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Posts Tagged ‘parenting’

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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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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?

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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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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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This is a couple of weeks old now, but it didn’t get as much traction in the news as I expected. Isn’t it an absolutely astonishing historical landmark, that over one billion people are now voluntarily connected on a social networking site?

Yes, there are more people in China, in India and in the Catholic Church; but these ‘groupings’ (I can’t find a good generic term that covers a nation-state and the Catholic Church) have taken a few years to get going, and a large number of their members were born into them.

Facebook doubled it’s size from a half billion users to one billion in just three years and two months!

See this report by Jemima Kiss.

And watch this very clever promotional video, entitled “The Things that Connect Us”, directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, whose film credits include Amores Perros and 21 Grams. Notice the beautiful bridge images, very close to my blogging heart.

And remember Susan Maushart’s warning in her book The Winter of Our Disconnect (p6):

So… how connected, I found myself wondering, is connected enough? Like many other parents, I’d noticed that the more we seemed to communicate as individuals, the less we seemed to cohere as a family… I started considering a scenario E. M. Forster never anticipated: the possibility that the more we connect, the further we may drift, the more fragmented we may become.

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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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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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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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Jenny McCartney “celebrates” the life of Eugene J Polley, the inventor of the TV remote control, who has recently died. Without him, there would be no such thing as channel-hopping. And who knows, if we hadn’t made the leap from watching to hopping, perhaps we wouldn’t have been psychologically or culturally ready for the next leap from hopping channels to surfing the web.

Polley was an engineer at Zenith, where he worked for 47 years. I put “celebrates” in inverted commas, because McCartney thinks he leaves a dubious legacy.

I am old enough to remember what viewing life was like before the remote control hit the UK, in the days when there were only three channels and you had to make the active decision to haul yourself up from the sofa and press a button to alter them. It was better. If someone wanted to change the channel, etiquette usually demanded that they consult the other people in the room, only moving towards the television once agreement was reached. As a result, you stuck with programmes for longer: since it took a modicum of effort to abandon them, and people are naturally lazy, even slow-burning shows were granted the necessary time to draw you in.

With the arrival of the remote control, the power passed to whoever held the magic gadget in his or her hot little hands. Automatically, the holder of the remote was created king of the living room, and everyone else became either a helpless captive, or an angry dissenter. As the number of channels steadily grew, so did the remote-holder’s temptation to flick between the channels with the compulsively restless air of one seeking an elusive televisual fulfilment that could never be found.

Channel-surfing is a guilty pleasure that should only be practised alone. There is nothing worse than sitting in the same room while someone else relentlessly channel-surfs. It makes you feel as if you are going mad. You hear – in rapid succession – a snatch of song, a scrap of dialogue, a woman trying to sell you a cut-price emerald ring, half a news headline, and an advertising jingle. The moment that something sounds like it might interest you, it disappears. Worse, when you yourself are squeezing the remote, you find that you have now developed the tiny attention span of a hyperactive gnat. Is it any surprise that, now that alternative amusements to the television have emerged, family members are challenging the remote-holder’s solitary rule and decamping to the four corners of the family home with their iPads and laptops?

I know that lamenting the invention of the remote control will – in the eyes of some – put me in the same risibly fuddy-duddy camp as those who once preferred the horse and cart to the motor car, yearned for the days when “we made our own fun”, and said that this email nonsense would never catch on. I don’t care. Listen to me, those of you who cannot imagine life without the zapper: it really was better before.

I think the phrase ‘surfing the web’ is misleading and actually disguises the fragmentary nature of the typical internet experience. If you go surfing (I went once!) you wait patiently and let a lot of inadequate waves pass underneath your board, but as soon as you spot the right wave, ‘your’ wave, you paddle with all your might to meet it properly, leap onto the board, and then ride that wave for as long as you can.

When you find a wave, in other words, you stay with it. You are so with it and trying not to fall off it that it’s inconceivable that you would be looking out of the corner of your eye for a better one. That’s the joy of surfing – the waiting, the finding, and then the 100% commitment to the wave that comes.

That’s why the phrase ‘surfing the web’ doesn’t work for me. The joy of the web, and the danger, is that you can hop off the page at any time, as soon as you see anything else vaguely interesting or distracting. You are half-surfing a particular page, but without any physical or emotional commitment. You can move away to something better or more interesting – that’s the miracle of the web, what it can throw up unexpectedly. But it means that one part of you is always looking over the horizon, into the other field, where to go next; as if non-commitment to the present moment, a kind of existential disengagement, is a psychological precondition of using the internet.

As you know, I am not against the internet. I just wonder what long-term effects it has on us and on our culture. On the internet, everything is provisional. So if we see everything else through the lens of our internet experience, then it all becomes provisional – including, perhaps, even our relationships.

