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

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

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

For parents at Mass with babies, toddlers or children

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May God richly bless and protect you and your children.

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

Where the Wild Things Are graffiti in Streatham  by linniekin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is the cover:

Here is the Introduction:

INTRODUCTION: How Not To Use This Booklet

Every child is different. Every parent is different.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is the back-cover copy:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can see all the donating options here.

You can donate online by PayPal here.

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

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

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

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

TNTN10  £10

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

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

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

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

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

Catholic Voices analyses this much better than I can:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marriage’s importance to society rests on three premises:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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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 simple story quoted in a book I’m reading: Fr Victor Galeone was working as a priest in Baltimore, and this is how he described one pastoral encounter in his journal:

Yesterday, after an emergency call at the nursing home, I was about to exit when I noticed a man in the hallway. He was sitting next to a woman in a wheelchair, tenderly holding her hands. Not a word was spoken. He just sat there, looking intently into her eyes. I walked over and engaged him in conversation:

“Your wife, I take it?”

“That’s right, of forty-seven years.”

“Do you visit her often?”

“Every single day. Haven’t missed a day in four years, except for that blizzard last year.”

“She’s not saying anything.”

“That’s right. Hasn’t been able to for the last eighteen months – ever since her stroke. She has Alzheimer’s too.”

“Alzheimer’s! Does she know who you are?”

“Not really. But that doesn’t matter. I now who she is.”

[From Stephen Rossetti’s Born of the Eucharist: A Spirituality for Priests pp. 101-102]

It made me think about all the different relationships we have where the knowledge is not always equal – and how that doesn’t always matter. Sometimes we know someone better than they know us; sometimes someone knows us better than we know them; sometimes someone knows us better than we know ourselves.

Husbands and wives talk about how there are hidden depths (or shallows!) to their spouse that they realise will always remain a mystery. Parents know things about their children that the children won’t discover for years. A child, even a baby at the breast, knows something about his or her parents – as parents – that no-one else will ever know. In friendship, the relationship often shuffles along, a moment of discovery on one side, and then on the other, building into something that is definitely mutual, but not necessarily equal or stabilised.

2008-06-07 Bus 50 (Open-Top Bus, Swanage to Bournemouth) 09 Swanage, Elderly Couple on Hill Overlooking the Beach by that_james.

And in this beautiful example of an elderly couple, one lost in dementia, the “being-known” becomes more than the knowing itself; the lost memory of once-having-loved is absorbed into an ever present reality of being-loved. This can be true of those at the end of life, of the unborn, of the estranged, and of all those who cannot or will not let the love they receive from others grow into a personal response.

Love – and indeed being human, being a person – is not just about your capacity to love or think or act, it is also about the fact that you are loved, by someone, somewhere. And even where that someone seems almost completely absent, it is the fact that you could be loved – that you are loveable. Our dignity is not conferred by others; but we need others to make explicit what is too often hidden and unacknowledged.

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