The Catholic Weekly

Undeserving, unremarkable, unreliable, and beloved

Odd for the magi to know enough to prostrate themselves, in their jewels and flowing robes, before the seemingly unremarkable but truly extraordinary son of Mary; odder still, odd times a billion, for that Son to prostrate Himself for us, who are truly unremarkable.

Why? Why would He do this?

Because, to Him, every last one of us is that child who is unlike any other child. Each one of us is cherished like the “little man” who is adorable just because he enjoys eating eggs, or sweet beyond compare just because he has learned to blow kisses, like billions of other babies. To Christ, each of us is that special one, that cherished child, that singularly beloved one who makes his parent’s heart swell with affection.

Read the rest of my latest post at The Catholic Weekly.

Image: detail of photo by Andreĭ Osipovich Karelin, Public Domain


Boys with sticks

boy with sword 2

Several years ago, a nice family came over our house. It was partly for a social call, and partly to see if our family would do well as a daycare for their two kids when the mom went back to work. The girl was about four, and the boy was about six.

As we adults chatted, the kids explored the house. At the far end of the living room were the toys, including a tidy bucket full of weapons belonging to our sons and daughters. There were bows and arrows, swords of all kinds, scimitars, light sabers, pistols, slingshots, rifles, daggers, and machine guns. I watched a little nervously, because I knew this mom leaned progressive, and was raising her kids to be non-violent.

Her little girl immediately found a baby doll, sat down, and put the doll to bed. The little boy scuttled over to the weapons, and before I could say more than, “Um–” he had grabbed two swords and swung them, with a natural expertise, in a gleeful arc over his head.

“HAHH!” he shouted, and held that pose for a moment, swords raised. Eyes on fire, happiest boy in the world.

I slewed my eyes over to his parents, not sure what I would see. Horror? Disgust? Outrage? Dismay?

They both looked . . .  immensely relieved. “Well, there goes that,” said the dad, apparently referring to the no-weapons policy they’d followed strictly for the last six years. I tried to apologize, but they both said, “No, no, it’s fine.” And it was fine. There was no tension in the room. Their son had hands made to hold weapons, and now he had some.

I wasn’t surprised to see the boy taking so naturally to swordplay, but I was fascinated to see his parents taking so naturally to the rules of our house, which were so different from the rules in their own home.  Once their son’s unsullied hands first made contact with the weapons of war, the whole family relaxed into that reality immediately.

In this short piece in The Globe and Mail, this mom’s friends need someone to tell them what our friends realized: Hey, it’s okay if your boy wants to swing sticks around. It doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with him, or that he’ll inevitably grow up to be a rapist or a sociopath or a steroid-fueled abuser. There is a place for fighting boys in the world, if we let there be a place.

She says:

When I was pregnant I dreamed about the sweet, sensitive child I would have. I imagined us sitting at the table engaged in some means of creative expression, perhaps painting or writing stories. I imagined sitting quietly in the park listening to the birds and finding shapes in the clouds. But it was not to be.

My wild boy chases the birds, leaps from the park bench. He runs and jumps and yells and climbs. More than once I’ve felt pangs of envy while in the company of friends and their sweet, quiet little girls.

Before you lambast for not valuing her son, read on. It’s clear that she loves and enjoys her boy, and gives him reasonable rules: he wants to swing a stick? She tells him, “Be careful,” and leaves it at that. She says,

 I’m through apologizing for Malcolm. His wildness is not a product of permissive parenting or the negative influences of a violent TV culture. His wildness is his own, and as such I embrace it even if others do not.

But what is she supposed to do when her boy comes into contact with other boys, who are repeatedly told, “Put the stick down”?  She notes:

I have heard many open-minded parents declare: “If my son wants to play with dolls or dress up in girls’ clothes, I’m totally fine with that.” But what if your son wants to play with sticks and do battle? Are we so afraid of the power of violence to overtake us that we are uncomfortable with its harmless expression in children’s play?

Yes, we are, and it’s making a mess of the world. It doesn’t make violence go away when we always tell boys, “Put that stick down.” Instead, it’s making a world where people, boys and girls alike, have no idea what to do about unjust violence.