Maybe that’s the word to ponder: ‘provisionality’.

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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 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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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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I’ve managed to get to the 40 Days for Life vigil in central London a couple of times since it started on Ash Wednesday. People gather outside the BPAS abortion clinic in Bedford Square, between Tottenham Court Road station and the British Museum. They pray. They witness peacefully to an alternative vision of life to that offered by the abortion culture. And they offer practical and loving support to women and men who perhaps think they have no alternative to seeking an abortion. It’s non-confrontational and non-judgemental, and it takes place across the street from the clinic so that people visiting there do not have to walk directly past a row of people they would rather avoid. One hour there were two or three people; another time there were about ten.

If you have time, why not try to visit and join the vigil, even if it is just for a few minutes. I know many people will feel uneasy about this – I did myself. There is a natural nervousness about doing anything in public as Christians, and a fear that this could become confrontational, and perhaps a genuine question about whether this kind of witness might be unhelpful and even counter-productive. I had all these questions and all these fears.

In the end, three thoughts persuaded me to go. First, the fact of simply praying must be doing some good. Second, I know not just from reading about it but also from friends involved that this witness has really helped a few people to re-think what they are doing and supported them in keeping their babies; it’s given some people not just a new hope but also the practical support to do what deep down they wanted to do. It’s helped to really change hearts and minds. And third, I am often tempted to go round in circles considering the pros and cons of an argument, and I thought that I should just go and experience for myself what it is all about.

I won’t pretend every moment is easy. Every now and then someone will walk past and make a comment (‘It’s none of your business’, ‘A woman’s right to choose’), and in these moments I feel very awkward, and question what we are doing. But there is a pervading sense of peace and prayerfulness, and a heartfelt charity towards all those involved in the clinic. People at the vigil are not there to judge, but to pray and to offer hope. And you feel the reality of this prayer and hope when you are there, even if it highlights the starkness of the choices many people are facing.

It’s also true that the vigil becomes a small and rare sign in the middle of London, to ordinary passers-by, that abortion is an everyday reality in our city, and that there is another view, another possibility. Abortion is for the most part an unquestioned part of the tapestry of British life. I’m not judging anyone here; I’m judging the culture that normalises abortion and makes it seem strange that people would stand in vigil to offer an alternative voice.

I came away with my faith strengthened, glad to have been able to offer a small witness to life. I also came away encouraged in a very concrete way by the knowledge that when we were there one of the women on the vigil had been able to have a long and much appreciated discussion with someone visiting the clinic. What happened in the end I don’t know, but at least something was offered.

Another strange and unexpected effect on me was the sense of standing with those who are suffering, with those who have no-one else to stand with them – even if it has no ‘practical’ consequence. These innocent human beings who are being aborted have been ‘forgotten’ by their parents, by the doctors, by the nurses; but at least a few people are trying to show that they are not forgotten. It reminded me of the women standing at the foot of the cross – offering their compassion to the crucified Christ, even if this didn’t seem to help him directly.

So the 40 Days for Life vigil seems to me to be about prayer, witness, support and solidarity; things that are undeniably good, even if there remain complex questions about what they mean and how best to express them.

The main website about the London event is here. You can see the international site here. The London Facebook page is here.

This ‘mission statement’ is from the blog.

40 days of peaceful prayer, fasting, and outreach to bring an end to abortion. We will help any person, whether mother, father, relative or friend, facing difficulties and considering an abortion. We also care about those that work at the abortion clinic. We pray for them and hope for their release from the culture of death, recognising that they too are wounded by abortion. We work for a change of hearts and minds, and a culture that defends life from conception.

And this is a summary of what the vigil is all about:

A peaceful and prayerful vigil opposite the abortion facility were countless unborn children are killed everyday. We stand in witness and prayer for the unborn children, their parents, and the people who work in the abortion industry.

Please join us daily anytime between 8am and 8pm, seven days a week.

We ask that each of our participants sign the statement of peace, abide by the law, and remain prayerful.

It is a really great help to the organisers if you could sign-up online and book which times you are able to join us at the vigil. This helps us to know which times are covered and which times need people present. Simply go to this link, sign-up, and choose you days and times.

