childlike. If you only know a few words, you have to say what you mean crudely and clumsily, and sometimes this is less truthful, but sometimes it can be more truthful as well.

The other experience is of preaching to children when there are adults present, say at a ‘Family Mass’ on a Sunday morning in a parish when there are more children than adults, or a school Mass with parents and teachers present. You are aiming your sermon, for example, at a five or seven year old; you are simplifying your language, slowing down, trying to choose appropriate images and ideas, cutting out the flannel. You are speaking, almost, in the language of a graphic novel or a strip cartoon. Not being patronising, but trying to talk at the right level in an appropriate ‘voice’.

And the strange effect of this is that often you are more able to communicate Gospel truths to the adults who are present, because you are letting go of all the stuff that gets in the way. You are following the KISS rule, without realising it: ‘Keep It Simple Stupid!’

This is usually an unintended effect – reaching the adults through the children. But sometimes I have quite consciously said something to the children in simple, unadorned, unnuanced language, with the specific intention of speaking a hard truth to the adults, or a truth that would be harder to express in the context of ordinary adult discourse.

Gillian Wearing brought this ‘inner child honesty’ to the fore with her 1992-93 series that was called “Signs that say what you want them to say, and not Signs that say what someone else wants you to say”. You can see a slideshow of her own selection of photos here. And you can see a wonderful selection of ‘sign photos’ here, sent in by Guardian readers and selected by Gillian Wearing herself.

I’m not suggesting the world would be a better place if everyone bared their soul to the first stranger they met each morning, or that some kind of therapeutic nirvana can necessarily be found in heartfelt self-disclosure. I’m just reflecting on how we can often be too complicated, too eloquent; and how a medium like a graphic novel or a children’s sermon can allow us to release a hidden voice that can sometimes touch others and communicate something important.

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We had a week of silent retreat at the end of last month. Silence, of course, doesn’t mean silence; it means no talking. During meals it meant the clatter of cutlery and the slurping of coffee at breakfast, a selection of classical music at supper, and someone reading to us over lunch – in the monastic tradition.

A pulpit in the refectory of a Carmelite friary in Malta, where a friar would read to the community during meals

It’s very rare, as an adult, that you just sit back (or hunch forward over your lunch) and have someone read to you. One part of the mind is concentrating on the words, and enjoying the language and thoughts and stories. Another part is able to be more attentive than usual to the surroundings, to the senses – the taste of the food, the sheer physical presence of the person opposite you, the sounds of the room and the world outside. And another part of the mind, or perhaps the heart, falls into a semi-conscious slumber, like when you are sitting on the back seat of the car as a child, gazing out the window, as your parents talk about important things you only vaguely understand.

And the soul, somehow, at least in the context of a retreat like this, can be liberated into a kind of domestic contemplation, a stillness that you carry from the chapel into the dining room, that isn’t disturbed by the need to chat over lunch.

It reminds me of the film The Reader (I haven’t read the original novel), where the central part of their complicated relationship is her request to be read to (I won’t give any plot away!). And one of the parents who helped me with the parents booklet gave this simple advice:

Encourage your children to read. Go to the library with them. And continue to read aloud to them, even if they can read well themselves. It gives you an opportunity to talk and learn and grow together. You can usually find a book to read to children of different ages, so your children can be together in this way now and then.

So it’s good to be read to now and then!

Do you have any moments, as an adult, when someone reads to you, or when you are in a group that is being read to? I think it’s quite rare, but I might be wrong.

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Well, that last phrase from the title isn’t strictly true. But the booklet Being a Parent Today is finally printed and for sale from the Catholic Truth Society, so you can order copies from their website here. You can flick through some of the pages of the booklet on the CTS site.

We really hope that this will be a resource not just for individuals, but also that schools and parishes will be able to distribute them to parents they are working with – e.g. parents whose children are starting at the school, or the parents of children on the First Holy Communion programme etc.

Here is the cover:

Here is the Introduction:

INTRODUCTION: How Not To Use This Booklet

Every child is different. Every parent is different.

Being a parent is not about learning a set of rules and putting them into practice like a robot. It’s about living in the messy reality of everyday life. It’s about loving your children as best you can – with all your strengths and weaknesses, and with all their strengths and weaknesses. It’s sometimes about just getting to the end of the day! And it often unfolds by instinct, or by accident, rather than by following some master-plan.

This booklet is not a manual telling you how to be a good parent. It’s a collection of thoughts and ideas from ordinary mothers and fathers, based on their own experiences of bringing up their children. And it includes a few extra thoughts from one or two Catholic priests, deacons and lay-people who have spent time supporting families in different ways.

It’s meant to be like a conversation between friends – swapping stories, sharing ideas, laughing about things that have happened, supporting each other when things have been difficult. If you are stumbling through family life, it can be reassuring to know that others are stumbling through beside you; and it can help to know what they are learning along the way.

