There are no juvenile delinquents; there are only delinquent parents. The Fourth Commandment, “Honor thy father and thy mother,” is hardly ever quoted today as the means of restoring domestic peace. If discipline in the home is neglected, it is rarely made up for later.
The duty of parents to children is to rule while avoiding exasperating severity on the one hand and excessive indulgence on the other. God gives parents a child as so much plastic material that can be molded for good or evil. What if God placed a precious diamond in the hands of parents and told them to inscribe on it a sentence which would be read on the Last Day and shown an index of their thoughts and ideals? What caution they would exercise in their selection! And yet the example parents give their children will be that by which they will be judged on the Last Day.
This tremendous responsibility never means that parents, when their children do wrong, should provoke them to wrath, for wrath leads to discouragement. Parents hold the place of God in the house. If they act as tyrants they will develop unconsciously anti-religious sentiments in their children. Children love approbation and can be easily cast down into despair when blamed excessively for trivial faults. With great difficulty can children ever be taught the Love and Mercy of God, if His vice-regents in the home act without and are so difficult to please. When good intentions are rated low, and children are put under the ban of dishonor, they are likely to show they are no better than their parents think they are.
Children came into their own with Christianity when its Divine Founder said: “Suffer the little children to come unto Me, and forbid them not for such is the Kingdom of Heaven.” He consecrated childhood by becoming a child, playing on the green hills of Nazareth and watching the mother eagles stir among their young. From that day it became eternally true: “Train up the child in the way he should go; and when he is old he will not depart from it.”
As the twig is bent, so is the tree. It is interesting when one sees children, to speculate from the way they act as to the kind of homes from which they come. As one can judge the vitality of a tree from the fruit it produces, so one can tell the character of the parents from their children. One knows that from certain homes there will never be an errant child, while a glance at a mother or father will reveal a future full of fears for the child.
The present tendency is to shift responsibility to the school. But it must be remembered that education will make as much difference to a child as soil and air and sunshine do. A seed will grow better in one soil and climate than in another, but the kind of tree that grows depends on the kind of seed that is sowed. Then too, one must inquire if education is of the mind alone, or also of the will. Knowledge is in the mind; character is in the will. To pour knowledge into the mind of a child, without disciplining his will to goodness, is like putting a rifle into the hands of a child. Without education of the mind a child could be a stupid devil. With education of the mind, but not love of goodness, a child could grow up to be a clever devil.
The nation of tomorrow is the youth of today. They are the assurance of progress; the fresh arrows to a better future; the wings of aspiration. Even in war the strength of a nation is not in its bombs, but in the soldiers who defend it. In peace, it is not economics or politics that save, but good economists and good politicians—but to be that, they must be good children. To be that, there must in the first place be the grace of God; in the second place, in the home lessons of love and truth; in the schools knowledge and self-control.
Even in their early failures, the parents are not to be discouraged, remembering that fifteen centuries ago when the heart of a mother was broken for her wanton boy, St. Ambrose said to her: “Fear not, Monica; the child of so many tears cannot perish.” That vain and wanton boy grew up to be the great and learned St. Augustine, whose “Confessions” everyone ought to read before he dies.
If you enjoyed the wisdom that Fulton Sheen has shared in this chapter of his book, you can download a pdf copy here.
Way to Happiness by Most Reverend Fulton J. Sheen
New York: Garden City Books, 1949