Location:  North West Corner of Bedford Square, London WC1B 3HP (Directions)
Dates:   February 22, 2012 – April 1, 2012
Time:   STARTS: 8:00 AM     ENDS: 8:00 PM

Here is the ‘statement of peace’ you have to sign if you go as a registered participant:

1. I will only pursue peaceful solutions to the violence of abortion when volunteering with the 40 Days for Life campaign

2. I will show compassion and reflect Christ’s love to all abortion facility employees, volunteers, and customers

3. I understand that acting in a violent or harmful manner immediately and completely disassociates me from the 40 Days for Life campaign

4. I am in no way associated with the abortion facility/Planned Parenthood or its affiliates by way of employment, informant, volunteer, client, or otherwise

While standing in the city right of way in front of the abortion facility:

5. I will not obstruct the driveways or sidewalk while standing in the public right of way

6. I will not litter on the public right of way

7. I will closely attend to any children I bring to the prayer vigil

8. I will not threaten, physically contact, or verbally abuse the abortion facility/Planned Parenthood employees, volunteers, or customers

9. I will not vandalize private property

10. I will cooperate with local city authorities

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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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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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I don’t post about every sermon I preach, but here are a few lines from a nuptial Mass I celebrated at the weekend about the difficulty and the importance of making promises today:

Lasso Lumineux

There is something very beautiful and very simple about the wedding vows that you will make in just a few moments time. A man and a woman promise to love each other without reservation for the rest of their lives, and to embrace all the implications of that love: To love for better and for worse, for richer and for poorer, in sickness and in health, till death do them part. To love the whole person, with their strengths and weaknesses, their successes and failures. And to be open to the new life that love always brings; whether that is through the gift of children, or through the life-giving love that flows from your friendships and openness to others.

It’s hard for people to make promises today, partly because we are unsure about so many things. Unsure about the future; unsure about who the other person will become; unsure about what we want now; and even more unsure about what we might want in the distant future.

But there is a paradox here. Making a promise is what actually makes something sure. When you promise to be faithful to each other, come what may, you give a security and strength to this love. We talk about ‘the bond of marriage’, not because it is a chain to take away your freedom, but because it creates a space in which you can keep loving each other, freely – which is what you both want most of all.

I was the priest at a friend’s wedding a few years ago. She’s Mexican, and they have this tradition of the lasso – you may have heard of it. As soon as the wedding vows are made, the families of the couple bring a lasso to the front of the church – one of these huge ropes that you catch cattle with – and literally tie the couple together as they sit beside each other. The bride, my Mexican friend, is grinning like a Cheshire cat; while the groom, who hasn’t got a drop of Mexican blood in him, is sitting there very self-consciously, with a face that says ‘what on earth is going on?!’

Now I’m not recommending this today; I’m just giving it to you as a symbol. When you make these vows, something big happens. You bind yourselves to each other; and God takes you at your word and puts his own seal on your marriage. It’s a bond of love. It’s the security given by your own promises, and by the promise of God.

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Is boarding school bad for you? Stefanie Marsh, in a trenchant and fairly one-sided article, looks at the work of psychotherapist Joy Schaverien. In her paper ‘Boarding School: The Trauma of the Privileged Child’, Schaverien claims to identify something called Boarding School Syndrome, an emotional dysfunction stemming primarily from the trauma of early separation from one’s parents, that manifests itself in intimacy problems in later life.

Eton College

In Schaverien’s words:

Parents bankrupt themselves to send their children to school when they are just babies really. This is a terrible burden for the child. But it is like sending a child into care. Nowadays there are duvets on the beds and they are allowed teddy bears but it doesn’t make up for the fact that children leave their mothers, their primary attachment figures, when they are essentially still babies.

Stefanie Marsh fills in some of the psychological details:

‘Attachment theory’, a core tenet of contemporary psychology, was formulated by the psychiatrist and psychoanalyst John Bowlby, who, in the Second World War, observed the effects on children who had lost parents or been evacuated. During the 1980s, his theories were extrapolated and applied to adults – separation anxiety and grief in childhood, it is now commonly held, can create different ‘attachment styles’ in adult romantic relationship: secure-avoidant, anxious-preoccupied, dismissive-avoidant and fearful-avoidant.

Boarding school ‘survivors’, as they have been collectively termed by the psychotherapist Nick Duffell, are said to most frequently exhibit avoidant styles, viewing themselves as self-sufficient, invulnerable to attachment feelings and not needing close relationships. Often they suppress their feelings, cope with rejection by distancing themselves from partners or feel uncomfortable with emotional or physical closeness.

So this isn’t about identifying particular problems that can develop in the culture of a boarding school, it’s about the very fact of being separated from one’s parents at an ‘early’ age. I think the focus is more on those who board at ‘prep’ school, i.e. those who leave home not at 13, but sometime between the ages of 7 and 13. (David Cameron went to board at prep school at age 7; Stephen Fry at 7; Boris Johnson at 9; Price William at 8; Sienna Miller at 8…)

What do you think? What’s your own experience? Is there another side to this story?

[Times, Modern section, 23 June, pp. 4-5; subscription only]

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A young couple fall in love and panic about the consequences of commitment. A woman hides away in the bathroom at her own fortieth birthday party because she can’t face being reminded of so many years lost in an unhappy marriage. A young man confronts his widowed mother because she doesn’t seem to trust the woman he wants to marry.

