The Roman poet, Virgil, said it best: “One’s greatest wealth is health.” Most of us believe that. And so parents necessarily concern themselves with trying to create and maintain their children’s physical health and wellbeing. But it is always critical to recognize that physical health and wellbeing is linked to one’s social, spiritual and mental wellness and vice versa. We can’t have general wellness when other personal wellness factors are out of kilter. On the other hand, it is also problematic when parents over-manage physical wellness while ignoring the other personal wellness dimensions. G. K. Chesterton wrote that “the trouble with always trying to preserve the health of the body is that it is so difficult to do without destroying the health of the mind.”
With that in mind, how do parents attend to their children’s physical wellness — well? I think it comes about through both a general and specific focus on our children’s activities, habits, beliefs and lifestyles. More specifically, it is affected by the way parents apply corporal and spiritual works of mercy to their own family life. The works of mercy? Normally, we think of the works of mercy as those “charitable actions by which we come to the aid of our neighbor.” (CCC 1473) But, they are equally important to family life. Where else is it possible to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, visit the sick and the imprisoned every day and sometimes every hour of every day?
Parents should especially take note of the hidden implications of each work for their own families. For example, let’s start with the first corporal work: Feed the Hungry. This directive implies several things, in my opinion. First, it implies that the food to be provided should be worth eating. It also implies that an adequate amount of healthy food is necessary for feeding our hungry children. It also implies that parents have to play the servant role when feeding children. Therefore, hiring surrogates to replace us simply isn’t the answer — although many parents justify that option. Finally, the work implies that parents are to feed more than just hungry bodies. Children come with hungry minds, hearts and souls and this can only be fed by devoting personal time — quality and quantity — to the task. The Parents Partner organization states rightly that the primacy of quality time versus quantity time is really irrelevant and a misnomer if children are the context. When people are thinking of quality or quantity (egocentric constructs) they are not thinking of relationships. The focus is not on the child’s needs. The real question parents need to ask is this — what does my child need from me to preserve an emotional connection with me? Real answers and solutions to this question feeds the whole child most authentically.
We fail to feed the hungry in our homes when we do not provide personal oversight for our children before and after school hours. Too many times we send them off to school without breakfast because the school provides it. Yet the only reason schools now provide breakfasts is that too many children came to school hungry and distracted. We miss the mark when we fail to provide the necessary moral, social and spiritual formation and oversight in matters that matter. We also miss the mark when we fail to properly monitor what our children are watching, doing, and saying. Parents seem to get the message that too much TV is not good for children; yet, this same concern has not seemed to resonate with regard to the time spent on electronic gaming. Yet the addictive nature of the latter on young minds is just now beginning to be underscored by experts in the field. We also miss the mark when parents fail to regularly provide nutritious home-cooked dinners. A large study showed that families who eat together are happier and more emotionally connected and their children fare better than families who fail to share regular dinner times together. The adolescents have significantly higher incidences of negative social and psychological consequences including eating disorders, lower school performance, depression, drug use, and others.
Eating together — and regularly — is very advantageous for many reasons. It allows parents to spend quality time with their children. It allows the family to talk about important matters — at least some of the times. Meal time revelations help parents address their children’s opinions and concerns. Sharing meals allows parents to monitor and/or correct negative eating patterns and habits. Establishing healthy eating habits is important because adolescents take these into adulthood. Eating together allows parents to instill good table manners (please, thank you, not eating while talking with full mouths, etc.). Home-cooked meals should garner appreciation for the parents who spent time and energy preparing and serving the meals. Finally, eating together gives the family another opportunity to thank God for His many blessings. Family meal time reinforces the importance of being in relationship with each other; it foster togetherness, gratitude, the sense of security and importance to each other.
The second corporal work — to Give Drink to the Thirsty - aligns closely with the first corporal work and for similar reasons. But - like food — it carries a deeper urgency within family life, in my opinion. It seems to imply that parents are required to do a whole lot more than merely quench their children’s physical thirst. What about our children’s interior thirsting(s)? Even though parents may not realize it, they are the best equipped and positioned to recognize and then provide the remedies for interior thirsting. Mark Shea writes: “Only the Spirit could give us the water that quenches our thirst. And, in the end, it is only by this common-yet-miraculous drink that we can fully and truly give drink to the thirsty.” And so therein lies the coded message hidden within the work that calls us to give drink to the thirsty.
The third corporal work - To Clothe the Naked - is another very important work for parents to pay attention to but in ways you perhaps have not thought about before. Normally we link nakedness to the absence of clothing; but, isn’t there another understanding of nakedness that is part of this work? Nakedness can also mean being overly exposed or vulnerable to situations or other’s bad behaviors. Keeping this in mind, it would seem that the work necessitates more than just giving clothes to our children. Parents have the very important task of helping to instill in their children an understanding and appreciation for the virtue of modesty which is protective of body, mind and soul. Modesty applies to how we dress but more. It is also a measure of our attitude, speech and thought. So by teaching our children the virtue of modesty, we help protect them from being over-exposed (stark naked emotionally or physically) to others who could bring harm to them.
