Surrogate Gods, Surrogate Parents

It is a gross understatement to say that we live in very trying times.  Our country is at war, our economy is a mess, atheists are one of the fastest growing groups in our country and our families are under siege.  My intent is not to depress you, but get your attention on the reality of the world in which we live. 

In times of adversity, many of us slow down, take stock and reevaluate our priorities. I have been reflecting much of late on my sons, ages 7 and 11, and the world they will inherit from our generation.  I think about the struggles my wife and I have with raising kids today in a world that doesn’t seem to value children or even respect human life.  I am not an expert on this topic.  I am merely a parent who loves his children.  My credibility comes from the fact that I struggle with these issues, just like you.  I am also a careful observer of others and am sincerely interested in what is going on in people’s lives.   This article is for all parents who are recognizing in these difficult times that our relationships with God and our children are at risk and offers some suggestions on how to recapture lost ground.

A Simpler Time

I grew up in a home where both my parents worked to make ends meet.  There were years that my dad worked two jobs to help support our family.  We had few extras, but we had what we needed.  If I wanted spending money, I worked a number of jobs to earn it.  What our family did have in abundance were love, encouragement and a focus on the importance of values.  My parents always made time for my sister and me; and family dinner time was sacred.  They were genuinely interested in what we were doing at school.  As tired as my father was after work, he would play catch with me every evening and on weekends. 

My mother was our emotional bedrock and I always admired what a great team she and my father formed-in fact they just celebrated their 43rd wedding anniversary.  We had rules in our house and I knew the boundaries that I could not cross.  Faith was very important to my parents and church, Sunday school and prayer were staples in our household.  My childhood was by no means perfect, but I am grateful for my experience and how it has shaped me today.

I suspect that many of us have similar fond memories and “Norman Rockwell” moments in our past.  I would suggest that a bond that connects most of our various childhood experiences is simplicity.  We didn’t have as many distractions, technology was still under our control (versus the pervasive influence it has on us today) and values and character still mattered.  Regardless of your religious affiliation, you probably found fewer obstacles back then to your relationship with the Lord.  I am a realist in my early 40’s and understand very well the technology driven world in which we live, but as I grow older I am hardening against a neo-modernist, “everything goes” version of the future and looking more to the lessons of the past for guidance.

Surrogate Gods

I am increasingly alarmed by the obsession and addiction to consumerism and materialism that seems to drive so many parents today.  The media and retail advertisers have insinuated themselves into every electronic gadget or print product we own, use or see every day.  We have been sold for decades on the idea of a lifestyle that is filled with fun, convenience and, dare I say, guilt if we don’t pursue this artificial paradise.  The push is to buy, buy, buy…and then buy some more! The focus on acquiring material goods drives many of us to work harder and harder to make more money to buy bigger houses, nicer cars and cooler gadgets. 

This obsession often pulls both parents into the work force to support their lifestyle, keep up with the neighbors or satisfy some deep inner emptiness.  There is nothing wrong with a nice lifestyle, but how much is enough?  And more importantly, at the end of your life, can you take it with you?

In Matthew 6:19-21 our Lord said: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and decay destroy, and thieves break in and steal. But store up treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor decay destroys, nor thieves break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there also will your heart be.”  This clear direction from Jesus means we need to take better inventory of our lives. We need to make sure that God is not just one of our priorities, but instead He must be the top priority. 

As Jesus said in Matthew 6:24, 33-34: “No one can serve two masters. He will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon. But seek first the kingdom (of God) and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you besides.  Do not worry about tomorrow; tomorrow will take care of itself.  Sufficient for a day is its own evil.”

This focus on acquiring the things of this world takes our focus away from God.  Again, please don’t misunderstand me, supporting our family comfortably is not in itself wrong.  I am talking about the excessive pursuit of material goods that takes our focus away from the Lord and our faith journey.  There is a word that I have learned in the past year that squarely addresses this problem: detachment. 

As Francis Fernandez said in In Conversation With God: “An effective detachment from everything we have and are is necessary if we are to follow Jesus, if we are to open our hearts to our Lord, who is passing by and calls out to us.  On the other hand, attachment to earthly things closes our doors to Christ and closes the doors to love and to any possibility of understanding what is most essential in our lives.”

Think about the key words we place before the material things we desire during the course of a day: “I want”, “I need” or “I love.”   Now, replace these material things with God and use the same key words.  We should all want, need and love God and our thoughts should always be of Him.

Even though I have focused primarily on the problems of materialism, please also recognize how we can also create false gods out of our work or the pursuit of pleasure (drugs, gambling, sex, sports, hobbies, etc.).  Any object, activity or feeling that has our excessive, disordered attachment and devotion is coming between us and our Heavenly Father and is in effect, a surrogate god.   What if we challenge ourselves to be good stewards of our gifts and abundance?  Consider the impact on our relationship with God and our community as well as the inspiration our children will receive if we place more emphasis on charitable giving than acquiring things we don’t need?

Surrogate Parents

The first part of this article dealt with parent’s growing addiction to pursuing the material things of this world and the danger of placing materialism, comfort and excess in front of our relationship with God.  As bad as that problem has become, consider another growing crisis: our disordered focus also takes critically important time away from our duty to our children. Who is raising our children today? 

Are we responsible for developing their character, values, work ethic, sense of community and most importantly their love for God?  The answer is obviously yes, but have we taken charge and are we teaching our children as well as we were taught by our parents?  Have the complex demands of today’s society taken away our ability to be the nurturing, caring and emotionally available parents we are supposed to be? 

