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How to teach your kids to honor their commitments.

When a favorite neighbor invited 10-year-old Tommy to a Denver Rockies baseball game, the boy thanked him, turned him down, and explained that he had already agreed to help his classmates pick up litter that day. He would rather go to the game, he said regretfully, "but I said I would do it, you know."

His neighbor was so impressed that he shared the conversation with me and added, "My grandsons would have dumped their commitment in a minute to go to a game. How do you raise a kid like Tommy?" With difficulty, in a culture where commitment means maybe and fidelity flounders between principle and expediency. But Tommy's parents are doing something awfully right, whether they realize it or not. When fidelity is rooted in the early years, it matures into a natural way of living and cannot be taken away by changing cultural fads and attitudes, a behavior referred to by author Lillian Hellman when she said, "I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year's fashions."

I reflected on Tommy when I heard the poignant story of a 45-year-old husband and father whose manic depressive wife walked out on the family one day and abandoned contact for the next five years. In and out of psychiatric facilities, she lived an erratic life, often embarrassing him and relegating him to a sort of marital limbo. His friends counseled him to divorce and get a new life.

Reluctant to admit to them that he took his marriage vows seriously, he resorted to explaining that he didn't divorce her because she needed his medical insurance for her periodic hospitalizations, an explanation that satisfied them.

Ultimately his wife died and he grieved--another mystery to his friends, especially to those in second marriages. They expected him to exhibit relief, even happiness, over her death, but his grief was genuine. He had loved her for better or worse and in sickness and health. And, even if his grief was partially due to a loss of what might have been, it was grounded in commitment.

Such commitment is rare today, so rare that people such as this husband feel the need to invent reasons to explain staying faithful. I do not know his children, but I suspect the model of his fidelity is reflected in their own lives and marriages.

Fidelity in marriage, considered a quaint concept to many today, has led Lutheran pastor Paul W. Thomton to write, "Commitment is a decision of the will and mind, rather than an emotion. It is not something that comes and goes, something you fall into and out of. Commitment is a word that refers to a lifelong reality."

Although I use fidelity and commitment interchangeably here, there is a difference. Fidelity is the virtue; commitment the acting out of that virtue. We commit ourselves to faithfulness or fidelity. However, because commitment is used more widely than fidelity in today's language, I use them both to mean faithfulness.

Fidelity is more than a virtue--it is an innate need in our lives. We hunger for faithfulness, something on which we rely, something to which we can be faithful. "The Lord is my rock ... my stronghold ... my hope. Only in God is my soul at rest." If there's one theme that runs through the Old and New Testaments, it is that of God's faithfulness to his people and our faithfulness to God and his word.

If faithfulness is a human need and we are not faithful to God's word, then we must find other areas in which we put our faith. The most common replacement in our culture is that of success, personal pleasure, and material well-being. but, as Christians, it is difficult to be faithful to such goals because they conflict with the message of Jesus. As Mother Teresa said, "We are not called to be successful; God merely calls us to be faithful."

Fidelity and commitment can be taught by parents, school, church, and community to even the youngest children, but only if it is simultaneously modeled. Yet it is in this lack of modeling that we fail, as individuals, parents, citizens, and Christians. Whether we commit to being part of a meeting or a marriage, if we shrug it off with easy cultural aphorisms, our children learn the message: commitment means maybe.

When we accept a responsibility like toting around the envelope collecting for cancer research and then fail to do it, we are modeling a lack of fidelity. When we mouth the importance of God, prayer, and sacraments to our children and then model little visible evidence of the same, they get the message that being faithful lies in words, not behavior.

Religion teachers name parental faith apathy as their biggest frustration in teaching kids to treasure God. "It's scary how many of these kids never pray or go to Mass because their parents don't," one reports. "We're expected to teach them the value of what they aren't experiencing."

To be faithful, we have to be committed to something--be it God, marriage, a cause, work, or the whole human race. In the profound book Habits of the Heart, Robert Bellah and his associates present studies concluding that most Americans prize commitment but can't name that to which they are committed. We are adrift, in other words.

We may value commitment to family, but when it interferes with our individual needs or work success, we balance our values and often sacrifice family. If we're honest with ourselves, we then admit that we aren't committed to family but to the desire to be committed to family.

Our ambivalence extends to our larger world of church, community, and nation and produces a general pessimism with which we regard all three today. Maybe we are committed to health care and adequate housing for all, but when we realize it means sacrifice in the form of sharing the wealth through taxation, we balk. Commitment extends only so far. Again, we are faithful to an ideal, not a reality.

We aren't going to teach children a fidelity we don't have. It's easier to walk away from a need or a conflict than to deal with it. It's easier to write off demanding grandparents or troubled adolescents than face the pain and sacrifice that fidelity demands. "We are creating a society where it's easier to split than face the stress," observes sociologist Urie Bronfenbrenner.

Act it out

Fidelity requires a value system, commitment, courage, and action. If we don't act on our principles, they remain expressed rather than lived. Since we live in a nation that expresses faithfulness to gospel values while embracing the contrary--pleasure, power, prestige, possessions--it is difficult for parents to teach children faithfulness to anything but their own goals and gratifications.

