The primary purpose of parenting is to educate our children in the truth, to give them a formation in virtue that will free them to follow Jesus Christ. As parents, our task is to raise our children to love God — who is absolute truth and goodness and beauty — in an age when most of their peers will have no assurance of any absolutes and no knowledge of that Love that, as Dante says, “moves the sun and other stars.”
Relativism, in its simplest terms, is the firm conviction that human knowledge is not absolute. In 2005, in his last homily before his papal election, Joseph Ratzinger made headlines even in the secular news with the phrase “the dictatorship of relativism.” The ubiquitous interior discontent of secular atheists exploded in outrage against the old man, accusing him of “infantilizing” the human race with his archaic clinging to authority in matters of faith and morals. Faithful Catholics cheered him on.
As a young philosophy student at the time, I had visions of fighting the good fight alongside the Pope with lengthy essays on Dostoyevsky and Pascal. I would wave the flag of truth from the heights of the Ivory Tower of academia.
But that same summer, I gave birth to our first child. Reality hit hard with difficult pregnancies, economic struggles and cross-country moves with a growing family in tow. Over the years, I realized that the front lines of the battle for truth are not necessarily in the hallowed halls of Cambridge or Yale (although the Lord knows we desperately need warriors there, too). Rather, the battle rages most acutely in homes and parishes where families are living the human reality of birth, life and death.
Parenthood, I found, is the foundational weapon against relativism in the family and thus in the culture at large. Its demands swiftly drove me down from my ivory tower, where it was easy to lose my connection to reality and planted me squarely in the demands of the truth.
Nothing battles relativism like caring for an infant, because suddenly real life doesn’t care how you feel about it. The baby needs a diaper change, whether you want to sleep or not. The 13-year-old needs to turn off her smartphone now, whether you want to deal with her eye-roll or not. The unrelenting (and absolute) physical needs of the newborn, the emotional trauma of the terrible threes, and the ever-evolving demands of pre-teens, teens and grown children constantly present themselves as facts.
But the real gateway to absolute truth in parenthood is the absolute love you have for these children. It’s not just a feeling of love or infatuation (because sometimes you don’t feel all warm and fuzzy when you’re up for the third time that night), but you prove to them and to yourself your love because you do what needs to be done for the good of your child.
Lapsed Catholics often rediscover faith in God through that experience of birth, life and death and knowing that the love they live through in family life can only come from something outside of themselves, something absolute.
Family life can also cure the child of relativism. We are all born with the effects of original sin, and one of those effects is confusion about truth. In a way, we are all born little relativists self-righteously convicted that the only moral absolute is our own will.
Of course, some things are relative. For example, a proper choice of clothing is relative to weather conditions, cultural expectations of decency, and mom’s prerogative. While arguable, it is also relative to your preferences whether your growing family cheers for the Patriots or the Giants. The question of what ice cream flavor is best is relative. The truth of these matters depends on various factors, most of them subjective or conventional.
Some things, however, should not be left to perspective or circumstances. The vast majority of parenting is teaching your children to distinguish between absolute truth and subjective opinion. When parents confuse those things that are relative with those that are absolute, their children become subject to the “tyranny of relativism.” Reality does not smile kindly upon such confusion.
It is not always self-evident which truths are absolute and which are relative. For example, the tyranny of relativism is the bane of every 3-year-old child. Everything, for her, is relative to her personal whim.
This reality came home to me on a recent baking adventure.
Child: “I wanna make a cake.”
Mother: “Yes, that’s what we’re doing. Now we need two eggs.”
Child: “No, five eggs.”
Mother: “Well, just two eggs in the bowl.”
Child: “I want five eggs in the ’firgerator. NOT IN A BOWL!”
Mother: “But if the eggs are in the refrigerator, they’re not in the cake.”
Child: “Yes, in the cake! NO BOWL! In the ’firgerator!” (fade scene to sound of wailing and gnashing of teeth)
You get the idea. Relativism guides her every decision, and when reality intervenes she suffers emotional breakdown. The art of baking a cake is not a good time to exercise relativistic tendencies. Truth, on the other hand, is beautiful. And tasty.
My job is to help her see that first, she does not determine how many eggs make a good cake. Second, even though she does not get to determine how many eggs will produce a good cake, it is still good and leads to her happiness for her to follow the authority of the recipe. Third, if she insists on being the arbiter of all things cake recipe, she may not bake with me.
My authority as a parent is not infantilizing my children or restricting their freedom. Instead, in exercising my authority for their own good, I am helping them mature as human beings. If I allowed my 3-year-old to choose for herself how many eggs she uses each time she bakes, I would be abandoning her to the tyranny of relativism, which cares nothing for whether or not she gets a tasty cake in the end. But because I care for her and want her to eat the delicious cake and take pride in having made the delicious cake, I exercise my authority to guide her and habituate her to following directions.
Habituating a 3-year-old to truth is actually quite simple, if physically exhausting. It only becomes more difficult as they grow older and begin to have questions about stories from history (who were the good guys, mom?) or the living arrangements of beloved relatives (but they aren’t married, mom!).
Whether our children are only just walking or ready to drive away to college, it is in the real living of family life that relativism will be defeated.
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