Everyone needs encouragement. Sometimes an idea or suggestion can make you think about something in a new way, or inspire you to try something you haven’t tried before. The hope is that this booklet will help you to think about the amazing vocation that you have as parents. It may give you some ideas for your own family life. It may simply help you to appreciate more what you are already living.

If you disagree with something written here, that’s fine! The disagreement might help you see more clearly what’s important in your own family and what works for you, and it might lead to some good discussions with your friends. What works for one person might not work for another. And what worked yesterday might not work today. Family life is incredibly fluid and unpredictable.

The booklet was written mainly with Catholic parents and children in mind. Some of the sections are about the place of faith and prayer in family life and raising children. These parts will be particularly useful for Catholic families, and parents whose children go to Catholic schools. But many sections of the booklet should be helpful for all parents, whatever their faith.

It doesn’t go into important questions about raising children on your own, or separation within the family, or bereavement. These topics are too big and too specific for this kind of booklet, even though some of the ideas here should be helpful for people in these situations.

This booklet comes with a health warning: Whatever you do, don’t read it through from start to finish! If you do, it will seem like a list of rules (which will leave you feeling incredibly guilty and inadequate). Or it will seem like a huge ‘to do’ list (which will just leave you feeling worn out). This is a booklet to dip into – just to take one or two thoughts and see what they mean for you. And then come back to it another time.

Here are the chapter headings in case you are wondering what it is actually all about:

  1. Children and Childhood
  2. Parenting and Family Life
  3. Activities and Celebrations
  4. Talking and Listening
  5. Discipline and Boundaries
  6. Religion and Faith
  7. Meals and Food
  8. Making Space and Taking Time
  9. Praying Alone and Praying Together
  10. Chastity and Sex Education
  11. TV and Internet
  12. Church and Sunday Mass
  13. Education and School
  14. Yourself and Your Relationships
  15. Difficulties and Problems
  16. Failure and Forgiveness
  17. Love and Kindness
  18. Prayers to Learn and to Treasure

And here are a couple of page shots to show you how Simone Lia’s beautiful illustrations work with the text:

If you are able to support this project, especially the work of Ten Ten in their schools outreach, see the background in the post here, and the information about how to donate to Ten Ten.

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I’ve just seen Audrey Tautou’s latest film Delicacy (6/10). The highlight of the trip, however, was to discover that after an experimental period of about three months, Cineworld have finally put the not-so-cheap-but-nevertheless-cheerful pick’n’nix sweet selection back in the foyer.

They made two fundamental mistakes: they went posh, and they went healthy. Instead of the cola bottles, jelly babies, strawberry bonbons, fake-chocolate-covered raisins, pink shrimps, non-Cornish-non-dairy fudge (perhaps this post is getting a bit too confessional for a blog), they created a beautifully displayed posh nuts and healthy dried fruit pick’n’mix counter.

Can you believe it? What a complete misreading of the psychology of cinema, which is about comfort food, returning to the childhood wonder of our first cinematic experiences, eating what is bad for you not just because you like it but because of the added frisson of guilt associated with the transgression itself, the surging highs of an industrially produced sugar hit and the corresponding lows just seven minutes later, the knowledge that you are paying so vastly over the odds per gram of plastic liquorice that you just have to savour it for all it’s worth, and the sheer gastronomic delight of chomping through the panoply of artificial flavours and colours, or of making a single piece of ‘fudge-that-isn’t-really-fudge’ last through the whole of the first act of Citizen Kane.

As if we were going to pay £1.78 for 100 grams of hand-hatched pecan nuts and beach-dried mango strips.

Anyway, the people have spoken, Cineworld has listened, the fruit and nuts have gone, and the technicolour junk is back. The guy at the till told me that no-one was buying them. End of story.

It was worth it as an experiment though. Why? Because it means they finally had to clear out the five-year old sweets that had been sitting at the bottom of the buckets and rising to the top now and then, ready to break your teeth. It’s a sad moment when you relax back into your cinema seat and the purple jelly baby is as hard as a gobstopper and the foam shrimp snaps in your mouth like melba toast. Never again! Well, that’s a bit too hopeful. What I mean is, we’ve got a few months now before the new stock starts to deteriorate again.

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I’ve been working on a resource for parents, in collaboration with Ten Ten Theatre and the Catholic Truth Society. Don’t worry, it’s not based on my vast (meaning non-existent) experience of being a parent; I’m just the editor.

Here is the back-cover copy:

Being a parent today is a huge privilege and a daunting challenge. It raises so many questions about how to love your children, how to live your family life, and how to pass on your Catholic faith.

This booklet gathers together the experiences of different mothers, fathers, teachers and priests. It is not a list of rules, but a collection of ideas and practical suggestions that will help you reflect on your vocation as a parent and draw closer to your children.

In straightforward language, it deals with topics such as spending time together, listening, discipline, forgiveness, school, prayer, Sunday Mass, sex education, the internet, family celebrations, and much more.

Here is some background/history to how and why the project developed:

Two years in the making, Ten Ten Theatre is almost ready to launch a new booklet for parents.