There were constant glimpses of the beauty and the fragility of human love, and the way it inevitably uncovers a longing for something even deeper, something more mysterious. An indescribable longing, as one of the characters says.

You might expect a Polish bishop to preach about some of these themes, but not to dramatise them and bring them to the underground theatre of his day.

It was a marvellous play. I wish I could urge you all to go and see it, but there were only two performances. Martin O’Brien is the artistic director of Ten Ten Theatre. He’s adapted a play called The Jeweller’s Shop by Karol Wojtyla, the future Pope John Paul II.

It’s hard to present profound spiritual themes in the context of our contemporary culture without trivialising them, or sounding preachy. The most fruitful way is often through the medium of human experience. We live in the age of Big Brother and YouTube. Lives are exposed. We are constantly confronted with an unmediated human experience. So when grace is working through that ordinary human experience, it gives an opportunity to touch the fringe of God’s cloak and be lifted up for a moment into the transcendent, without stepping into church or lighting a candle.

Formal religion and popular devotions have lost none of their significance, but the fact is they are outside the bounds of most people’s reality. That’s why a bishop in the late 1950s, and a cutting-edge playwright in our own time, have tried to put the focus on everyday human relationships. Through those relationships, with the ambiguous longings of the human heart exposed so clearly, we catch a glimpse of the divine; just a whisper – quiet enough to be missed, clear enough to unsettle and enchant.

The Jeweller’s Shop by Karol Wojtyla is published by Ignatius Press. The Jeweller, by Martin O’Brien, was performed at Leicester Square Theatre on 22 June, directed by Paul Jepson, as part of the Spirit in the City festival. If you can help Ten Ten Theatre put on a longer run of this wonderful play, see their fundraising page here.

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I’m reading Susan Maushart’s The Winter of Our Disconnect, about ‘How three totally wired teenagers (and a mother who slept with her iPhone) pulled the plug on their technology and lived to tell the tale’.

First, Maushart describes the extent to which electronic media were an inescapable part of their family life:

At ages fourteen, fifteen, and eighteen, my daughters and my son don’t use media. They inhabit media. And they do so exactly as fish inhabit a pond. Gracefully. Unblinkingly. And utterly without consciousness or curiosity as to how they got there [...]

For Generation M, as the Kaiser report dubbed these eight- to eighteen-year-olds, media use is not an activity – like exercise, or playing Monopoly, or bickering with your brother in the back seat. It’s an environment: pervasive, invisible, shrink-wrapped around pretty much everything kids do and say and think.

Then why did she have so many doubts and uncertainties?

“Only connect”, implored E.M. Forster in his acclaimed novel Howards End

So… How connected, I found myself wondering, is connected enough? As a social scientist, journalist, and mother, I’ve always been an enthusiastic user of information technology (and I’m awfully fond of my dryer too). But I was also growing sceptical of the redemptive power of media to improve our lives – let alone to make them ‘easier’ or simplify them. Like many other parents, I’d noticed that the more we seemed to communicate as individuals, the less we seemed to cohere as a family. (Talk about a disconnect!)

There were contradictions on a broader scale too – and they have been widely noted. That the more facts we have at our fingertips, the less we seem to know. That the ‘convenience’ of messaging media (e-mail, SMS, IM) consumes ever larger and more indigestable chunks of our time and headspace. That as a culture we are practically swimming in entertainment, yet remain more depressed than any people who have ever lived. Basically, I started considering a scenario E.M. Forster never anticipated: the possibility that the more we connect, the further we may drift, the more fragmented we may become.

What’s your experience? Has all this connectivity made us more connected? Happy? Freer? Less alone? More alive? More at peace with ourselves and one with each other?

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Toy Story 3 is an astonishing film – one of the most profound, beautiful and funny I have seen in years.

Please don’t think that it is just for kids. Sure, if you have children, or know any, take them along. But if you don’t, then just go and see it for yourself. Don’t worry – there will be other adults in the cinema without children accompanying them. You won’t look strange.

I’m not usually so directive in these posts, but here we go: You should see this film!

There are some minor themes and sub-plots: love, loss, friendship, bereavement, justice, forgiveness, family, childhood trauma, freedom, redemption, etc. (Only in a trilogy as sophisticated as this one could these be flagged up as ‘minor themes’.)

The deepest existential theme is one that has run through the whole trilogy: that of personal identity. I’m not giving any real plot away if I tell you the premise of the film, that Andy has grown up and is going away to college, having boxed up his toys for the attic. So the toys are caught between their desire to remain loyal to Andy, and their longing to find someone who would appreciate them for what they are: toys. It’s that irresolvable tension between past and future, between duty and desire, between living for the other and living for the self. And the whole film turns on the question of whether it is possible to do both.

