For as long as I can remember thinking about the dynamics of a marriage that I would want for myself, I’ve known that I wanted to marry someone who had a goal besides getting married. I wanted to join a man on a mission and partner with him in achieving it. Somehow just having a family never seemed like enough of a goal.
Now according to Catholic thought, the purpose of the family is the procreation and education of children, and the mutual love and support of the spouses. Families are where new people come from.
So it might seem a little odd to argue that a family needs a goal beyond itself, a mission beyond the spouses having a functional marriage and raising functional children.
But that’s exactly what I want to argue. Families need a mission.
Where Mission Might Come From
Now in some cases—perhaps the vast majority of cases throughout history—the overarching goal of most families was simply survival. Every member of the subsistence farmer family or hunter-gatherer family has to work hard just to ensure their survival through the next winter. The sense of mission is built into the life. The mission: survive the next winter without losing any family members.
A step beyond survival, status can also serve as a mission. Ensuring the survival and renown of the family name. The mission: maintain the family’s power and prestige by whatever means necessary…. Because if you don’t, you’ll end up on the bottom of the pile and likely not survive.
I am by no means suggesting either of these scenarios as an ideal. I am not criticizing prosperity, nor nostalgically pining for some “simpler time.” I simply want to point out that a sense of communal family mission is present in these scenarios, and that this sense is valuable for healthy human life and development.
I have no desire to argue against either prosperity or comfort. There are obvious advantages to both, and the sense of struggle and striving which we need, can—and should—be supplied in other, nobler ways.
So what if you have plenty of stuff? What if you live in 21st century America where having enough is relatively easy, and having a surplus common? What sense of mission drives the modern American family? What do they strive for?
Why Family Mission Is Important
Even if you have plenty of material goods, you still need something to strive for. Humans are built to strive, to fight, to struggle. And so I believe it is impossible—or nearly impossible—to raise children to be truly virtuous adults, unless you set your family a goal beyond just “raising good kids.”
If you as parents set your goal as a family to “raise children” then what will your children have to do besides “be raised?” Virtue is acquired by repeated acts. And “being raised” is not an action. It is something done to you, not something you do. A child cannot become virtuous by “being raised,” any more than a student can become wise or educated merely by “being taught.”
Children—and all of us—actually have to do something, if they are to become fully actualized humans. Hence the need for a family mission. A goal set for the whole family, that requires action on the part of every member of the family. So how will a family mission help you raise happy, well adjusted, responsible…. AKA virtuous humans?
The Mission Will Demand Sacrifice
Everyone who wants to raise children to be virtuous people seems to recognize that giving kids everything they want all the time doesn’t lead them to acquire virtue. Setting aside your own desires for the sake of something bigger and higher is fundamental for becoming a responsible, noble, virtuous adult. Not getting your way all the time is an important part of growing up.
But as a parent, it’s hard sometimes to know how to best present opportunities for this lesson. I can actually afford to buy my kids candy, balloons, or whatever. There is no pressing physical necessity for my small children to push their limits physically or mentally. Our economy is structured such that four year olds don’t actually have to do economically productive work in order to stay alive. (And I am certainly glad I don’t have to send my daughter into a coal mine!) So how do I determine when I’m just being a control freak and a killjoy, and when I’m really “doing it for their own good?”
A family mission helps with this. If there’s an overarching goal that all family activities are in some way directed toward, then this gives an explanation for why the answer is sometimes no, or why work needs to be done. A family running a true family business, for example, would revolve around that work. “Mom needs you to help make dinner right now instead of watching cartoons, because she needs to wait on a customer.” “We can’t buy that expensive toy today because we’re saving for a new piece of equipment.”
This is so much more satisfying—both for the parent, and the child—than “You can’t do that because I think it’s good for you to not always have what you want.”
The Family Mission Imparts Value
Children desperately want to be helpful. They want to do real work, even before they are capable of it. Even toddlers are insulted by being told, “you can help mommy by coloring quietly.” Your three-year-old knows that coloring doesn’t actually help mommy and that he’s just being brushed off. (Even though you could actually get your work done faster if they would just go color!)