Edited by Fr Stephen Wang, the 90-page pocket-size booklet will be co-produced with the CTS (Catholic Truth Society) and given as a free gift to all adults who attend Ten Ten’s daily parent sessions.

From April, we will have two primary school teams on the road running sessions for parents every day; this booklet is designed to encourage and support parents in their role as “primary educators” of their children on fundamental matters of faith and relationships.

Fr Stephen’s book has been written with the support of dozens of parents, teachers and priests. It covers a wide range of topics including: TV and internet, mealtimes, prayer and sex education.

We would like to put 10,000 copies in the homes of families throughout the UK over the next three years. To do this, we must raise £3,500 now in order to print that quantity of booklets.

And the main reason for blogging about this is to appeal for money. The CTS will sell the booklets in parishes and bookshops, but the copies distributed by Ten Ten in their school work will be given away free of charge. Ten Ten are nowhere near their target of £3,500. If you have a heart for this kind of outreach, and an appreciation of how much support and encouragement parents need, please do think of donating something to the Ten Ten fund.

You can see all the donating options here.

You can donate online by PayPal here.

And the simplest possible way to send a small donation is through the ‘text-to-donate’ system:

Please text TNTN10 £x (the amount you would like to donate) and send it to 70070.

There are no admin charges and Ten Ten receives the full amount of your donation. There is also the option of adding Gift Aid.

For example, you could send the following text message to 70070:

TNTN10  £10

We will receive your donation immediately; the amount will be charged to your phone bill.

Note: the maximum donation allowed in any one text is £10. If you would like to donate more, you can send multiple texts.

Thanks in advance for any support you can give. I’ll post about the booklet when it is finally published – it should be soon after Easter.

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I posted on Saturday about the topic of same-sex ‘marriage’ in general, without discussing the process of consultation that is taking place over these next twelve weeks.

The document from the Government Equalities Office shows a staggering narrowness and an unapologetic lack of interest in consulting about the two main issues that anyone, surely, would be concerned about – whatever their views. Namely, what the social effects of this redefinition would be, and whether it is a good thing for our society to redefine marriage in this way. The fundamental questions of what and whether are simply bypassed in the main opening sections. The only question asked in the main topic box on page 2 is how: ‘how to provide equal access to civil marriage for same sex couples’; just as the only question asked in the Ministerial Foreword on page 1 is ‘how we can remove the ban on same-sex couples having a civil marriage in a way that works for everyone’. Granted, the first of the detailed consultation questions is, ‘Do you agree or disagree with enabling all couples regardless of their gender to have a civil marriage ceremony?’ But this is in the context of a consultation that has already defined itself in its introductory statements as a means to working out how and not whether.

Catholic Voices analyses this much better than I can:

The Government’s consultation paper, published yesterday under the misleading title of Equal civil marriage: a consultation reveals both the shoddiness of its thinking and the extraordinary authoritarianism of a process which Lynne Featherstone, the equalities minister, has repeatedly made clear has only one outcome.

The Government’s proposal fundamentally to alter – and in the process radically redefine in such a way as to render it meaningless — a major social public institution which has traditionally been protected by the state is one of the most audacious uses of unaccountable state power in more than a generation.

The proposal was in no party manifesto prior to the May 2010 general election. There has been no Green Paper or White Paper. Yet the Government makes clear that this is a consultation not on whether to introduce gay marriage but on how to. And they have also made clear that the strength of public opinion – manifest in the Coalition for Marriage’s historically large petition in protest (now exceeding 200,000), as well as in the ComRes poll for Catholic Voices advertised in yesterday’s Daily Telegraph showing 70% of British people in favour of retaining the current definition – will simply be ignored. The Government’s response to the consultation, they say on p. 2, “will be based on a consideration of the points made in consultation responses, not the number of responses received.”

As Greg Daly points out, the Consultation continually confuses weddings and marriages, in such a way as to imply that civil and religious marriages are two separate legal realities. In fact, in law there is only marriage, with two ways into it — via the state (civil ceremonies) or the Church (church weddings), with each (state and Church) recognising the other’s ceremonies as valid. This is because both Church and state recognise the reality of marriage as an institution embedded in civil society which precedes and predates both state and Church — and which lies beyond their control to redefine. The Government utterly fails to grasp this essential point, and appears baffled, therefore, at the Churches’ vigorous opposition to the move.

The description of same-sex marriage as “equal” marriage is a naked attempt at hijacking the term; the Universal Declaration of Human Rights already makes clear that men and women have the an equal right to marriage. The notion that redefining marriage is for the sake of “equality” is nakedly absurd, as the Catholic Voices briefing paper (recently updated) makes clear.

The other massive flaw in the Consultation, one which exposes the poverty of the Government’s thinking about marriage, is the complete absence from it of children. As the Archbishop of Westminster pointed out in last night’s Newsnight (beginning at 11’40):

‘To me it is utterly astonishing that in the whole consultation document … there is not one reference to a child. There is no reference to children at all. And I think that shows that the vision of marriage contained in the consultation document is reduced. It is excluding things that are of the very nature of marriage.’

