The Personalist Project

Maria and I had 5 kids who are now in their 20’s and 30’s (and another five now in heaven, lost to miscarriages). When our kids were little, about the age of our current 4 grandkids (10 and under), they wanted me to tell them stories before they went to sleep.  This, of course, is a very common and clever way for little ones to eek out another 20-30 minutes of wakefulness before slumber becomes mandatory.  Many possibilities are available for these bedtime stories.  For instance, my son-in-law tells imaginary stories that build on each other with a thread of connection each night.  However, by happenstance, one night I stumbled upon a wonderful topic for children’s stories: things I had done wrong in my life, mistakes I had made, insecurities (e.g., with girls), embarrassing moments, punishments I had received, etc.  My kids, it turns out, were fascinated and delighted with the idea that Dad had faults!  I never realized this could be a source of such joy in a child’s life!  Felix culpa! O happy fault! 

This began one night when I was searching around for a storyline and feeling kind of stale—a sad state for a father to be in while in front of a mess of eager children.  “C’mon, dad, tell us a story!  Make it a good one!  C’mon, pleeeeease!” Then I remembered an incident from my early childhood, which caused me no end of shame and embarrassment.  So I tentatively asked, not sure whether they’d be interested or whether it was best to share such things, “Would you like to hear about the one time in my childhood when I got whipped with a switch?”

Their eyes grew round as saucers!  Their faces lit up like Christmas trees!  The enthusiasm (and wonder) in their voices was palpable!  “Yes, yes, yes. That would be great!  What on earth did you do!  Did you really do something that bad?!  You, our dad?!  What could it have been?  Tell us all the juicy details!  Leave out nothing!!!”  I had never seen them so excited!  So I told them the first story of many in this genre, making a point to highlight all the various particular mistakes I had made along the way…. 

Here’s a quicky version—but of course the children wanted to dwell on every detail!  (However, please remember beforehand, this was a different age when it came to corporal punishment at home or at school.  So don’t judge my mom too harshly according to modern “enlightened” standards.  She was a wonderful loving person and mother.  Besides, I think I only got three lashes!) 

When I was about 5, my mom went over to a friend’s house for some kind of get together, perhaps a baby shower, and took me with her.  So did a number of other moms.  The kids they brought in tow, at least a dozen, ranged from 5-10 years old, mainly boys.  We were left outside to play.  The game that started was to throw rocks on the slanted roof and watch them roll down. I heartily joined in [Mistake #1: Just because others are doing something stupid and dangerous, doesn’t mean you should].  Then I decided to try to impress the other guys with my strength and launch up bigger and bigger rocks [Mistake #2: Vanity, acting just to impress others].  After some success, I then tried to toss up a rock to the roof that was simply too big for me [Mistake #3: Not knowing one’s own limits] and I did this from the second row, i.e., with a row of guys in front of me [Mistake #4: Lack of prudence].  So I tossed the rock up as far as I could and, sure enough, it came right down on the head of the guy in front of me.  He went down with a howl of pain and I saw blood running down his head.  (At this point, I assured my kids that considering my age, size, and strength, he could not have been seriously hurt—I was just too little and weak to have done any real damage, but I didn’t know that at the time.) 

The sight of the blood panicked me.  I felt like I’d done something terrible!  (And it was bad, of course.)  Then I made my next mistake.  I ran. [Mistake #5: Not staying to face the music, cowardice].  I ran home as fast as my feet would carry me, zipped upstairs, and hid under the bed [Mistake #6: Thinking that I could get out of consequences by hiding—like Adam and Eve after the fall].  This incident had evidently ruined the ladies’ party, because a few minutes later I heard my mom open the front door and demand, very loudly and authoritatively, “Where’s Michael?”  My father, startled and looking up from his paper, said, “He ran in a little while ago and rushed upstairs.” 

I heard every angry footfall of my mother as she came up the stairs, while I huddled in fear under the bed.  (Remember, my own kids were enjoying immensely every delicious moment of this tense drama at my expense!! Dad’s really gonna catch it!  The one who usually metes out the punishment, the authority figure, the representative of justice, is in deep doo-doo!  He’s going to get the punishment this time!  The roles were reversed!  It was a dream come true!)  