Is the situation different for a ten year old who’s told that his job is to do his school work? All that does is tell the child simultaneously that he’s the center of the world and that he’s a work in progress, who has no value until he’s finished. If the family’s only mission is to have perfectly raised children, then the children will feel like failures as long as they are not perfect—which they never will be.
But if the family has a mission that the parents can point to and tell their children, “We are trying to achieve this goal. Can you help us?” then the child has a sense of purpose and meaning. They can feel that they and their contributions have real value: that they are doing something that only they can do. Kids might still grouse about chores, but it’s easier to get kids to do chores if they can see a definite purpose for the work than if they suspect they’re being given busy work.
I can see this even with my own four year old. She wants to know that she’s doing something useful, and that her work will help people. “Pick up your books” is far less effective than, “Aren’t you worried someone will trip and fall if those books are on the floor?”
The Family Mission Gives Perspective
Children learn by example, and one vitally important thing that children need to learn is that there are things more important than their own desires. Having a goal beyond the family itself and its immediate desires allows the parents to powerfully model living toward something and the virtues associated with that kind of goal-oriented life.
If they have a goal they can point to, and say, “We are trying to do this. In order to achieve this goal, we are going to do these things and make these choices,” they can model intentional living.
They can also model dedication and self-forgetfulness. Parents can certainly be—and are—dedicated and self-forgetful in the service of their children, and raising good people is a worthy life-work, but children can see this example of dedication and self-forgetfulness more clearly if it’s directed towards something other than themselves. Efforts directed towards oneself are more difficult to see clearly. It is as though they are foreshortened and distorted by being viewed so closely.
And while children do learn by example, they learn even more powerfully by doing.
If children are the parents’ goal, then what is the children’s goal? Themselves? Constantly perfecting their own selves? Putting on their own clothes, doing their own school work, cleaning up their own messes? (All of this is wonderful and necessary, of course, but when will they learn to move beyond themselves? Some people might say that they must learn to care for themselves before they can move beyond, and there is some truth in that. But in my experience, they will learn far faster if they can see the needs of others and begin to see themselves as having power to help others.)
When will they learn to direct their goals and actions to something outside of themselves, if they are not invited to join their parents or community in doing so while they’re still children?
Having a large family can go a long way toward this. If Mom can’t keep up with the work and the older kids have to pitch in for their younger siblings, this will automatically help the kids learn how to contribute to something bigger than themselves. But what about the younger kids in this family? The stereotype of youngest kids is that they are selfish and spoiled. And it will probably be the reality if their family cannot enroll them in the service of a worthy cause.
Family Mission Helps Parents
As a side note, I think having a sane family mission can help parents survive parenting as well. Instead of endlessly trying to perfect the child-experience—enrolling children in all the activities, and obsessing over their development or lack thereof, the parents can see their children as co-workers in an enterprise and can more easily direct their efforts for their children’s well-being and happiness. Children with real, purposeful work will be happier and less bored, and more likely to actually want virtue. They will be able to see how virtue makes them more effective. Teachable moments will occur naturally, and not have to be artificially constructed. And parents will realize that there are other things they need to do besides just parenting, and be relieved of guilt for not constantly entertaining (stimulating?) their children…which, in a virtuous cycle, will make the children more independent and easier to parent.
Choosing a Family Mission
Finding the mission of your family can be hard. As hard as discovering your own vocation as an individual. But opening oneself to the Will of God and seeing where it takes you is worth the effort. Look for ways your family can make your community better as a whole. Perhaps there is a pressing need that a new business would fill, and your family has the ability for it. Perhaps loneliness is an issue in your community, and simply practicing Christian hospitality will bring people closer to God and each other.
There are as many vocations for a family as a whole as there are for individuals. If we start thinking about family life this way, it will make us happier and better, as children, as parents, and as communities.