The Consultation lasts until June. At present, the debate is being cast as a disagreement between the entire political establishment and the Churches, almost alone in their organised opposition. The leaders of all three political parties, cowed by the efficient lobbying of Stonewall – whose £4m annual budget allows it to employ teams of lawyers and lobbyists — are in favour of the proposal. Unless civil society organises, and a proper debate is enjoined, the state will be allowed to reshape society in a way that can only be described as totalitarian. The choice is ours.

Public reactions do influence the thinking of politicians. If you want to sign the petition organised by Coalition for Marriage, you can visit the site here.

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You might be sick to death of media discussions about same-sex marriage, but just in case you need a bit more background and food for thought, here is the latest briefing paper from Catholic Voices. (There is a link to the paper in the 5th paragraph here.) Despite the ‘Catholic Voices’ label, it doesn’t try to argue against redefining marriage from a religious point of view; instead it appeals to a vision of how marriage as presently understood serves the common good of society – for people of no faith as much as for people of faith; and it argues that redefining marriage will harm the whole of society and not just the religious groups that might be promised some kind of ‘exemption’.

Here are a few choice paragraphs. First, on the implications of the redefinition for society as a whole:

It is also inadequate to assert, as does the gay rights lobby Stonewall, that “if Roman Catholics don’t approve of same-sex marriage, they should make sure they don’t get married to someone of the same sex.”  The question of whether marriage should be redefined such that its meaning and nature cease to be conjugal is a one which affects the whole of society; and a matter on which all people – whether gay or straight, married or unmarried, religious or unreligious – are entitled to express a view.  Marriage has an intrinsic cultural and social meaning – a conjugal meaning – which is not specific to religious understandings of marriage, although religion gives it extra meaning. Whether entered by the religious or the civil route, marriage is marriage; its intrinsic conjugal meaning will need to be rejected in order to allow same-sex marriage.

Second, on the impoverished vision of marriage being presented in the re-definition:

When the Prime Minister, David Cameron, last year addressed his party’s conference, his justification for legalising gay marriage differed from that of his Equalities Minister. “Yes, it’s about equality,” he said, “but it’s also about something else: commitment. Conservatives believe in the ties that bind us; that society is stronger when we make vows to each other and support each other.” This frame allowed him to claim that he did not support gay marriage “despite” but “because of” being a Conservative.

Similarly, the liberal-conservative Economist asserted that “the real nature of marriage … is a binding commitment, at once legal, social and personal, between two people to take on special obligations to one another.” The magazine went on to ask: “If homosexuals want to make such marital commitments to one another, and to society, then why should they be prevented from doing so while other adults, equivalent in all other ways, are allowed to do so?”

This same truncated thinking underlies the Government’s consultation paper, which gives as one of its “principles for change” the following statement: “The Government recognises that the commitment made between a man and a man, or a woman and a woman, in a civil partnership is as significant as the commitment between a man and a woman in a civil marriage.”

These definitions of marriage as merely an expression of commitment between two individuals are severely truncated: as Archbishop Vincent Nichols has pointed out, “equality and commitment do not amount to marriage”. The quotes above make no reference to the key element in the conjugal understanding of marriage which has permeated our culture and history and which – as our poll shows – remains widespread. Unlike the Prime Minister, most people see marriage as a union of a man and a woman for the sake of the bearing and nurturing of children (even if children do not always result). This conjugal understanding of marriage is not just marriage’s real meaning; it is also the reason it is respected and promoted by the state.

Then a passage about the importance of marriage for the common good:

Marriage’s importance to society rests on three premises:

  1. The family is the founding unit of civil society
  2. At the heart of the family is the sexual union of a man and a woman given to each other for their sake and for the good of their children;
  3. Marriage provides the ideal, irreplaceable environment for the raising of children, who benefit psychologically, emotionally, and in countless other ways by being brought up by their mother and father.

Marriage has many “goods” – emotional commitment and stability among them. But the reason the state promotes marriage is because of its link to, and benefits for, children. These benefits are inextricably bound up with the conjugal union of man and a woman, who become mother and father to the children they generate. Other arrangements for bringing up children are not promoted and legitimised by the state because, however loving the carers, they are far less beneficial. Children brought up by divorced or single parents, by adopted parents or by relatives, by same-sex couples or in foster homes, are all missing something essential to their well-being; and that is why society (and the state) do not promote and institutionalise such arrangements. For while there are bad marriages and bad families, and sad cases where children are abused by their parents, the overwhelming, unchanging norm is that a child raised by his or her mother and father stands the best chance in life. It is not simply the presence of two parents of opposite genders, but the presence of two biological parents, that best supports children’s development – and this is something recognised, as our survey shows, by 84 per cent of British people.

