Help your children make wise choices

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James B. Janknegt Good Samaritan art

Steps for showing your children the great and good things that are within their reach.

FROM THE TIME our children are in preschool they are encouraged to make good choices. They are taught to stop and think and consider their options: When someone keeps teasing me, should I hit or say stop? When things don’t go my way, should I make a scene or quietly accept my disappointment? It takes lots of practice, setbacks, and even a few time-outs before the good choices become obvious and desired. In the process our children learn that choices have consequences and that there is good reason certain choices are labeled bad: Namely in the end, they make us feel bad.

Distinguishing between these simple rights and wrongs is a very important first step in our children’s moral development and long-term happiness. But as our children mature and their lives become more complicated, the choices they face are much more nuanced and not easily labeled simply good or bad. What may be a good choice for one child may not be for another. When it comes to choosing friends, schools, or career paths, for example, each child must weigh and measure their options more carefully—at least, that is what we parents hope our children do.

All things considered

Just as when they were very young, we want our children to consider how their choices will make them feel—only as they grow older we hope they look through a longer lens. When they are about to post that provocative picture on Instagram, will they consider not only how the choice will make them feel now but five years from now? Is this a photo that they would want their future coach, boss, or spouse to see? And just how are they to explain to the college recruiter the blog they created called “School stinks”?

We also want them to think about how their choices will affect others: “Wow! I can’t pass up this chance to go to the ball game, but what about the commitment I made to visit Granny Nell? How will she feel if I cancel my plans with her?” Finally as people of faith, we want to make sure that our children factor God into their decisions. Will their choices be motivated by a desire to please God? Will they strive to make choices that will help them live up to their potential and use their gifts and talents not only for their own sense of satisfaction but also to make the world a better place?

Sifting and sorting our many options to determine our best course—which is by definition God’s will for us—is what those in vocation circles call the process of discernment. Learning the art of discernment will go a long way in helping our children make wise choices. Our role as Catholic parents is to help facilitate that process by promoting what Pope John Paul II called a “culture of vocation” within our families. “Be close to your children,” John Paul II advised parents in his 2000 Message for the World Day of Prayer for Vocations. “Do not leave them alone when they are faced with the weighty decisions of adolescence and youth. . . . Guide them towards that genuine happiness that belongs to the spirit.”


Get the conversation started

So where do we begin to help our children understand the great and good things that are theirs for the choosing? It starts in conversation with God—better known as prayer. Teach your children to turn to God for wisdom—and make sure to do so yourself. Remind them each day to bring their worries and concerns to God and express their gratitude for the blessings they’ve been given. Teach them to recognize and set aside their fears and be open to God’s will. Help them to understand that God loves them and wants them to have joy-filled lives. As your children develop an active prayer life and build their relationship with God, they will gain insight and understanding of who they are and how they can best give glory to God. “When a soul is intent on God,” says Saint John Chrysostom, “God’s inextinguishable light shines into it and makes it bright and clear.”

Steps to making wise choices

1. Take time to weigh your options and the consequences involved.
2. Pray for guidance.
3. Consult with others.
4. Draw on the wisdom of the church.
5. Think about how a particular choice will affect you and others.
6. Consider the previous outcome of a similar choice made by you or someone else.
7. Make a list of pros and cons.
8. Identify and set aside your fears and selfish impulses.
9. Factor in God and your long-lasting joy into the equation.
10. Know that you are loved.
—Patrice Tuohy
Remember, too, as Christians, we are communal people; thus our decisions can never be made in a vacuum. We have relationships with God and others, and what we do matters to others. Even our most personal choices must take into account the effect the choice will have on others. Here’s a simple question all of us should ask ourselves when we are considering a major life choice: Would people I admire and respect consider the step I am contemplating wise? If not, why? Is there anyone I know who would consider it a bold and brilliant step? If so, why? It’s a sure sign that a decision might not be in our best interest if we are reluctant to talk to anyone about it, particularly those who know us well.

Teach your children to ask: What, if anything, is holding me back from sharing my plans with the people I love who I know love me? Perhaps they are afraid of being judged, lectured to, or having their ideas squelched. Surely when 18-year-old Agnes Bojaxhiu (a.k.a. Mother Teresa) decided to leave her home in Macedonia to join a group of Irish nuns in Dublin, her mother wasn’t jumping for joy, and when Bill Gates decided to drop out of Harvard, he had to know his parents weren’t going to be too thrilled. Be open to listening to the dreams and wild ideas your children have. Hold off judging and offering advice until you hear them out. Of course, some decisions they are contemplating may be dangerous, foolish, or morally questionable. Encourage them, particularly by example, to be honest and courageous as they assess options and outcomes in their decision making.

As your children map out what they want to do with their lives, help them remember to put God in the equation, and pursue something that is life-giving, creative, and born out of love for themselves, God, and others. By encouraging our children to think of God and others, we are reinforcing the important truth that they are not alone: They are connected to a wider community made up of people who care about them, who are rooting for them, and who will be affected by their actions in direct and indirect ways.