It struck me that the situation of the toys represents, above all, the situation of parents when their children leave home. Parents, like the toys, are left in the empty nest. Their whole life has been defined in terms of their relationship with their children, who seem not to need them any more. They want to remain loyal parents, open to giving and receiving love. But they also need to discover some new sense of purpose, or at least a deeper and more expansive way of living that vocation to be a parent – one that is not defined by the immediate needs of their children.

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Is religious education a form of brainwashing? Should children be free to make their own decisions about fundamental matters of faith? These questions are provoked by the new poster sponsored by the British Humanist Association. [See it here.] Two gloriously happy children hold their hands in the air as if they are about to do a cartwheel. The main text reads: “Please don’t label me. Let me grow up and choose for myself.” And floating in the background are the various labels under attack: “Buddhist child. Agnostic child. Protestant child. Humanist child. Catholic child. Atheist child…”

Candelaria religious education 1 + 2 by John Donaghy.

Religious education in Candelaria

I have an article in Timesonline in response to this. I’ll copy most of it below, but put it in quote marks just to acknowledge that it was not written for this blog. I give four reasons why the call to liberate children is superficially appealing but fundamentally naive:

First: The exercise of freedom requires some prior foundation. Children have to learn how to make choices: how to weigh things up, how to judge what is best, how to take responsibility. Any child psychologist knows this. Freedom doesn’t just happen. And an essential part of learning to choose is having some sense of the meaning of the world we inhabit, of the value of our actions, and of the significance of their consequences. In other words, freedom can’t be learnt outside a context of meaning and values.

Religious faith can help establish this context; so can a robust humanism. But to think that freedom can be learnt in a vacuum, without the sharing of any moral or philosophical convictions, is simply naïve. Children who are brought up without inherited values of any kind are actually less able to exercise their freedom and choose for themselves. Just as children who are brought up without boundaries will never be able to learn the significance of crossing them.

Second: If you believe something important to be true, then you shouldn’t pretend it is an open question. This goes for secular humanists as much as for religious believers. If, for example, you are a convinced atheist, and you think that belief in God is false at an intellectual level and damaging through its distorting effects on morality, then of course you would want to share this conviction with your children. It would be unjust to keep it from them. Similarly, if you believe in God, and you believe that this faith is not just a lifestyle choice or a cultural imperative but an objective truth with profound implications for human existence, how could you not share this conviction with your children? Yes, you want to nurture their freedom and you hope they will discover things for themselves. But if it is a question of truth – whether scientific or moral or spiritual – then you will inevitably want to guide your children along a certain path, knowing full well that they may one day choose to veer off in another direction.

Third: It’s a fantasy to imagine that children can be raised in a philosophically neutral environment without some dominant world-view. Theism – as much as atheism, materialism, or secular humanism (these terms are not synonymous) – provides a particular understanding of the meaning of the world and of human life, which will help structure a child’s understanding and values. But if you try to bring your children up in an environment which is indifferent to questions of ultimate meaning, then your purported neutrality will already have been lost. If, in effect, you say to your children, “I don’t care enough about these values or convictions to share them with you”, or “they are important to me but not important in themselves”, then you are presenting them with a very particular world-view. In this view, religious questions and all questions of ultimate meaning are relativised, and indifference is taken to be the predominant value.

To say to a child, “I don’t mind – you choose!” is to give the child the strongest possible impression that the available options are all equally significant, which is to say that none is uniquely significant. So this apparently ‘soft’ form of neutrality suggested in the poster is actually a ‘hard’ form of relativism which relegates religious and philosophical questions to the periphery of human interest.

Fourth: A strong notion of autonomy, which is essential to an individual’s freedom, requires an appreciation of one’s human dignity. Children need to know not just that they are loved but that their life has meaning and is valuable in itself. If this is not communicated in some way, then the love of the parents, however profound, will become distorted, because the children will see themselves as valuable to their parents but not valuable as persons in their own right. It doesn’t matter how this innate value is framed (‘human dignity’, ‘the sanctity of life’, etc.) as long as it is articulated somehow.

Human autonomy, rightly cherished by secular humanists, needs some notion of intrinsic human dignity to support it – otherwise it has no foundation and no meaning. So, paradoxically, in order to liberate children from the limited vision of their parents and culture, you have to imbue them with a strong sense of their own worth, of their dignity, of their significance in a framework of meaning. The humanism of the early Enlightenment held on to a strong notion of human dignity and human uniqueness, even as it became more secular. But as secular humanists have become more and more materialist in their outlook, and as materialism has failed to offer any satisfying accounts of human dignity, it has become almost impossible to avoid describing human nature in reductivist terms.