Boys playing with sticks is not a meaningless game. It’s something that little boys absolutely must be allowed to do, if that’s how they want to play. A boy who wants to pick up a stick needs to know that he can, and he may, and that his affinity for sticks is not a bad thing. He needs to know that a stick is a powerful thing, and that the world needs men who know how to use their sticks.

Boys who are never allowed to be wild are boys who never learn how to control that wildness. Boys who are not allowed to whack and be whacked with sticks never learn what fighting is like. What’s so bad about that? Well, they may end up hitting someone weak, with no idea how much it hurts to be hit. Or they may end up standing by while the strong go after the weak – and have no idea that it’s their job to put a stop to it.

Either way, the weak suffer. The whole world suffers.

Boys aren’t a problem to be fixed. Parent should correct the little details when the way they play really hurts someone else, but we should let the main energy of our children go the way it wants to go. If that means finding shapes in clouds or writing stories, that’s fine. Don’t push our sons to be fighters if they doesn’t naturally run that way.

But if they naturally want to turn everything they touch into a weapon, then that’s fine, too — as long as they know there are rules.  If your boys wants weapons, then keep weapons in your house. Make a place for them. Give your boys permission to be who they are, and encourage whatever good impulses you see in them.

And give other parents permission to let their kids be kids, too. Some parents aren’t hearing it from anyone else. If your house is the place where their son first lays hand on a sword, don’t apologize! But let him know that swords come with rules. Don’t banish fighting; banish cruelty.

In the issue of violent play, as with so many other issues, we’re forgetting there’s such a thing as balance and middle ground. Parents believe that there are only two choices: we can raise our sons to be quiet, passive, nurturing empaths who could easily slide into a princess dress without making a ripple — or we can raise them to be swaggering, slavering beasts who exist only to give orders and mow down anything in their path.

There is, of course, an in-between. There are men who are strong and tough and in control of their strength, and these men were once boys who grew up with both weapons and rules. But it’s become impossible to talk about that kind of boyhood, without being accused of trying to turn boys into one extreme or the other. When I say that my son carefully carried around caterpillars when he was a toddler, I hear that I have a secret desire to castrate men. When I say that my husband protects our family, I hear that I’m perpetuating rape culture and the myth of female victimhood. When I say that there is a difference between men and women, I hear that I am the problem – I’m the reason there’s violence and unhappiness in the world – I’m the reason we can’t all just get along. I hear that if only we would all agree to put the stick down, we’d be fine.

Yes, well. When your daughter is the one who’s lying barely conscious on the front yard of some frat house, my sons will be the ones who will know enough to charge in, swinging sticks to chase the brutes away. They’ll know because we let them have sticks, we let them find out what sticks can do, and we told them what sticks are for.

Violence doesn’t take over when boys are allowed to have sticks. Violence takes over when no one tells boys what sticks are for.



No, It’s Not Okay to Flip Off Your Sleeping Baby

In Slate, Education Columnist Rebecca Schuman shares a gallery of photos of herself flipping off her sleeping seven-month-old baby. Schuman explains why, so far, she hasn’t found a compelling reason to stop taking and sharing these photos.

She loves her baby, but the kid is a bad sleeper, and is making her very tired and frustrated.

Schuman says:

The reasons I take and post these pictures are varied. I crave emotional release after hours of increasingly desperate nursing, jiggling, rocking, walking, and, my personal favorite, walk-nursing (all wriggling, self-torpedoing 22 pounds of her). I’m also trying to amuse my husband, to diffuse what could otherwise be even more strain on two adults pushed to the boundaries of civility. And, of course, there’s the defiant gesture of Parenting Realness, an offshoot of the Go the Fuck to Sleep genre—that urge to fly in the face of decades of parenting decorum and admit that while we adore our children to smithereens, we’re not going to pretend to love the bare Sisyphean relentlessness that our days and nights have become.

She argues, I guess with tongue in cheek, that Kant and Artistotle would frown on her behavior. Kant, she says, would say that “what I’m doing isn’t necessarily bad for the baby per se, but it might be hardening my heart toward humanity in general”; and Aristotle would condemn her for “habituating” herself to “the wrong kind of actions.”