Take your time

Of course, all this pondering and circumspection takes time. And that’s O.K. There is a reason for the buyer’s-remorse clause in real-estate contracts that gives people a chance to reconsider the purchase: Big decisions carry big consequences. We need time to weigh our options and make lists of pros and cons and advantages and disadvantages to the choices we are considering.

Three stages of the discernment process

1. Ask God to transform your thoughts (listing advantages and disadvantages).
2. Ask God to transform your desires (your will) while evaluating the lists of advantages and disadvantages.
3. Ask God to stir feelings of spiritual consolation. These are feelings of joy, enthusiasm, etc. accompany your desires when they are clearly pointed toward loving and serving God, others, and your true self.

—Adapted from An Ignatian framework for making a decision by Jim Manney (Loyola Press) 

Too often we feel pressured to make decisions quickly. Let your children know that it is O.K. to insist on slowing down the process despite the pressures placed upon them to “hurry up and decide.” This knowledge will serve your children well, particularly when it comes to adolescent peer pressure. Simply saying, “I need to think about it” and walking away for a moment can diffuse the dangers and regrets that come with impulsive actions.

Make no little plans

Even more important than time, children need hope and a vision of the future. Encourage your children to pursue goals that are worthy of their great effort. It’s all well and good to get by in life, but how much better to make a difference. Too often children sell themselves short and aim low, whether in academics, sports, career paths, or moral choices. Pope Francis, on the other hand, advises us not to be satisfied with shallow goals that will only lead to greater restlessness: “We Christians were not chosen by the Lord for small things. Push onwards toward the highest principles. Stake your lives on noble ideals!”

That is not to say that we expect every child to follow the same course. In fact, it is important for our children to realize that they must determine their own unique path—the path that God is calling them to take. Assure them that seeking the advice and considering the opinions of others does not mean they are locked in to following someone else’s direction; it simply means that they are willing to make an informed decision. As parents we can invite our children to explore avenues they might not have considered—the road less traveled, the longshot, the impossible dream, but above all, the way of Jesus. Such an invitation could lead to the next Pulitzer novelist, Nobel Prize winner, or most admired person in the world or, no less significant, on the street where you live.


Tap into your riches

Fortunately for Catholics we have a rich “deposit of faith” handed down through the ages that we can tap into for guidance, enlightenment, and fresh ideas—what’s old is new again for every generation. We can draw on the vast array of writings and teachings of the church: from scripture, tradition, the saints and doctors of the church, contemporary theologians and spiritual writers, and Vatican documents, such as encyclicals, apostolic letters, bishops’ statements, and even papal tweets and Facebook posts. Encourage your children to avail themselves of these resources. Make sure to have a Bible in the house, or send them a link to for the New American Bible online. Sign them up to receive daily Catholic reflections, such as Take Five for Faith, and turn them on to the works of such influential Catholic thinkers as Thomas Aquinas, Augustine, Teresa of Ávila, Thérèse of Lisieux, and Thomas Merton. They will be amazed and inspired by how human and radical these spiritual giants were.

Throughout their lives, your children will be pressured to be concerned about money, power, fame, and sex. Help them to distinguish the difference between seeking reasonable financial security, professional success, and intimate relationships built on trust and mutual respect, and simply accumulating wealth, titles, and notches on their belts—and keep those distinctions in mind yourself! Remember what is most important in life: family, friends, and sharing your gifts in service to others for God's sake. Show your children how to savor the simple joys God gives us, such as those outlined by Pope Paul VI: “The elating joy of existence and of life; the joy of chaste and sanctified love; the peaceful joy of nature and silence; the sometimes austere joy of work well done; the joy and satisfaction of duty performed; the transparent joy of purity, service and sharing; the demanding joy of sacrifice” (Gaudete in Domino).

Assessing the wisdom of your choices

1. Good choices never isolate us from other people.
2. Good choices help ourselves and others flourish.
3. Good choices are generous.
4. Good choices leave us with a sense of “rightness.”
5. Good choices help us to see things in a new and life-giving way.
6. Good choices help us deal with our inner demons.
7. Good choices help us live in a more integrated way.

—Adapted from Do you love me? (Catholic Truth Society, 2014) by the Catholic Bishops Conference of England and Wales

Help your children understand the sacred duty they have to treat all people with dignity, care for those less fortunate, and welcome the stranger. Talk about the stories in the gospel that illustrate those key ideas, such as the Parable of the Good Samaritan. Don’t be afraid to praise your children when they show compassion and tenderness toward others. God didn’t hesitate to give Jesus a pat on the back—in public no less, when he proclaimed: “This is my beloved son, with whom I am well-pleased” (Matthew 3:17).

Above all, love your children

Make sure your children are fully aware that you love them and that they can return to the warm embrace of that love even after a wrong turn. Let them know that their true life’s purpose and the one thing that must inform their every decision is love—bold and courageous. “Faith is no refuge for the fainthearted,” Pope Francis says in Lumen Fidei, “but something which enhances our lives. It makes us aware of a magnificent calling, the vocation of love.” Armed with the knowledge that their highest calling is to love, your children will have the one essential ingredient they need to make a lifetime of wise decisions.

Related articles on the VISION Vocation Network

Make no little plans

Four steps to hearing your call

The three keys to successful vocation decisions


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