Then I saw my mom’s feet and ankles come in the door.  She ordered, “Michael, you come out of there, wherever you are, right now!  Don’t make me search for you!”  I remained where I was, quiet as a mouse. [Mistake #7: Stupidity, thinking I would not be found.  Was I invisible under the bed?  How many hiding places were there in the room? Really only two, the closet and the bed, so it was inevitable I would be found.]  Sure enough, mom checked the closet, then the bed.  I still remember when her angry eyes locked with mine as she peered under the boxsprings.  She ordered me out immediately.  I remained where I was.  [Mistake #8: Making her more angry by further disobedience.]  She eventually had to drag me out, told me to lean over the bed and proceeded to give me—my children’s admired father--a whipping with a switch she had prepared.  (My kids were in awe! Their mouths dropped open!) 

Then I made my final mistake, concerning self-preservation (or lack thereof).  I was wearing fairly heavy jeans with thick pockets in the back, making a strong cushion against the wielding of the switch!  It really didn’t hurt, so I didn’t react!  When my mom soon noticed this, she ordered my pants down!  (Again, my kids were amazed. Their eyes got wide as they pictured it in their little minds!  Dad with his pants down getting whipped with a switch!). My mom proceeded with her work, and only then did I yell—now with good reason.  [Mistake #9: Mindlessness, i.e., not screaming to high heaven with the first inconsequential landing of the switch].

The children loved it!  I had to tell this tale many, many times over the years—first to kids, now to grandkids.  In the end I decided there were a great many positives in this kind of thing.  It is important for children to know that their parents are not perfect, that parents have gotten in trouble too, that children don’t have to feel under pressure to be perfect, and that making mistakes is not the end of the world. Moreover, as you see from my inserted mistakes above, such real-life tales are also a wonderful way—very interesting to the listeners—to deliver moral messages and prudent advice about life. 

How often do you get the chance to do that with your children in such a way that they are totally fascinated and attentive?!!  

Naturally, to end things humorously and not on some heavy moral note, I told them that #9 was the most important lesson--i.e., if you have any sense at all (which I didn't), howl at the top of your lungs at the least proffered punishment! They laughed, but they also knew better.

So, I began to think about other things I’d done wrong as a kid in order to build up my repertoire of stories.  This was also a helpful exercise for me.  I was able to trace back habitual faults and weaknesses in my character not just to young adulthood or teenage years (where I normally stopped my review), but to single-digit years!  Eventually, I was able to uncover between the ages of 6 and 12, preliminary examples of all the 7 deadly sins: pride, anger, envy, lust, sloth, gluttony, and greed.  So, I told my kids about them in specific examples—though not always in full salacious detail!  They found these stories always fascinating and delightful—and I found them to be full of teachable moments!  I highly recommend the procedure, humbling though it be!

Comments (3)

Kate Whittaker Cousino

#1, Sep 28, 2012 10:55pm

I think that sharing your failures with your children is one of the best things a parent can do! I think sometimes parents hear 'teach by example' and think that means that they need to appear perfect to their children - always virtuous, always holy. But the most important lesson a Christian parent can teach by example is how to recover when we fall on our faces. Inevitably, our children will fail, and need that example far more than any other we've ever set. 

Moreover, since our children can't see the interior part of that journey, the only way to give them that example in its entirety is to tell them our stories!

Devra Torres

#2, Sep 30, 2012 10:03am

My parents never systematically shared their faults with us, but what made a big impression was the way they have always eschewed phoniness and self-righteousness about them.  Also, just observing them not being model human beings while travelling their long, strange trip towards Catholicism and raising us all to raise our kids in the Church and try to center our lives around God--it gave me a certainty that if someone is searching for the truth, even if not being perfectly virtuous during the search, God will see that he finds it.  It's hard to say how much influence that certainty has had on my life, but I imagine it's been enormous.

Kate Whittaker Cousino

#3, Sep 30, 2012 12:25pm

Tangentially related, I think that one of the incidents that made the greatest impression on me as an adolescent was a time that, following mass, my mother apologized to me for a wrong she had done me (which she had previously considered within her parental purview - she had pried into my personal correspondance). That incident convinced me that her faith was a relationship that was still changing her  - and gave me an example of humility to strive to emulate. We had a rocky few years during my adolescence but I never rejected my parent's faith, and I know that incident was a large part of the reason why.

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