Although marriage is indissolubly linked to children, it is not simply a means for procreation. Couples who cannot for some reason reproduce can still be married: both Church and state accept that a marriage exists as long as it can be consummated – that is, as long as the behavioural conditions for procreation can be fulfilled.

Marriage is singled out and promoted by state, religion, and civil society, because it serves a far-reaching social good – the welfare of children. No compelling case exists for the state recognising same-sex (or other, non-marital) relationships in the same way as it supports marriage.

And finally, on how a redefinition would impact on everyone, and not just on the gay couples who would choose to ‘marry’ in this way:

One thing is clear: the redefinition which the Government proposes would require the state renouncing the conjugal understanding of marriage. Because society takes its cue from laws and the state, that redefinition will send a clear message that the state no longer holds to that conjugal understanding. The implication will be that the union of husband and wife is not, after all, a privileged context for the upbringing of a child. No kind of arrangement for the rearing of children can any longer be proposed by the state (and therefore society) as an ideal.

To suggest otherwise will in time be considered narrow-minded and intolerant. The very terms “husband and wife”, “mother and father”, would need to disappear from public and educational literature to avoid “exclusive” or “intolerant” language. The redefinition of marriage will require the cultural dethroning of the conjugal ideal. This is not a smaller matter for future generations of children, whose interests risk being sacrificed on the altar of an ideological view that same-sex relationships are as worthy as heterosexual ones of being upheld by the state. “Redefining marriage will have huge implications for what is taught in our schools, and for wider society. It will redefine society since the institution of marriage is one of the fundamental building blocks of society. The repercussions of enacting same-sex marriage into law will be immense” [Cardinal Keith O'Brien].

Losing the idea of gender complementarity as necessary for children will also have consequences. “Having two opposite-sex parents provides the child with the capacity to relate intimately to both males and females, and to adopt an engendered role from both influences … It is not in any child’s best interests to choose, through a redefinition of marriage, deliberately to deny these facts and then to institutionalise this denial” [Archbishop Peter Smith]. As the columnist Matthew Parris, who is gay, writes: “I am glad I had both a mother and a father, and that as after childhood I was to spend my life among both men and women, and as men and women are not the same, I would have missed something if I had not learned first about the world from, and with, both a woman and a man, and in the love of both.”

Do read the whole text, which partly deals with some of the objections that you might be raising as you read these summary paragraphs. There is a link to the paper in this report.

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Sir Paul Coleridge spoke last week about his newly established Marriage Foundation, which seeks to halt the ‘appalling and costly impact of family breakdown’.

A marriage stone lintel, which marks the initials of the newly married couple, and the date of the wedding. A nice connection with the previous post about marking lintels for the Epiphany

He certainly knows how to frame a provocative soundbite:

Almost every dysfunctional child is the product of a broken family

Matthew Holehouse reports:

Sir Paul wishes to encourage people not to have children unless their relationship is stable, and if it is stable, to encourage them to get married.

“Marriage, as the best structure in which to raise children, needs to be affirmed, strengthened and supported. Recycle your rubbish by all means, but be very slow to recycle your partner,” he told The Times.

“We have to rid ourselves of this dream that we are going to find the partner who is perfect in every way: emotionally, physically, intellectually – it’s just a nonsense.

“People want to change horses mid-stream – it’s the disease of the modern age. Soon you find the new partner is as flawed as the last. It is like a hydra: you cut off one head and get rid of a boring partner but inherit 26 new problems, your new partner’s children, family and so on.”

Family breakdown is the “scourge of society”, he added. “It affects everyone, from the Royal Family downwards. In about 1950 you weren’t allowed in the royal enclosure at Ascot [if divorced]. That would now exclude half the Royal Family.”

“It is a myth that children, even older ones, don’t care. They care greatly and a break-up shocks the whole foundation of the family, it never recovers.”

“My message is mend it — don’t end it. Over 40 years of working in the family justice system, I have seen the fall-out of these broken relationships. There are an estimated 3.8 million children currently caught up in the family justice system. I personally think that’s a complete scandal.”

Leaving aside the practical question of exactly which laws and tax-incentives might support the institution of marriage, it’s remarkable that Nick Clegg can characterise marriage as simply a private commitment without any public/social implications.

In a Lib Dem disagreement with the Conservatives about tax breaks for marriage couples he said there was a limit on what the state “should seek to do in organising people’s private relationships” [my italics].

Getting married is probably the best thing that ever happened to me. But just as a liberal I think there are limits to how the state and government should try to micromanage or incentivise people’s own behaviour in their private lives [my italics].

This contrasts with David Cameron at the Conservative Party Conference last October, where at least he recognised the importance of marriage for children, and by implication for society in general – even though there are other equally important questions about how he defines marriage.

Marriage is not just a piece of paper. It pulls couples together through the ebb and flow of life.

It gives children stability. And it says powerful things about what we should value. So yes, we will recognise marriage in the tax system.

Tim Ross reports on some of the differences within the coalition.