Contemporary secular humanists are largely unable to explain to children why their freedom and autonomy have any significance, why their life has any meaning – and this is why the exaltation of freedom proposed in this poster feels a bit hollow. If you really want your children to be free, you need to tell them why their freedom matters, and help them appreciate some of the values they might pursue. And to do that, you need to use at least a few labels

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Gaby Hinsliff writes about her decision to resign as political editor of the Observer in order to spend more time with her two-year-old son. It’s a long, soul searching article about the inner conflicts experienced by her and other mothers as they try to juggle full-time work with parenting and family life:

For two crazed but fantastic years, I did – in that loaded cliche – have it all: terrific job, plus small child. Thanks largely to a brilliant nanny and a hands-on partner, I don’t honestly believe either suffered from the other. But what got lost in the rush was a life, if a life means having time for the people you love, engaging with the world around you, making a home rather than just running a household.

Launch of our new Capabilities Programme by Demos.

What makes the article so poignant (and painful) is that she’s not a strident campaigner for stay-at-home motherhood. The realisation that something needed to change came very slowly:

Surrender steals up on the working mother like hypothermia takes a stranded climber: the chill deepens day by day, disorientation sets in, and before you know it you are gone. In the sleepless blur of the last three years, I can barely even remember now how it started.

But perhaps it was back this spring, when I took my son to be measured for new shoes: the woman asked what size he took, and to my embarrassment I couldn’t remember. I felt like an imposter. Or perhaps it was the summer morning when our nanny had to peel my howling son off me: he had a fever and wanted his mother, but I had a cabinet minister to interview. I shot out of the door, hot with shame.

What surprised her, and surprises me, was the evidence (both anecdotal and statistical) of how many working mothers feel the same:

But I never expected the emotional outpouring that followed. “Wish I had the guts to do the same,” texted a junior minister, when I announced my resignation. A seemingly unflappable PR confessed secretly agonising over “not being the kind of mother my son deserves”: a colleague whose slick work-life balance I had always envied admitted she was “at the end of my tether”, dying to quit.

Confessions tumbled compulsively from people I barely knew: tales of stricken marriages, miscarriages, only children who were meant to have siblings but then a career got in the way. “Too many of us once had relationships that we haven’t got now because of this job,” said a veteran male reporter, now divorced.

“I can’t afford regrets,” mused a cabinet minister, “because I’ve had this fantastic career, but…” Politics had, he said, dominated his children’s lives.

Not everyone sympathised. “Fine if your husband can afford to keep you,” sniffed a Tory frontbencher. But the shock was how widespread the fantasy of leaving work, even among parents in gripping careers, seemed to be.

Survey after survey suggests a deep-seated, buried misery over the eternal battle between work and family. Half of working mothers with children under 15 would stay at home full-time in an ideal world, according to a 2001 survey for the then Department for Education. Eight years on, this month’s She magazine reports nearly three-quarters of its readers want to cut their hours: the journalist Cristina Odone’s recent think-tank pamphlet, What Women Want, claimed if money were no object only 12% of mothers would work full-time.

I don’t know what conclusions to draw. Perhaps, simply, that as a society we should do all we can to help those mothers who do hope to spend more time with their children to fulfil that hope. This would not, then, be a reactionary campaign to force mothers back into the kitchen; it would be a libertarian call to help individuals achieve their goals in whatever way seemed best to them – including, if this were the case, to have more time for their children.

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General Electric Color TV, 1960's by Roadsidepictures.The debate continues about whether allowing young children to watch TV harms their cognitive development or not. It flared up a couple of weeks ago when a report commissioned by the Australian government recommended that children under 2 should be banned from watching TV and electronic media such as computer games. So this is about freedom, censorship, the relationship between the personal and the political, the nanny state, etc., as much as it is about child development.

An article by Patrick Barkham looks at some of the scientific and political issues involved. At the centre of everything is the extraordinary way in which the human brain develops. (I prefer the word ‘mind’ to ‘brain’, because ‘mind’ allows us to appreciate that our cognitive relationship with the world is dependent on much more than the neurological condition of the brain. But the brain certainly plays its part.) Barkham reports the findings of Dr Michael Rich, director of the influential Center on Media and Child Health at Boston Children’s Hospital:

Humans have the most sophisticated brain on the planet because it is relatively unformed when we are born. Our brains triple in volume in the first 24 months. We build our brains ourselves, by responding to the environment around us. The biggest part of this is a process called pruning, says Rich, whereby we learn what is significant – our mother’s voice, for instance – and what is not. “TV killing off neurons and the synaptic connections that are made in order to discriminate signals from ‘noise’,” he says.

