For all the social media “friending” and “connecting,” there is a crisis of friendship in the world today. The trivialization and/or sexualization of the concept of friendship is an increasing problem in our culture. Families and catechists must do everything in our power to foster healthy friendships in the lives of the children entrusted to our care. Like everything in children’s lives, their understanding of what it means to give and receive friendship begins at home. How can parents offer children the experiences and skills they need to construct a good foundation for healthy friendship?
Four Friendship Virtues
The four cardinal virtues, when practiced in our families, enhance our ability to be present to children and develop other virtues that help them live in friendship with others. Here we identify some intentional ways that parents can cultivate virtuous living and healthy Christian friendships in our children.
1. Prudence helps families limit activities to the essentials and let the rest go. Before making a commitment to a new activity, consider what virtues the activity will foster. If we allow each family member to choose activities without considering how their involvement impacts their relationships with parents and siblings, we may find the whole family rushing from one commitment to the next and only vaguely aware that we are missing out on crucial opportunities for self-reflection, meaningful conversation, and the enjoyment of silence. Overscheduling children’s lives impedes their ability to engage in imaginative play and/or to appreciate the spiritual and relational benefits of silence. Skilled at a variety of activities and oriented toward tasks, they may become accustomed to pushing aside their inborn desire to know another and be known. Some may pressure themselves to master skills they mistakenly believe will earn approval. Others may look to relationships outside the family to meet their most primal need for loving acceptance, resulting in unhealthy ways of relating. A frenzy of activity cannot allow for the slow, patient development of authentic friendship which is meant to begin in the context of family life and grow outward from there.
2. Justice helps parents model and teach everyday forgiveness. Most people do not think of forgiveness when they hear the word “justice.” Here the Christian virtue goes beyond the typical understanding of judgment and punishment for wrongdoing, and vindication for the innocent. For example, as soon as our sons reached the age of reason, we had insisted that when one of our children hurt or offended another he demonstrate contrition by asking forgiveness. Just saying “Sorry,” in that droopy-headed, unconvincing way children can resort to wasn’t enough. We insisted they name what it was they were sorry for along with a plan to do better. “I’m sorry I kicked you on purpose and I will go for a run next time I feel that angry.” Or, in a different scenario, “I’m sorry I accidentally hurt you and I’ll try not to do it again.” The duty of the offended party was to shake hands or hug and say, “I forgive you.” Sometimes they needed time to think about it before they were ready to go through with it, but with years of practice, it became a habit. None of this would have worked if we, as parents, had not been willing to do this ourselves. We discovered that this family habit is particularly countercultural. Our boys’ teenaged friends were flabbergasted when they witnessed this in action. Our son asked them if they had heard what the Gospel says we should do when our brother offends us, and his friends responded, “Yeah, but who does that?”
3. Temperance helps us limit the intrusion of technology into the life of our family.
It is not enough to be passers-by on the digital highways, simply “connected”; connections need to grow into true encounters... We cannot live apart, closed in on ourselves. We need to love and to be loved. We need tenderness.[i]
The presence of two people is the minimum pre-requisite of the true encounter encouraged by Pope Francis. We are to help a child be present to himself or herself, to God, and to others. We do this first by being present to the child. We turn our attention away from the all-pervading screens and offer our children the tenderness they deserve. As parents, we may be in the same room with our child, we may even eat at the same table; but if our minds are distracted by electronic communications, we cannot listen to the thoughts and desires of our child’s heart. It is impossible to check the score of the game and be fully present to another person at the same time. To be fully present to others, we must behold them with love.
4. Fortitude strengthens us to persevere in our resolve to form Christian habits, such as sharing family meals. When families eat together regularly, more is shared than just food. A comfortable routine evolves in which each member of the family rests and is “at home.” Each one takes his or her place at the table where, especially on difficult days, children (and parents too) find solace in the prayers of thanksgiving, the passing of food from one person to the next, and the predictable conversation, “How was your day?” At family meals, parents naturally model for their children manners and human virtues (“Please” not “I want”; “swallow your food, then speak”; “wait your turn, your sister is talking”). They gradually help their children engage in the art of good conversation. When conversation is strained or sparse, the repeated face-to-face encounter with each other still communicates, “You are not alone, you are part of this family, you belong here.”
When our five children were young, we ate breakfast and dinner together most days. As they grew and attended different schools, we could no longer manage family breakfasts but still ate dinner together most evenings. Somewhere along the way we began the tradition of eating tacos together every Sunday. Everyone participated in preparing the meal, and we took turns helping to clean-up. During their college years, our varied schedules seldom allowed us to gather the whole family around the table for dinner, but our Sunday taco tradition continued. Now when we gather as a family from four different states, someone will always insist, “We have to make tacos!”
An important question arises here for us catechists: how can we collaborate with parents in laying a good foundation for healthy friendship in the lives of their children?
As catechists, we can explain and encourage parents to form the intentional habits mentioned above, as well as incorporate them appropriately in our own classrooms. For example, when we are tempted to text a family member about something “quickly before I forget” while children are arriving for a catechetical session, let them see us putting our phones away to give them our full attention. This shows them that our time together in Christ is important, that they are important. As St. John Paul II taught “…the definitive aim of catechesis is to put people not only in touch but in communion, in intimacy, with Jesus Christ: only He can lead us to the love of the Father in the Spirit and make us share in the life of the Holy Trinity.”[ii] Is he saying that through catechesis people will become intimate friends with Christ? Yes, Jesus desires to be the personal Friend of each child we catechize. So, we are compelled to help children discover for themselves the Mysteries of the Trinity, Creation, the Incarnation, Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus. For it is by entering into these Mysteries through Sacred Scripture and the Sacred Liturgy that we enter into this intimate communion with Christ called friendship. Before we introduce to the children the idea of friendship with Jesus, we can make certain we cultivate in our own hearts the deepest reverence for the child’s capacity for a serious relationship with God, and for the Mysteries of Faith. Without this fundamental respect, children may understandably conclude that friendship with Christ consists of nothing more than trite or sentimental words removed from the realities of their everyday lives. Pope Benedict XVI challenges us to invite our students beyond the acquisition of knowledge about Christ and the Church, when he states:
‘No longer servants, but friends’: this saying contains within itself the entire program of [our] life. What is friendship? Friendship is a communion of thinking and willing. Friendship is not just about knowing someone, it is above all a communion of the will. It means that my will grows into ever greater conformity with God’s will. For his will is not something external and foreign to me, something to which I more or less willingly submit or else refuse to submit. No, in friendship, my will grows together with his will, and his will becomes mine: this is how I become truly myself.[iii]
Friendship with Christ is a new way of thinking and willing and the way our students will become truly themselves. When children construct their lives on such a firm foundation, they will be well equipped to make of themselves the sincere gift that true friendship requires. Lani Bogart oversees all things catechetical at Our Lady of Perpetual Help, a mostly Hispanic urban parish in Glendale, Arizona. She holds an MA degree in Theology. She also co-leads the Committee to Serve Wives and Widows of Deacons for the Diocese of Phoenix.