[In a speech to the Demos think-tank] Mr Clegg will say: “We should not take a particular version of the family institution, such as the 1950s model of suit-wearing, bread-winning dad and aproned, home-making mother – and try and preserve it in aspic.

“That’s why open society liberals and big society conservatives will take a different view on a tax break for marriage.”

Mr Clegg will argue that liberal values are more important than ever as the world faces deep economic uncertainty and risks turning inwards.

“Conservatives, by definition, tend to defend the status quo, embracing change reluctantly and often after the event,” he will say. Senior Conservatives retaliated Mr Clegg yesterday. The employment minister, Chris Grayling, told Sky News: “We are two parties in the coalition. Of course there are things on which we have different views.

“We as Conservatives believe strongly in supporting marriage and the family. The Liberal Democrats take a different view. We accept that family is not always the same thing as it has been in the past. “But we have always argued that we should support the family, that we should support marriage in the tax system.

We think we need to strengthen the institution of marriage in our society.” He insisted that the “differences of emphasis” did not mean the Liberal Democrats were not “valued partners” in government.

Mr Grayling’s stance was supported by Gavin Poole, executive director of the Centre for Social Justice, a think-tank founded by the work and pensions secretary, Iain Duncan Smith.

Mr Poole said Mr Clegg’s argument “flies in the face of all the evidence” demonstrating how important marriage is to well-being of children.

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This is how the apparently logical/scientific argument goes: Teenagers keep getting pregnant, and thus having more abortions and unwanted babies. So if we give them more drugs to stop the pregnancies, and include the morning-after pill in the package, the pregnancies will decrease.

This kind of unquestioned argumentation colours many of our opinions, and drives public policy. But it’s not empirically true. It’s bad science.

Morning-after pill for girls aged 16 and under

Marianne Neary explains why. She examines some of the epidemiological or ‘population-based’ evidence:

The morning-after pill was introduced to reduce the number of unplanned pregnancies, yet subsequent abortion rates have continued to increase unabated. The morning-after pill was then made available over-the-counter to over 16s in the UK in 2001, again with the rationale that the ease of access would curb unplanned pregnancy. Yet there was still no effect on the ever-increasing abortion rates.

The British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) has launched an online campaign this month to make the morning-after pill freely available in advance via the post. Randomised controlled trials investigating whether advance provision of the drug reduces the numbers of unplanned pregnancies have shown no such effect; in fact they show that women increase usage of the morning after pill and some studies even suggest that normal contraception is compromised. A study published earlier this year by Nottingham University found that the incidence of sexually transmitted diseases amongst teens was increased in association with local authorities increasing their access to the drug.

What we see is an effect known as “risk compensation” or “behavioural disinhibition”: where a safety net (a Plan ‘B’) is provided – in the form of abortion and the morning-after pill – “risky” sexual behaviour then increases as a result. We are apparently in a lose-lose situation [...]

Professor David Paton, Nottingham University, reports to ScienceDaily in January 2011: “Our study illustrates how government interventions can sometimes lead to unfortunate unintended consequences. The fact that STI diagnoses increased in areas with Emergency Birth Control schemes [schemes increasing access of the morning-after pill to teenagers] will raise questions over whether these schemes represent the best use of public money.”

Neary also goes beyond the scientific analysis to look at some of the broader cultural issues involved:

Instead of tackling the root of the problem, by promoting fidelity and faithfulness, campaigns brandish the word “sex” in fairy lights, framed by the slogan, “Are you feeling turned on this Christmas?” advertising the online access to the morning after pill (BPAS December 2011). The U.S. is currently in debate whether it should allow underage girls to obtain the pill over-the-counter. I think society owes an apology to the girl who winds up pregnant at 14 when she’s bombarded with adverts trivialising sex, when a boy uses the easy access to the morning-after pill as a persuasive device and when the government makes a public statement that casual sex at any age is normal behaviour.

Reporting to the BBC, Ann Furedi adequately epitomises society’s backward attitude towards unplanned pregnancy: “Unintended pregnancy and abortion will always be facts of life because women want to make sure the time is right for them to take on the important role of becoming a parent. Abortion statistics are reflective of women’s very serious consideration regarding that significant role within their current situation.”

While the voices of “Plan B” advocates are louder, couples are increasingly exposing themselves to sexually transmitted disease by engaging in unprotected sex, more women are taking the morning-after pill (a mega-dose of female hormone) when the long-term health consequences are unknown. Perhaps one of the most pressing issues in the US and UK now with the increased availability of the morning-after pill under scrutiny, is that underage girls could get hold of it without face-to-face contact with their Doctor. The latter serves to flag underlying problems which can be discussed and most importantly, keeping a medical record of who is taking it and how often can potentially flag cases of sexual abuse in underage girls.

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For anyone interested in questions about marriage and the family, Maryvale Institute in Birmingham is taking new students for the MA course which beings again this January. [This is last year's poster.]