But, she argues, her actions don’t actually harm the baby in any way:

[I]s my current use of the one-digit salute warping my offspring’s fragile little mind? She’s a baby, so she doesn’t understand what the bird means yet. Also, she’s asleep, so she doesn’t know I’m doing it. And also, she’s a baby.

Let me be clear. I, like the author, despise the “lovin’ every minute of it” culture that is strangling American parenthood like so much sentimental kudzu. We’re expected to cherish every second we spend with our children, and we’re expected to be awash in joy and wonder at all times.

This is bullshit, and I’ve said so more times than I can count. It makes us into worse parents when we expect to be joyful and grateful all the time. Raising babies is hard, and there are lots of times when it just plain sucks. I recall telling my pediatrician, in a moment of sleep-deprived candor, that I wasn’t actually going to throw my always-screaming baby out the window, but I sure felt like I wanted to.

Speaking the truth about how we feel can be a great release. I have mountains of sympathy — oceans of sympathy, galaxies within galaxies of sympathy — for strung out parents who are exhausted beyond belief by the insane demands of babyhood. My own baby is six months old and is currently all angry all the time, because she thinks she can run, and her ridiculous doughy legs won’t cooperate. I’m hardly getting any sleep, and things are kind of awful right now. I’m having a hard time writing this post, because the baby won’t stop shouting at me.

But listen to what I said: the demands of babyhood are awful. That does not make your baby awful. One of the first things you need to learn, if you want to be a good parent, is to make sure you know the difference between “fuck this situation” and “fuck this baby.” The former is a universal experience. The latter is grotesque.

But why? The baby doesn’t know the difference, and I believe this mom who says she loves her baby. Isn’t this just some harmless, if tasteless, venting? Does it really matter what goes on around the head of someone who doesn’t and can’t understand what’s happening, which is really just a joke anyway?

Well, how would you feel if this were a gallery of photos of a fed up policeman flipping off people he’s put in handcuffs? Or a gallery of photo of an overworked heart surgeon flipping off a series of unconscious patients? Or a gallery of frustrated judges flipping off prisoners headed to jail? Or a gallery of exhausted nurses flipping off dementia patients? Or a gallery of under-appreciated ESL teachers flipping off a roomful of baffled foreign students who didn’t know what the middle finger signifies?

Not cool, right? Even if they are only venting, even if the people being flipped off had no idea it was happening. We expect more of people who do know what it means, because of their position of authority. Along with the authority and strength of their position comes the responsibility not to abuse the weaker person, even if the weaker person has made a lot of trouble for the stronger person, even if the weaker person doesn’t know it’s happening, even if the stronger person is very tired. If these policemen and judges and surgeons and teachers felt free to behave grotesquely and offensively toward the people under their authority — if they wrote jocularly about it in Slate magazine, and proudly provided a link to more photos — we’d freak the hell out, and rightly so.

We would demand that they treat the weaker person with the dignity they deserve because they are human beings. This is what we expect from people who are simply doing the jobs they are paid to do. Why should we expect less of a mother?

Just because someone can’t fight back, that doesn’t mean we can use them. Just because someone can’t fight back, that means we can’t use them.

Recall the infamous Army Private Lynndie England photos from Abu Ghraib. There were many photos showing prisoners being tortured and humiliated, but Americans were especially repulsed by the jaunty, thumbs-up “lookit me!” ones. The ones where the prisoners had bags on their heads, the ones that showed that the torturers thought the whole thing was kind of funny.

Recall: Schuman’s frivolous joke here; England’s hilarious prank here. 


No, the Slate writer’s baby isn’t be tortured. But there is something chillingly familiar about “HA, you can’t fight back!” attitude. You don’t need to look up your Aristotle to know that some things just aren’t funny. Even if it makes you feel better.

The very worst thing that you can do to another human being is to use him. I used to think this was just some abstract theological formulation meant to neaten up the codification of sins. But now I see that objectification of human beings lies at the heart of every sin. That’s what it always comes down to.

We don’t use people, even if they don’t know they’re being used. Especially if they don’t know they’re being used. And for God’s sake, especially not when it’s our own child.



