Saturday, July 31, 2010

The Catholic Company Review: Parenting with Grace

Parenting with Grace, 2nd edition: The Catholic Parents' Guide to Raising Almost Perfect Kids by Gregory Popcak and Lisa Popcak

As I read this book, it occurred to me that I don't read many parenting books. Usually I read books describing some current research or trends or books on education and apply what seems reasonable to my parenting. While I haven't read much for comparison, I was impressed by the ideas and philosophy of the Gregory and Lisa Popcak.

In the introduction to the first part, the Popcaks maintain that Catholic parenting should look different than even non-Catholic Christian parenting. I was not convinced. Obviously, non-Catholic Christian parents aren't taking their children to Eucharistic Adoration, but it seemed to me the parenting the Popcaks describe could be used by non-Catholic Christians.

Later in the introduction, the authors introduced attachment parenting as the ideal. I felt like the Popcaks were overstating their case a bit, blaming all sorts of problems in our society on the fact that in America and Europe, parents put their babies in cribs and choose formula over nursing and other such parenting practices. It's not that I disagreed with their main points, or even that I thought they were necessarily wrong. I just felt like their attitude would be more likely to encourage someone of a different mindset to toss the book aside rather than read more about a different way to parent. They also admit parents can raise relatively good kids without following all of their advice.

Soon, though, I became intrigued by the philosophy of parenting in the book. The Popcaks draw extensively from the idea of "self-donation" introduced by Pope John Paul II in his Theology of the Body.
In a nutshell, Pope John Paul II taught that each and every person was designed by God to use every gift He gave them -- especially their bodies -- to work for the good of other people.
Later, they expand on self-donation more, as it's probably the single most important concept in the book:
It is a supremely responsive love, empowering those who practice it to use their bodies, minds, and spirits to respond with justice and compassion to the deepest God-given needs of others. Self-donation is the kind of love that mirrors the self-gift Jesus Christ gave us, through His Incarnation and through His Passion, Death and Resurrection. Further, it is the love that lies at the heart of both Catholic social justice and Catholic family life...Ultimately it is about "finding ourselves" by doing the work God created human beings to do -- the work of responsible, active love.
What I especially appreciated about the Popcaks' application of self-donation to parenting was that it wasn't about giving up everything for the children. Instead, the goal is to model self-donation for them, just as Christ and the Church model it, and to encourage our children to practice self-donation as well so that they learn the skills and virtues of the faith within the family, eventually extending to the parish, community and society. They've developed a complete system of parenting around the idea of self-donation and the goals of instilling the virtues of love and responsibility in our children.
[W]e believe the primary mission of every Catholic parent is to raise children who will grow up perfectly, in the sense that they know how to love and be loved, both by others and by the God who made them.
I also liked the chapter on how developing a loving personal relationship with each child in the family (with specific suggestions on how to do that) enables us to discipline our children (as in disciple, not punish) in the most effective manner.
Put simply, everything in parenting depends upon your kids knowing you love them and teaching them how to love you in return. Your success as a parent depends on creating the kind of attachment at every age and stage that makes your children want to look more like you than they do their peers. This is what "discipline" means. Without that level of attachment, all the best discipline strategies in the world will fail to give you the results you want--the results God and His Church demand.
This statement makes perfect sense to me. As a parent, it seems clear that just telling our children how to behave isn't going to give them the skills they need. They need to trust that we want what is best for them, that we love them no matter what they do (though we want them to be always striving to be more who Christ wants them to be), and that they can trust us more than their peers.

The last two chapters in the first part describe some corrective measures parents can take to address particular problems or goals. In part II, they describe five different phases of childhood and what self-donative parenting may look like in each one. In part III, they address some general topics like developing a child's faith, dealing with sibling rivalry or teaching about stewardship. Parts II and III depend heavily on what is presented in the first part, so don't skip it!

I haven't actually changed any parenting practices based on this book, but I've asked Kansas Dad to read it on his week's vacation coming up. I'd love to integrate some of their ideas, starting with a family mission statement. I believe some parents would feel overwhelmed by the Popcaks' recommendations. Even I'm not sure I'm ready to jump in with everything and we already practice some of what they deem the most important like co-sleeping and extended nursing. I think, though, that they'd suggest parents start with one or two new things and build on the family's strengthened relationships over time.

I did think some of the phrases they used sounded a little...silly. Perhaps they are phrases from their radio program (which I haven't really heard) that, to me, just didn't seem to translate well to the written word. Also, they often referenced their own books or pastoral counseling service. They refer to books by other authors and list other resources as well, but it seemed like they mentioned their own books at least once in every chapter. Of course, I haven't read those other books; they may indeed be fantastic resources.

As often as the authors call on Catholic practices and tradition, I think non-Catholic Christian parents could glean a lot of insight from this book and I'd encourage any parent to read it. Gregory and Lisa Popcak have a wonderful respect for the family and how the time we spend together shapes parents and children, and helps us to become the people God wants us to be. I could write so much more, but I want to limit this review to one post and Kansas Dad would tell me it's already too long.
Family life is itself a prayer. Founded on the graces of marriage, family life is first and foremost an exercise in opening yourselves up more fully to God and perfecting each other in His love. While things such as formal prayer times, Eucharistic Adoration, retreats, and other spiritual exercises, and church activities are important -- even essential -- parts of the full-course meal that is the Christian life, the meat of the married Christian's meal is being an exceptional mate and parent. If Christianity is not at work in your home, it is not truly at work in your life.
This review was written as part of The Catholic Company product reviewer program. I have not received any payment for this review, but I did receive a free copy of the book Parenting with Grace. Learn more about joining the reviewer program here.


  1. This looks really interesting. Would you be interested in swapping when I bring you "The Year and our Children"? (If not, that's fine. Just thought I'd check).

    I really do like the attachment approach to parenting. It just seems very naturally what a parent would (should) do were they to receive NO parenting advice. It just feels right.

    I'm reading A Mother's Rule of Life now, and really really like it.

    I'm all about gleaning good tips from any resources I can. Glad this seemed like a worthwhile read.

  2. Monica, you're welcome to borrow it just as soon as Kansas Dad finishes it! I think you'll like it. It seems like a natural extension of what you're already doing.

    A Mother's Rule of Life is one of my favorite books ever!


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