Parents have the great opportunity of helping their children realize that what they wear, how they talk and act, what they think about, what they listen to, all work together in revealing and forming their core self. Clothing can go a long way in highlighting both the inner and outer self — or not. Saint Pope John Paul 11 remarked years ago that the problem with pornography isn’t that it reveals too much about a person but that it reveals too little! The same can be said about clothing!
This work also seems to caution parents from giving their children too many material goods because those things cannot really bring us true happiness — only temporary pleasure. Parents are called to model an appropriate detachment from material goods. We also do this by teaching about ownership — when it is good and when and why ownership can also lead to selfishness and self centeredness. Children have to be taught the virtue of generosity and selflessness.
Some parents give their children allowances for chores completed around the home or because they feel their children need to learn how to ‘manage’ money. It becomes too easy to ‘gift’ money when we really ought to be giving our time of self. Shopping with our children is more appropriate than giving them the money to pick out things they need and/or want and for the same reasons as outlined in the Feed the Hungry work. That is not what seems to be happening. Today, adolescents have plenty of money; they receive it on holidays and birthdays as a form of gifting. They receive it from allowances, wages earned and for no reason at all other than their parents’ generosity. Did you know that today’s teens spend nearly ten times more on things for themselves than did their predecessors a little more than a decade ago! Yet, are they happier? Statistics would not support that question. These trends allow our children to remain vulnerable and needy.
The fourth work of mercy deals with Sheltering the Homeless. Our children are indeed homeless in the sense that they cannot yet provide for themselves. So, while sheltering the homeless, we have to think about how best to prepare them for the day when they no longer have to depend on our generosity for shelter, food, drink, and clothing. With that in mind, it is easy to see how this work extends once again to things we don’t normally think about. Within the family context, it means sheltering our children from negative influences that serve to undermine their physical, mental, social and spiritual wellness. This means making sure that we do not allow people or things to invade the sheltering space we provide. This includes technologies, movies, music, videos, games, chat rooms, online behaviors, pornography, which easily infiltrate young hearts, minds and souls. Parents have the task of protecting every child of theirs under the age of 11 by all means at their disposal. After the age of 11, parents have to begin giving their children the tools necessary so they can begin to protect themselves while at the same time providing the necessary oversight, protection and guidance needed to enter adulthood unharmed and wounded.
Hopefully you all recognize that the Church does not prescribe how to parent. The Church appreciates the fact that parents have natural intuitions, experiences, abilities, wisdom and knowledge that allow them to know what, how and when things need to be done. Family dynamics and personalities make the how, why and when different for each family. What works well for one family may not work for another. Even within each family, what works best at one time may not suffice later or earlier.
With that in mind, the Catechism lays out broad guidelines which are essential to the raising of children. This includes the following. The Catechism instructs parents to instruct and form the whole of their child. And to regard each child as coming from God. Therefore, parents are to fully respect every human person — born or unborn — within their own human family and within all other families. Parents are instructed to “create homes where tenderness, forgiveness, respect, fidelity and selfless service prevail.” Parents are also instructed to teach their children to subordinate material and instinctual dimensions to interior and spiritual ones. Finally, parents are to teach their children how to avoid compromising and degrading influences which threaten human societies. Finally, the Catechism teaches parents that the home is the natural environment for initiating human beings into solidarity and communal responsibilities. [CCC 2224] While a broad statement, it teaches that parents have the important task of modeling and teaching their children HOW to act responsibly within the family and the larger communities (church, workplace, town, school, etc) they belong to. All individuals — young or old — have duties, obligations and responsibilities to the family and to the larger community they live in. [CCC 2224] Children also have responsibilities specific to the family and to their parents. This includes being in solidarity with each other; living in harmony with each other; and showing respect, gratitude, just obedience and assistance to their parents. [CCC 2251}
Below are some questions to consider now that you have finished reading the essay on physical wellness.
- What are your goals this year for maximizing physical health in each member of your family? Consider things such as eating habits, regular exercise, family schedules, and time commitments. What areas are you excelling in? What can be improved upon?
- How BUSY [acronym for Being Under Satan’s Yoke] are you every day on a scale of 1-5 with five being crazy busy and 1 being plenty of free time to think, plan and organize? How can busy-ness yoke us to Satan rather than to Jesus? Do you feel that you have enough time to be truly present to your spouse and children everyday? If not, what can you do differently going forward?
- Reflect on the corporal works of mercy as they apply to your family.
- Reflect on the Catechism points as they apply to your family.
About the Author
Linda is a wife, mother of seven, and grandmother of 23. Linda is founder of Fortifying Families of Faith, LLC and her books include: Daughters Forever, Sons Forever; The Art of Breastfeeding, published by the Couple to Couple League; Mothers Forever, Fathers Forever; Surviving College; Black and White; and A Book for All Seasons.