Carve Out Time for These Few Essentials

AS0000019F08 Pregnancy, pregnant mother with child

You’ll also find regular exercise gives you more energy to do something that is absolutely essential: putting in some one-on-one time with your other kids. It’s all too easy for them to feel displaced and neglected when the new baby comes, so it is essential to carve out some special time to connect with them, consistently and intentionally, academically, emotionally, spiritually, and just for some plain old silly old mommy-and-me fun, or else they will grow up to be crack whores.

Read the rest at the Register. 



What can Catholic parents learn from Dzhokhar Tsarnaev?


Our kids need us. Most of our teenagers are not in danger of becoming violent jihadists like Dzhokhar Tsarnaev; but unless we make a deliberate, consistent, sincere effort to live our faith and to make sure that our older kids are well connected with adults who can guide and educate them and answer their questions, and unless we give them many opportunities to practice their faith, then there is little hope that they will still be Catholics when they leave our homes.

 Read the rest at the Register. 


I refuse to worry about what my kids eat for dinner.

boy eating beet for some reason

If you were a better mom, this would be your kid.

Today, I’m making Zuppa Toscana. When I share recipes I’m trying, people often ask, “Will your kids really eat that?” The answer is: some of them, yeah. Some of them, no way. A few of them, maybe. And I am fine with that. I have two goals when I serve a meal: at least half the family should eat it, and mealtimes should be reasonably pleasant.

My policy is: I decide what to cook, and they decide whether or not to eat it.

We don’t have food battles (or food cold wars). We don’t save plates of untasted food and keep serving them, meal after meal, until the child consents to take just one bite. I know that other parents have done some variation of this, in hopes that a child will eventually begin to develop a taste for some nutritious or delicious food. But I’ve found that learning to eat new foods is a lot like learning to read or learning to use the toilet: you can either teach the kid when he’s ready, or you can teach and teach and teach and teach a kid until he’s ready — but either way, it ain’t gonna happen if he’s not ready.

I guess it’s possible that an especially serene parent would be able to patiently, consistently insist that a child try some despised food ten thousand times; but I do not possess that serenity, and things would get ugly fast. I’m already warping my kids enough over other issues. I don’t need to add “But WHY don’t you like kale?” to the list. The table is no place for guilt trips or power struggles.

So, I bring a dish to the table, and I ask each kid individually if he wants some. They have to say either “yes, please” or “no, thank you” — no retching noises or horrible faces allowed. If they want it, great. If they don’t want it, I just move along. With this approach, and with the passive peer pressure of older kids visibly enjoying different foods, I’ve had kids refuse a dish fifty times, and then gradually develop a taste for it, with no prodding or nagging from me.

If they don’t want what I’m serving, they are allowed to fill up on side dishes or fix themselves toast, eggs, a sandwich, cereal, or leftovers.  A child as young as four or five can get himself a simple meal.

Wait, wait! Don’t I want them to be healthy? And don’t I want to avoid wasting time and money on cooking foods that no one will eat?  Sure. This is why I aim for meals that at least some of them will eat. But I don’t worry about each kid having a balanced meal three times a day. I don’t even worry about having a balanced diet each day. I take the week-long view: as long as they have a reasonably nourishing, balanced diet over the course of the week, that is good enough.

And sometimes kids will just eat one food for a long, long time. This is common, and it is fine. Just keep offering a variety of foods and not making a big deal out of it. Give your kids daily vitamins to make up whatever deficits are in their diet, and don’t keep a lot of complete crap in the house for them to fill up on.  They will survive, and there will be peace in your house. As long as your kids have energy and are growing normally, there is nothing to worry about.

There is (probably) something beyond picky eating called Selective Eating Disorder, where adults not only won’t but can’t get themselves to eat more than a few, bland, nutritionally questionable foods; but I’m 99% sure your kid is not developing this disorder. Keep this in mind: the eating disorder researcher in the article says “Kids are at greater risk of becoming picky adults ‘anytime the food environment is coercive or tense.’” So avoiding that situation should be your first focus if your child is a picky eater.