To save time I’m just copying this helpful summary from the Witness to Love website from earlier this year:

A new course has just begun at the Maryvale Institute in Birmingham, an international Catholic distance-learning College. It is an MA programme in Marriage and Family based on the teaching and vision of John Paul II (especially his Theology of the Body) drawn up in close collaboration with the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family in Rome. The new MA programme runs via distance learning on somewhat similar lines to Open University courses and promises to be a really exciting and innovative way to bring the wisdom and beauty of John Paul II’s teaching to others.

The Maryvale Institute was also the home of Blessed John Newman in 1846 after his conversion when he lived there with a small community. Maryvale is also a former seminary (1794-1838) and orphanage (1851-1980) run by the Sisters of Mercy. It houses the historic and beautiful Chapel of the Sacred Heart from its seminary period and has also today houses a convent for Bridgettine sisters since 1999.
The new MA pathway “seeks to develop an ‘adequate anthropology’ through the study of God’s plan for marriage and family” (see pathway No. 6 here). It is therefore interdisciplinary and could be of interest to students from a wide variety of backgrounds such as teachers, priests, youth workers, those involved in marriage care, medicine or family law.

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I was in Newark on Thursday, giving a Day of Reflection about the Internet and the Church (that’s for another time). We met in Holy Trinity Parish, and I had some great conversations about a huge pastoral project they are involved in. Supported by Lottery funding, and with the help of Regenerate Trust, they are part of a Neighbourhood Challenge pilot scheme that’s trying to find new ways of listening to the needs of the community and responding to those needs through the commitment of the community itself. You can read about it here.

Fr Michael gave me one great example of how listening with sensitivity and openness can bring about unexpected changes. Like most parishes, there was a vague feeling that they were not doing enough for young people, and an assumption that they should start some kind of youth club, which reflected another unspoken assumption that young people wanted to be alone together – isolated within their peer group, and cut off from other relationships with their parents, older or younger siblings, parishioners, neighbours etc.

But when, as part of this project, they actually started asking families what the young people really wanted/needed (I know these are not always the same thing), the answer was: a family evening. Not to stop young people gathering together with their peers; but to allow them to do that in a context where the whole family could be together as well, and where other families – and parishioners and neighbours – could spend time together. So they did it. And it worked!

This is from Caroline Hurst’s blog-post:

On Friday 5th August a group of volunteers arrived at the Community Centre a little apprehensive but very excited, waiting to see what the opening night of  Family Friday’s would hold.

It turned out that well over 50 people came down to the centre and the atmosphere was brilliant. Young people were out playing games on the field, people were playing table tennis and pool. The hot dogs were very well received and tasted great (so I am told) and the tuck shop also went down brilliantly with old and young alike! Adults were catching up with one another and young people were either joining in with their families, playing games or sitting having their own conversations. It was fantastic to see people interacting together so freely and the concerns about ages and parents being around appeared to be unfounded as a good time was had by all.

There were people of all ages there from under 5′s to over 60′s and the interactions were wonderful to see. Several people remarked on the night and since how surprised at the numbers and the success of the evening. All we can hope is that Family Fridays continue to grow and develop. When term time starts up hopefully the word will start to spread and that  even more people will interested in coming and seeing what is on offer of Family Friday’s down at Holy Trinity Community and Partnership Centre.

The peer group is important. And young people need space and a certain privacy. But they also value the security of knowing that parents, grandparents, siblings, neighbours, etc are around. In the right context, there can be a magical balance of freedom and belonging in this kind of environment.

You see this, if you are lucky, when extended families get together, and cousins chase around together while aunties and uncles sit and put the world to rights.

You see this in Lourdes, when part of the joy for young people is spending time with the elderly, loving them for who they are, and also being able to escape in their own groups later in the day.

You see this, sometimes, in village schools, where because of the lack of numbers, children are not isolated within their own age group, but have to share a classroom with those younger and older than themselves, with the result that all sorts of relationships can flourish that would be impossible in a single year group.

I know there are problems as well; I just think we should be a bit more critical of the hidden assumption that the deepest desire of everyone between the ages of 11 and 18 is to get away from anyone who isn’t their age.

[I'm just piecing this all together from a quick conversation with Fr Michael. If anyone from the parish wants to say more about the listening process behind the family nights - please do add your thoughts in the comments below].

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"A faithful friend is a sturdy shelter" (a nice photo - but I'm not sure how sturdy this shelter is...)

Two friends got married yesterday. For the first reading, they chose this passage about friendship from Ecclesiasticus (6:14-17):

Faithful friends are a sturdy shelter:
   whoever finds one has found a treasure.
Faithful friends are beyond price;
   no amount can balance their worth.
Faithful friends are life-saving medicine;
   and those who fear the Lord will find them.
Those who fear the Lord direct their friendship aright,
   for as they are, so are their neighbours also.

Here are a couple of thoughts – not the whole sermon, just the reflection on friendship:

It’s a lovely thing that they were friends for a good period before they started dating, because it helps them to see that friendship is the foundation even of the great romance that has brought them to marriage.