Experts in child development have found that three things optimise brain development: face-to-face interaction with parents or carers; learning to interact with or manipulate the physical world; and creative problem-solving play. Electronic screens do not provide any of this. At the most basic level, then, time spent watching TV has a displacement effect and stops children spending time on other, more valuable brain-building activities.

Scientists concede that they do not yet know precisely how TV affects the cognitive development, not just in terms of understanding the inner workings of the brain but because the way we use television and other electronic screens is changing so rapidly that we do not know how it will affect people by the time their brains stop developing in their mid-20s. But the weight of evidence about the deleterious impact of TV on child’s ability to learn is alarming…

A more recent article by Helen Rumbelow steps back and looks at the way theories of child development have changed over the last couple of generations. The 1990s was the decade in which we discovered the importance of the first 24 months, and the idea that the right stimulation could boost your child’s chances. This led to playing Mozart to the child in the womb, flashcards as soon as they popped out, and Baby Einstein videos when they could sit up. Now the tide has turned.

Waching too much TV is bad for your eyes by | spoon |.

I’m not taking sides here – I don’t know enough, and I don’t have children, and I’ve seen plenty of happy and healthy children grow up with a bit of TV. But for all those anxious parents tortured with guilt and uncertainty, Rumbelow provides some consolation with a quote from Dr Martin Ward-Platt. The evidence, he says, is still too equivocal:

 The farther you get away from deprived populations, the less TV gets watched, and the more parental controls there are, so it is hard to disentangle this stuff.

Of course, the thing that really makes the difference for a baby is interaction with a caregiver and there is nothing we can invent as a people substitute. But if a child watches some TV and is exposed to people for the rest of the time, they will do fine. What we don’t know is where the limit is, where you start to hold children back.

If there is no strong evidence either way, we think it’s much better to say we don’t know, and what’s right for you is probably the best thing for your family.

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Pushy parents magazine by paulmorriss.

Marianne Kavanagh writes about the perils of modern parenting, and the particular pressure there is on parents today to obsess about whether they are making the correct choices as they bring their children up. The art of muddling through has been replaced by the science of seeking perfection.

Should you let your eight year-old out to play, risking abduction and getting run over, or should you keep him safely at home and worry instead about square eyes and obesity? Should you rush your daughter from violin to ballet, exposing her to a wealth of opportunity, or should you stop being so pushy and let her daydream?

Breastfeeding versus bottle-feeding, staying at home versus going out to work – there’s argument and counter-argument and a feeling that you’re going around in circles. “The only thing you know for certain,” says one mother gloomily, “is that whatever you’re doing is wrong.”

There is a wonderful photo with the original article [not the photo now on the Telegraph web article] of an innocent toddler crouching beside a huge pile of parenting books. She is reaching for a book entitled What every parent needs to know, with the suggestion that she wants to invert the roles and educate her parents in the knowledge they need to bring her up well. But the real message is that she is about to be crushed under the weight of books when the tottering pile falls over. 

Where has all this anxiety come from? “I always clean the lavatory before the health visitor comes,” says my friend Jane, “in case she thinks we’re slovenly.” We compare ourselves to other parents and find ourselves wanting. We see pictures of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie and really, really hope that they too feed their children rubbish food. We panic in case our actions harm our children for life – “I hate football,” says the father of three small boys, “but I have to pretend I like it in case I’m being a pathetic role model” – and spend all our time worrying about additives, knife crime and omega 3. As Frank Furedi, professor of sociology at the university of Kent, points out in his book Paranoid Parenting (Continuum, £10.99), we seem to have lost our nerve completely.

Maybe it is a big, bad world out there. But you have to wonder why our anxiety has reached such mammoth proportions. Perhaps it’s because we tend to have our children later in life these days – since 2004, women in Britain have been more likely to have babies in their thirties than their twenties – and so treat child-rearing like a job, with targets, multiskilling and 360-degree reviews. Or perhaps, with the pressure for both parents to work long hours, we’ve lost the art of muddling through. You could argue, after all, that routinely spending all your waking hours with a three year-old induces the kind of benign boredom that knocks anxiety on the head. Others believe that our growing insecurity comes from isolation. Few of us these days have aunts, cousins and grandmothers living nearby.

It doesn’t mean all the advice is unwelcome or unhelpful. I know parents who have found real wisdom in some of these books. But it makes you wish that all parents had the human support of friends and family to say to them: “You are doing OK! More than that – what you are doing is amazing!”

I remember a talk when I was studying at seminary about all the psychological problems that you can inherit from your parents. But at the end the speaker said: “But don’t worry. Most of our parents did good enough. And good enough is pretty good”.

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Silenсe by bu5h.