To sum up: offer variety. Don’t cater to them too much. Don’t make a big stinking deal out of it. Take the nutritional long view. And if they don’t like the tasty soup you made? More for you!


About the Pope’s “don’t be like rabbits” remark UPDATED




Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

First, kudos for Erin of Bearing Blog for spurring me to reread the full transcript of the Pope’s recent in-flight remarks. He didn’t precisely say “Catholics shouldn’t be like rabbits” (and he never used the word “breed” at all). What happened was that the reporter asked him what he thought about the idea that so many in the Philippines are poor because of the Church’s ban on contraception. The Pope replied:

God gives you means to be responsible. Some think that — excuse the language — that in order to be good Catholics, we have to be like rabbits. No. Responsible parenthood. This is clear and that is why in the Church there are marriage groups, there are experts in this matter, there are pastors, one can search; and I know so many ways that are licit and that have helped this. You did well to ask me this.

Another curious thing in relation to this is that for the most poor people, a child is a treasure. It is true that you have to be prudent here too, but for them a child is a treasure. Some would say ‘God knows how to help me’ and perhaps some of them are not prudent, this is true. Responsible paternity, but let us also look at the generosity of that father and mother who see a treasure in every child.

So, yes, if you read the entire context, he wasn’t saying, “The Church thinks you shouldn’t be like rabbits.” He was saying, “Some people think the Church teaches this, but it doesn’t.” A subtle distinction, a fairly important one . . . and an unfortunately quotable phase that just screams to be misunderstood.

Francis Phillips of the Catholic Herald UK says pretty much what I thought when I read the stories about the Pope’s interivew: This is really nothing new, but yikes. Phillips:

[W]hile I knew exactly what Pope Francis was actually saying, I still groaned. … Those people who read and listen to the secular press and who already have their own prejudices against Church teaching, will remember and repeat the word “rabbits” like a mantra, while we Catholics will sigh and point out as patiently as possible that that the Church has always taught “responsible parenthood” – and indeed, the Pope mentioned this too, during that hour-long meeting with reporters on his flight home.

What the Holy Father implied was that “responsible parenthood” is what matters, not specific family size. This will be different in each family and with each couple; while the use of artificial contraceptives is intrinsically life-denying it can also be irresponsible to have children thoughtlessly, without regard to issues of health and family circumstances.

But the problem with these remarks, unless they are carefully developed and explained within the context of Catholic teaching, is that they might cause confusion, not only outside the Church but also inside, among faithful families. Yes – people can have large families from selfish motives, just as they can limit their families from selfish motives. But what about large Catholic families, struggling to do what is right in their circumstances and under the normal pressures and demands of family life? They might, wrongly, take the Pope’s remarks personally and worry that they are being profligate and irresponsible. They have taken the biblical words “Go forth and multiply” seriously, at great personal sacrifice. They have already, in our secular society, been dismissed as “breeding like rabbits”; the Pope’s remarks will seem to undermine them, however much this was not intended.

Yup. He wasn’t advocating contraception, and he wasn’t saying small families are better than big families. He said things that are true, but he said them in a way that gives ammunition to people who are sloppy thinkers, or who are unmotivated to find out what the Church really teaches, or who are looking for justification to hate the Pope. Which is just about everybody.

Look, this is our Pope. He’s kind of a blabbermouth, and sooner or later, he’s going to irritate just about everybody. And no, this isn’t the first time he’s said something that makes me go, “Oy.” All the more reason to pick your head up out of the constant stream of gabble in the media from time to time, take a deep breath, and focus on your own family and your own spiritual life, rather than diving headfirst into the outrage du jour. (And yes, that means you might end up reading my blog less. Go ahead, I can take it!)

Anyway, Phillips was nice enough to recommend my book as an antidote to some of the confusion over what the Church actually teaches about family size, and how to balance the seemingly contradictory ideas of responsibility and generosity. I do hope that it helps!

I guess if Catholics want the beautiful teaching of the Church to be better understood by a skeptical world, then it would behoove us to spend our energy, you know, using these dust-ups as an opportunity for sharing and explaining that teaching, rather than constantly bitching about the Pope.