My wife and I struggle daily with fighting off the negative influences facing our children and we don’t always win that battle. While we focus our time and efforts on providing unnecessary gadgets and comfort for our family are we in fact neglecting our families?  The campaign by retail companies to market to our children and the media’s active complicity in that campaign, has left our children vulnerable to attack. 

One only has to carefully observe child programming on TV, computer games, video games or any other media channel to see the drive to force our kids into becoming tomorrow’s consumers….today.  The Consumers Electronic Association of America noted that the average American home contains 26 different electronic devices for communication and media!  Studies have shown that U.S. children watch an average of 25-30 hours a week of television. 

I am intimidated, yet inspired by the possibility that we could fill that time with developing our children’s character, playing games, listening to them, praying or anything that will allow us to shape their lives instead of relinquishing control to Sponge Bob, MySpace or the latest computer game! Don’t forget peer pressure. As bad as this exposure can be in your own home, imagine what your child is seeing and hearing at school from friends and classmates. 

Remember how much we wanted to fit in and be cool at that age?  Well, our kids have the same desire and emulating the behavior of their peers is the only way they may see to be part of the group.  I often wonder if our kids seek out role models in school, sports or through the media because we aren’t setting the right example or showing them alternative role models in our parish, in our extended family or the few heroes we have in the world today who stand for virtue and values.  It is a hard thing to admit…

The bottom line is we may be increasingly relinquishing our parenting responsibilities to television, video games, the Internet, the mall and influential peer groups at school.  These “surrogate parents” don’t care about our children or love them.  Their only focus is turning them into little consumers and fitting in with the false image they have lifted up as the standard to follow.  In the case of online predators, there are those who would do our children great harm if we are not careful.  It is tragic, but true.

There is a war going on for the hearts and minds of our children and we have to take back the responsibility to raise our kids in a manner that is good for them and pleasing to God.  Teaching our children about responsibility, stewardship, character, virtue and most importantly to love God (and that He loves them!) is the responsibility of parents.  I have written many times about work as a vocation, but parenting is a mother’s and father’s first vocation.  Nobody else can do it for us.

A Game Plan

It is ironic and sad (and encouraging?) that as our country struggles in the midst of a painful recession, I have observed so many who have experienced job loss, financial hardship, anxiety and a host of other struggles.   My conversations with the majority of these good people have a common thread: they are enjoying the extra time they are spending with their families, they are getting to “know their kids again”, faith has become very important and meaningful in their lives and their marriages are back on solid ground. 

Maybe these folks are the lucky ones who have been forced to realize for maybe the first time the perilous path they were on in their relationships with God and their children.  Is it possible for us to get this message before we also go through the same wrenching hardships?

King Solomon said in Proverbs 29:18, “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” What is the vision for our relationship with God and how we will raise our children?  It must be a Christ-centered vision and not a media-inspired vision-let’s agree on that.  I propose these practical thoughts which I am trying to follow, as possible steps in the right direction to remove the obstacles to our relationship with God and reclaiming our parental rights with our kids:

• Prayer – Make your prayer life a priority.  Pray to the Lord for guidance, wisdom and just be thankful for what you have.  Pray with your children.  It all starts here.

• Detachment – Really ask yourself if you need “it”, what ever “it” is.  Let go of the things that are in the way of your prayer life, church attendance, charitable giving, volunteering and certainly your relationship with God.  The Catechism (2556) says, “Detachment from riches is necessary for entering the Kingdom of Heaven.”

• Love and Limits – Our children need and deserve our love.  They need us to love them so much that we must be willing to set clear limits over what they are watching and listening to as well as being involved in knowing who their friends are.  The world is filled with boundaries and we have an obligation to teach our children to deal with them.

• Time – Our children need our time.  Put down the blackberry, turn off the television, cancel the golf outing and let’s spend more time with our kids!  Scott Hahn once said that in our modern age the father or mother who is willing to walk out of the office after 40 hours in order to have more time with his/her family is the real hero.

• Listening – It is often difficult to remember to listen to our children.  We feel that we have so little time to interact and instruct our kids that we wind up in lecture mode most of the time.  I personally struggle with this, but on those occasions when I slow down enough to listen and experience what they are thinking and feeling, I find that I am the one who is learning something.

• Example, Character and Virtue – We have an opportunity and an obligation to set the right example for our children.  Please read this carefully: Our children will become what ever we raise them to be.  Think about the opportunity we have to let our kids grow up seeing our rock solid faith in God, our devotion to the Church, our consistent character, our virtuous behavior, our devotion to family, our stewardship, our strong prayer life and our focus on doing the right thing.  Or, we can relinquish all of this responsibility to the media, Brittney Spears and their friends on MySpace.

• Our Faith Journey…will be the example for their faith journey.  Our kids will be likely to pray, honor and serve the Lord, go to reconciliation, volunteer, tithe, observe the Sacraments and be strong in their faith IF they grow up in a household where Mom and Dad set the example.

As a Catholic father with a young family, I am worried about the future for my children and the world they will inherit.  But, I am comforted by the knowledge that Jesus gave us an instruction manual (the bible) and a teacher whose sole purpose is to help me and my family follow Christ’s teachings and get to Heaven (the Church). 

I will share again that I struggle with the same challenges as you and I don’t pretend to have all of the answers.  I do know that it is not too late to turn away from the things of this world and place our relationship with God and our children on a proper footing.  Take comfort in Philippians 4:13:  “I have the strength for everything through Him who empowers me.” I have to go now.  Time to pick up the kids at school and play a little soccer…