An enduring friendship, through all the inevitable ups and downs of life, is a key part of what sustains a marriage. It’s why the word ‘honour’ is so important in the marriage rite. You honour a person for who they are, for what their innate dignity deserves, and not just because you happen to love them.

The last verse of the reading is particularly thought-provoking: “Whoever fears the Lord directs his friendship aright, for as he is, so is his neighbour also”. As you are, so will your friend be, so will your spouse be.

A simple interpretation of this is to say that ‘like attracts like’, we are drawn to people who are similar to us – and there is some truth to that.

But a deeper meaning is this: that the person you choose to be at any moment will have a formative effect on your spouse. If you are loving, patient, cheerful, forgiving; this will have an effect, for the good, on your spouse. If you are ratty, resentful, complaining, mistrustful; the chances are, before too long, so will your spouse be too.

Everyone wishes that their husband or wife were more loving, more perfect. The secret is to be more loving yourself. The effects, as anyone knows, are not always immediate (if only they were!). But if you want your spouse to be good, and you want your friendship to last, there is no clearer path than trying to be a good person yourself; and persevering on that path.

And, since I’m cutting and pasting, a final section about the openness of a couple within marriage:

There is a special beauty about a marriage that is open to God and open to the gift of children. It’s hard to describe, but it’s true.

If you live your Catholic faith, and pray together, and make your home and family a place of faith and holiness – in one sense it makes you less intensely focussed on each other.

You can’t say to each other, like in the romantic novels, ‘You are everything to me’ or ‘You are my all’, because it’s simply not true. There’s God also, there’s life after death, there’s the family, there’s all the other stuff too. (Now I’m not a hardliner; and we’ll allow you a bit of romance and exaggerated lovers’ language.)

But in a strange way, the fact that two people are less focussed on each other (because of their faith) allows them to love each other more freely, with more passion and more purity. And you really see this.

It’s not a bargain, as if to say, ‘If you love God, he will bless your marriage’. It’s a spiritual truth, that your openness to God in faith, and your openness to the gift of children that he may send you, will have a direct effect on your openness to each other in love and friendship.

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You may not have seen the recent Unicef report about the way materialism has come to dominate family life in Britain. What children really want, says the report, is to spend time with family and friends, to take part in group activities such as sporting events, and simply to be outside. What they are getting instead, very often, is more stuff. Parents are working such long hours in Britain, compared with other countries, and when they do get home they are too tired to spend time with their children. So they buy toys and gadgets to compensate. That’s the gist.

Nintendo DS Lite

John Bingham summaries some of the conclusions of the report:

In its latest study Unicef commissioned researchers from Ipsos Mori interviewed hundreds of children in Britain, Sweden and Spain, asking them about their ideas of happiness and success.

Researchers found that consumerism was less deeply embedded in Sweden and Spain, which rank significantly higher for the wellbeing of children.

British parents work longer hours and are simply “too tired” to play with their children whom in turn they can no longer control.

Families across the country, irrespective of social class or race, are less likely to spend time, eat or play games together, with children often left to their own devices.

In British households television is increasingly used as a “babysitter”, while children’s bedrooms have become “media bedsits” with computers, games consoles and widescreen TVs taking the place of dolls houses or model aeroplanes.

The report found that children from poorer families were also less likely to take part in outdoor activities than those in the other countries, opting for a “sedentary” lifestyle in front of the television or computer games. The trend was more marked in teenagers.

Among the more startling examples of obsessive consumerism uncovered by the report was a mother fretting over whether to buy a Nintendo DS games system for her three-year-old son convinced that he would be bullied if she did not get him one.

In Sweden family time was embedded into the “natural rhythm” of daily life with parents sharing mealtimes, fishing trips, sporting events or evenings in with their children.

While in Spain fathers tended to work long hours, children enjoyed more attention from their mothers and wider family circle.

But in Britain, some parents spoke of having “given up” on taking their children to organised activities.

The report, authored by Dr Agnes Nairn, an academic and marketing expert, said: “Parents in the UK almost seemed to be locked into a system of consumption which they knew was pointless but they found hard to resist.”

She concluded that there was an “enormous difference” between Britain and other countries.

She said: “While children would prefer time with their parents to heaps of consumer goods, [their] parents seem to find themselves under tremendous pressure to purchase a surfeit of material goods for their children. This compulsive consumption was almost completely absent in both Spain and Sweden.”

Sue Palmer, author of the book Toxic Childhood, adds:

We are teaching our children, practically from the moment they are born, that the one thing that matters is getting more stuff.

We are probably the most secular society in the world, we do not have the counterbalance of religion but at the same time we are a very driven society very into progress and making money.

How does one react to all this? Is it just about making parents feel guilty for things that are beyond their control? Is family life really imploding in the way described in this report? Are there simple (guilt-free) changes a family can make to improve the quality of relationships and give children what they really want and need from their parents? Any practical suggestions?

[You can read the full report here]

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