Difficult, but not impossible. We begin by examining our own lives. To what are we faithful? Does our behavior manifest this fidelity? If we claim to be faithful to our parish, do we give sufficiently of our time, money, and compassion or do we simply sit back and take?

If we claim to be faithful to our marriage vows, are we present to our spouse's needs or are we content with just being sexually faithful? If we claim to be faithful to God, do we pick and choose areas of faithfulness to suit our needs and control?

"Hold faithfulness and sincerity as first principles," Confucius wrote. He wisely paried the two because without sincerity, faithfulness becomes hypocrisy. A self-examination can be painful if done sincerely, but it must be done if we hope to teach fidelity to our children.

Teaching has been defined as "being present when learning takes place." When our children observe our behavior, we are teaching by merely being present. And children are experts in detecting disparity between our words and behavior.

We teach fidelity by encouraging and enforcing the commitments our children make, even small ones, such as Lenten promises, pet care, and litter cleanup. One area that most parents confront is that of a child's initial desire to take music lessons, join the Scouts, or play soccer. When the novelty wanes, so does the child's commitment. "I don't want to go--it's boring" is an all-too-familiar wail to parents.

How parents react is crucial to the development of fidelity in a child. If parents shrug it off, children learn an early lesson in faithfulness: I am committed only so long as it pleases me. The idea that it's morally wrong to walk away from a commitment remains untaught.

Some parents react in the opposite extreme and demand that the child remain committed until a skill is perfected even if the child detests the activity. Countless children with limited skills are forced to repeat public humiliation on athletic fields by parents who view commitment as the end rather than the means. These parents attempt to build character while destroying self-esteem.

Such rigidity leads children to a fear of making commitments of any kind, even into adult life. I met a young man in his seventh year of undergraduate education who could not choose a major and remain committed to it because of such parental rigidity. Eventually he dropped out without graduating, although his grades were acceptable. "What if I graduate with a degree in something and then fail in the job?" he asked a counselor.

We see this fear of commitment in many young adults considering marriage. The widespread cohabitation among young couples today is not due so much to economics as it is commitment. In a cohabiting relationship, one is free to walk out at any time. Fidelity is not required.

For parents of young children, wisdom and balance are key in guiding children into a healthy understanding of commitment. Their role is to guide and protect children until they are able to take on those roles themselves. We guide them into trying new skills, friendships, and activities and committing themselves to perseverance in spite of occasional failures over a limited period of time.

Healthy families tend to set certain conditions: "We will support you in karate lessons or Campfire Girls if you want to join, but we expect you to commit yourself to it for six months or a year without our nagging. If you can't commit to this, don't join, because commitment means accepting the drudgery as well as the glory."

I strongly encourage parents to use the words commit and commitment in their daily lives as often as possible. These are words children don't often hear as virtues. When we are weary to the bone but have agreed to be part of an effort, let's learn to say, "I'd love to stay home tonight, but I committed myself to this," instead of our more familiar, "I wish I didn't have to go tonight. I dread it." When parents fulfill a humdrum commitment, children absorb the unspoken message that faithfulness is tough but rewarding.

Another area of parental focus concerns commitment to one another within the family. This goes far beyond family loyalty, which is too often reserved to protecting family secrets. Commitment to the family teaches children that we don't abandon each other when there are differences, that we don't walk away from each other in times of need, that individual needs and goals may need to be put aside for the welfare of the family, and that we're all on the same side.

No place like home

In my book Traits of a Healthy Family, I discuss 15 traits commonly found in healthy families. One of these is of particular importance in discussing commitment to the family: the healthy family has a strong sense of kinship and bonding. It shares its stories and traditions, accepts its nonconformists, and supports one another.

Regrettably I find this trait to be diminishing in modern families in which overly busy parents and children operate more as roommates than families. Parenting becomes a scheduling function with Mom and Dad attempting to orchestrate individuals' activities to the extent that the symphony of family belonging and kinship never emerges.

In such families, members are simply not present emotionally to one another. Children become lonely in these families. They hunger for commitment to a group that cares, a group in which they find their identity, a group they can feel part of and valued. Gang membership feeds this hunger.

When we proclaim that today's children cannot commit themselves to anything, we need to look at the gang phenomenon. Children as young as 10 will steal, kill, and face death for the gang family simply to fill their hunger for belonging. When families foster a sense of belonging and children know their parents are committed to them spiritually, physically, and emotionally--enough to set aside their own needs and goals--they are not attracted to gangs, where fidelity demands immoral and criminal behavior.

Educator Haim Ginott quipped that children are like wet cement: "whatever falls on them makes an impression." The task as parents is to pay attention to what falls or doesn't fall on the wet cement that is our family. Either faithfulness or faithlessness can fall, sometimes both, but if we are faithful, first to God and then to ourselves, God's promised grace will move us to be faithful to all of those around us. We won't have to worry about teaching fidelity. Our example will fall upon our children, make an impression, and dry into a solid foundation of faithfulness in their lives.
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Title Annotation:principles of loyalty and fidelity
Author:Curran, Dolores
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Date:Sep 1, 1994
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