In an interesting and passing comment in Rerum Novarum, Pope St. Leo XIII says that children “continue [a father’s] personality.” He is not speaking about his specific and unique personality, like being melancholic or something, but in that a child does carry forward the person of his father in his ways of life and character. Children learn from their parents. This makes men somewhat nervous, as it should. It leads me instantly to self-examination and fears that my children will carry on the worst that is in me, which I am sadly too familiar with.
But that fear is dangerous, because self-examination can become self-focused insecurity. When this happens we do not look toward our children in love and give ourselves to them, which is how we actually “continue” ourselves in them, but see them as symbols of who we are, washing away the complexity of their humanity and hoping they make us look good. We get particularly angry or agitated when we recognize our faults in them. But instead of seeing it as our fault and doing something about it, we harbor unreasonable stress about it. St. Augustine warns us of projecting and seeing our own faults in others, and recommends we root them out of our brother (or children) by rooting them out of ourselves: “Try to acquire the virtues you believe lacking in your brothers, then you will no longer see their defects, for you will no longer have them yourself.”
I have noticed in others and myself how tense a man can appear when his son, in the presence of other men, acts or speaks in a way that embarrasses him. Sometimes it leads to public ridicule and complaining about their sons in front of him and others. “C’mon Steve, just lift the damn thing. I didn’t know you were so weak.”
This is very dangerous. The pain you can cause your son is the byproduct of your imprudence and insecurity. He will learn that you act one way in private and another way in public, and when his weakness shows it will be seen as a bad “performance” for you and your friends. It will be condemned. Yes, it is normal and natural for men to chip away at each other’s egos through jesting and challenge, but that is not what is happening in these situations. Desiring to look good in front of others, what you are actually doing is trying to put distance between yourself and the perceived weakness of your son. In so doing, you actually do just that – put distance between you and your son. If you are willing to tout his weakness in such public way, his trust for you when you’re alone will wane, and you’ll wonder how you pushed your son away from you.
So, what do you do when those embarrassing moments do come? Instead of public rebuke, take your son to the side and quietly correct him if it’s actually needed. This makes it an act of teaching and love. Be careful, though, that your sense of unease is rooted in truth and love and not worldly embarrassment, your own self-absorption, or a tendency to perform in public. Few things signify insecurity as much as acting differently for different people. And trying to get your kids to do the same is worse. If your son is really just being himself and you fear that is a bad thing, you’re the problem. When that feeling comes to you, make an act of thanksgiving to God for your son and rebuke your lack of love.
And take away the distance between his weakness and yours. Let him know you have weakness too, and tell him where your sources of strength lie. If your son asks for food, don’t give him a scorpion. Give him food. If you can gain this trust instead of being a magnifier of weakness you will be a source of strength. What father doesn’t what that?
“You who are fathers, do not rouse your children to resentment; the training, the discipline in which you bring them up must come from the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4, Knox).