A happy childhood

Jim Curley of Bethune Catholic is thinking about childhood:

“The memories are all good. I had a happy childhood. I loved my parents. Yes my Dad had a temper and was a dominating figure-but I loved spending time with him and listening to his stories and to his views-and of course, he could do anything! I loved (and still do love) my Mom. She was (and still is) always there to listen to her children’s troubles-and lend any helping hand she can. She had a firm hand, but I thank God for it even til today. My Mom and Dad’s devotion to the truth and to the Faith-even in the adversity that society was laying on-were inspiring and something to strive for. For me there was a peaceful security at home. God was there …

So it saddens me to the heart when, by the venom I hear in someone’s voice or in their writing, that I can recognize that they had an unhappy childhood.

I don’t know what makes a childhood happy or unhappy. Oh sure, the environment is part of it, but even that can vary. They say kids are pretty resilient and get over things fast-but not all.

You can talk to two children from the same family (after they’ve grown up of course) and get two diametrically opposed views of the family they grew up in. Barring abuse or tragedy, how one veiws their childhood must have a lot to do with a person’s own choices and attitudes, as well as the events and environment.”

There is certainly much to chew on here. Mr. Curley covers all bases. Sometimes an unhappy childhood is due to circumstances beyond one’s control; sometimes it is due to one’s own choices and attitudes. In many cases (perhaps most) both factors are at work. Even children are, to some degree, responsible for their own happiness.

I suspect that most children today are unhappy, many without even knowing what real happiness is.

There must be many things that contribute to a happy childhood. The chief thing is for the child to be demonstrably loved and wanted by both parents. If love covers a multitude of sins, we might also say that parental love “covers” a multitude of parental mistakes. But today there are 24 million American children living in homes without fathers. At some point in their lives, between 55 and 60 percent of children will live in a single parent home. For a child, the willing absence of one parent – or the choice of one parent to remove the other parent – can be more psychologically damaging than if the absent parent had died. Such a child has been abandoned, and we can expect that child to experience all of the anxieties and insecurities associated with abandonment.

There are nuances and complexities here, to be sure. Many dads are able to compensate somewhat by making heroic efforts to be present for their children, often having to overcome tremendous obstacles imposed by courts and ex-wives or ex-girlfriends. And sometimes the personality of the divorced or separated parent is so destructive that being present with the children actually does more harm than good, in which case the custodial parent must restrict access for the children’s sake. Sin makes things complicated. But the bottom line is that we have a culture of selfishness, promiscuity and divorce which deprives record numbers of children of loving two-parent homes.

Brothers and sisters can also be major contributors to a child’s happiness. Mr. Curely writes:

“I loved my eleven brothers and sisters. Yes, there may have been times of quarrelling or an older sibling picking on me (I guess I did my share of picking too), but overall, home was the place to be. I didn’t need anyone else. The games we played at home were always more fun than those played at a friend’s house. I loved my house-I loved the whole growing up experience. I absolutely loved the dinner table with us all sitting around. Every night was something to look forward to (even when we had baked carrots.)”

And yet, most of today’s parents – even those who are otherwise conservative and religious – deliberately choose to have very few children. What is more, these same parents come from small families themselves. That means that not only are their own children deprived of brothers and sisters, but they are also deprived of cousins, aunts, and uncles. As if that weren’t enough, today’s highly mobile society means that their children’s cousins, aunts, and uncles – already too few in number – probably don’t attend the same schools or even live in the same city. Hence the happiness and security of having a nearby extended family is unavailable to them.

About those schools … one of the many negative effects of modern public education, which is necessarily age-segregated, is that it can drive a social wedge between siblings. Children often end up having more in common with their peers at school than with their own brothers or sisters. Siblings end up having nothing to say to each other, preferring the transient companionship of strangers to the permanent bonds of family. For many, school has replaced family as a primary source of friendship and identity.

Happiness also requires a transcendent sense of purpose in life – a mission and meaning derived from something beyond the temporal demands of one’s immediate surroundings. As the old catechism taught: “Why did God create us?” “God created us that we might know Him, love Him, and serve Him and be happy with Him in heaven for all eternity.” One could spend a lifetime learning and teaching one’s children how to do this. But I daresay that even most normal families today, with two loving and married parents, nevertheless do not provide a spiritual or religious foundation for their children’s lives. Such families, while intact and functioning well, are lost in transient and worldly pursuits. Conversations around the house concern popular music, movies, recreation, fame, wealth, or the latest fashions – but seldom the Permanent Things. There is no “reason for living” imparted to the children other than “having a good time” and “making it in the world”. Children from such homes are destined to shallow, empty lives deprived of true happiness.

5 thoughts on “A happy childhood

  1. Jeff:

    What an excellent post. I’d like to share an experience regarding sibling relationships and public education:

    My children had been home educated for several years, when a false sense of failure (combined with two debilitating pregnancies) shook my confidence. My tearful pleas were reluctantly granted by my dear husband, and the children were returned to public school.

    My children, who had received very little “school” over the six months prior to their re-entry into public education, entered at the top of their classes in the middle of the school year. Sounds promising, doesn’t it?

    It was a nightmare! Their relationship with one another went down the toilet, at record speed. The two younger children, left at home, now had to assume roles that were alien to them and became excessively whiny and argumentative with each other. The children at school, age segregated, homework driven and immersed in extracurricular activities, had no time for their younger siblings and barely spoke to one another.

    The once crowded supper table, had been abandoned for fast food caught on the way to this ball game, that band performance or whatever other distraction had been scheduled.

    For nearly two years, our family suffered, due to a mother’s false perceptions and a father’s desperation to ease her suffering.

    By grace and with the help of a dear friend who saw my misery, the children returned to homeschooling in the middle of a school year, and God willing, will never return to public education.

    It took a few months, but family harmony returned. The supper table is once again a place of respite (mostly!) and the best friends my children have are each other.

    It’s been 4 years since that “nightmare.” I’m thankful for your reminder…it is not simply a theory, it is reality. I’ve lived it.


  2. And yet . . . just a reminder that everyone’s experience won’t necessarily be the same. I was raised with my two younger brothers (a small family, comparatively) and we went to a tiny country school — public. Our family bonds have always been extremely close, even though we now live in three different states. We received a wonderful education at the school. And we had dinner at home — home-cooked, all five of us present — every night.

    I’m not denying Kimberly’s experience at all, just allowing that other outcomes were and are possible.


  3. Lemme guess, Laurie: Plaza, right? I think I recognized the dairy photo on Bumpkins today. :-)

    I’ve heard good things about Plaza, as well as Capay, and I think the key that both are very small. I imagine that it is quite literally a family environment, or at least not much of an escape from family.


  4. Hi Jeff!

    All three of the tiny country schools here are family environments, and you’re right — I think that’s what made it so great. The teachers knew our parents, our siblings, and where we lived. WE COULDN’T GET AWAY WITH ANYTHING, ha ha!



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