There is a beautiful article here by Susan Hill about the human need for silence. It’s not just another complaint about the busyness of life and the ubiquity of noise – although she is obviously disturbed by the fact that musak has crept into public libraries, doctors’ waiting rooms, and art galleries. It’s more about how children need to be educated, gently, into appreciating silence, and how we are failing to provide that education. Here are a few lines:

But we have also betrayed them by confiscating their silence and failing to reveal the richness that may be found within the context of “a great quiet”… When we arrive in a place of profound quiet, we “come to” and find something of ourselves that we did not realise we had lost, an attentiveness, a renewed awareness of our own innermost thoughts and sensations, as well as a great calm… Silence is a rich and fertile soil in which many things grow and flourish, not least an awareness of everything outside oneself and apart from oneself, as well, paradoxically, as everything within… Our children are too rarely given that opportunity or taught that the contrast between noise and quietness, like the parallel one between being in company and being alone, is vital to the growth and maturity of the individual.

As a priest working in a seminary I tend to take for granted the rhythm of study and prayer and silence that is built into each day; above all the period of 45 minutes between morning prayer and breakfast that is set aside for silent prayer and meditation. Even then, with the chapel facing the main road and a major hospital round the corner, it’s hard to escape the racket of buses, sirens and helicopters.

Penderecki by selva.

It was only on retreat this spring that I realised how much I missed real silence – the kind that meets you like a physical presence, and holds you, and takes you beyond; that creates a kind of natural humility, an anticipation, even a sense of awe.

A friend of mine with young children used to put them down to nap each afternoon. As they got older, without reflecting on it very much, she kept the nap time – even when they weren’t napping. It was a time of enforced silence after lunch, from about 2 to 4, when they could do anything they wanted (within reason…) as long as they did not disturb the silence. It was a real education. They’d play games, make things, explore in the garden, mope around, read as they got older. Learning to live with themselves. Then, around 4pm, the noise began…

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I finally got to Trafalgar Square to see One & Other. The artist Antony Gormley has signed up 2,400 ‘ordinary people’ to occupy the Fourth Plinth for an hour each. You can see what is happening on their webcam in real time now.

Here is someone as an example:

One & Other by erase.

I saw a middle-aged man in a baseball cap throwing fluorescent plastic men into the crowds below. Each figure, about 2 inches tall, had a parachute. If he was lucky, he threw them over the safety net. Part of the fun, the tension, was not knowing if the daring plastic soldier would make it. And part of the ‘art of unintended consequences’ (or perhaps he had cunningly thought this through beforehand) was that the figures that didn’t make it down were stuck in the net, hanging there, like those films where paratroopers are off course and stuck in the trees. Each figure had to be unwrapped before it could be thrown. The guy looked noncholant, a bit bored; like a street vendor shelling his hot chestnuts. The greatest unspoken thrill of watching was wondering whether he would jump over the edge with his own parachute when the hour was up.

There was so much to enjoy and reflect on. The children below were having a ball; with a frisson of danger too, because the parachutists were landing on some steps – so you couldn’t lunge easily. And the sociologists could have had a field day. At first it was an image of innocent, playground fun. Then I realised the complications: their parents. They had the height advantage, so it became a contest between which parent was tallest or most desperate; they then passed the toy onto their child, who took it not as a personal victory but as a reward for having a pushy parent. Eventually, the parents got bored, and it was back to the children – genuine, devlish innocence.

The star of the show is the JCB crane/tractor/digger that swaps the participants over. It is a thing of beauty: that JCB yellow/orange, polished by the sponsors; the grace of a carefully designed machine; the awesome size of each tyre; the memories of Tonka-toys; and the performance itself – people in fluorescent jackets parting the crowd like circus artists going before an elephant.

There was a palpable sense of disappointment when the next person got up and the crowd realised she was going to do… nothing. Nothing but sit in a pink chair, take photos, write some notes, and wave to the crowd now and then – without any regal affectation. I went through a surprising range of emotions: frustration (why can’t you do something interesting?); anger (you have had weeks to think about this – and now it’s wasted); forgiveness (I guess you have every right to do what you like); to appreciation (wow – you are just there). And perhaps that’s the point, if there needs to be one: she is there; with enough self-confidence to just sit on the plinth and look at others, at us; to invert the artistic experience; a middle-aged woman in a green T-shirt and jeans looking at the artistic event of Trafalgar Square itself. The banality, the glory, the sheer fun of humanity itself – up there on the plinth, and down here in the crowd.

And the first person who ever stood on the plinth? Christ, in the form of Mark Wallinger’s sculpture Ecce homo in 1999. All the same questions about is it art and who is he and why is he there and what is he doing; only with the added poignancy that he stood for everyone. The only photo I can find is copyrighted – see it here.

 

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