While no two family structures or situations are identical, parenting is often confusing and challenging. Fortunately many answers to these challenges can be found by “Parenting in the Faith,” a topic discussed recently by Dr. Ana Samuel, who highlighted not only her personal experience as a mother of six, but also the guidance of Pope Francis’ encyclical Amoris Laetitia.

“Pope Francis is talking to the whole world, speaking at a theoretical level, very far from where the rubber hits the road,” Dr. Samuel said. “For example, he gives us all these cautions about technology. But what we’re wondering is, ‘when do we get one of our kids a smartphone?’”

A research scholar at The Witherspoon Institute, Princeton, and Academic Director of CanaVox, Dr. Samuel was invited to speak at St. Gregory the Great Parish, Hamilton Square, on Feb. 13. And she used the invitation as an opportunity to “speak as an ordinary mom.” Her goal: to make Pope Francis’ encyclical accessible.

“We want to know the concrete,” she said. “So I’ve picked four [of his] themes. A lot of this is prudential – it’s going to be very different for each family, but hopefully it will get your imagination going.”

Intimacy in Families

In Amoris Laetitia, Dr. Samuel said, Pope Francis writes, “We cannot control every situation that a child may experience. The real question, then, is not where our children are physically… but rather where they are existentially… their convictions, their goals, their desires and their dreams.”

And that deep knowledge, she said, can only come about through an intimacy – a deep familiarity or closeness – between parent and child.

“My favorite definition of intimacy is ‘into-me-see,’” Dr. Samuel continued. “We parents need to know [our kids’] interior world – and for that, we need a lot of deep conversational intimacy.”

Firsthand knowledge of that intimacy came when Dr. Samuel spent her seventh grade summer in Mexico with a beloved uncle and his 10 children. She witnessed the father interrupt his dinner to speak privately with a troubled teen.

“That struck me as a kid, because I had never seen a father shepherd his son into a room, close everybody out and give him that one-on-one attention,” Dr. Samuel pointed out.

Her cousins later told her, “We didn’t know it at the time, but he was giving us spiritual direction in those talks. He was being a life coach, passing on his wisdom in a loving way.”

Following that model, Dr. Samuel and her husband, Diego, talk privately with each child when something seems amiss.

“They started calling our little talks ‘talkie-talks’ because at the time they loved walkie-talkies,” she explained. “To this day it’s the code word, even with my 15-year-old. When something is on their heart or is worrying them, they’ll say, ‘Mom or Dad, I have to have a talkie-talk.’

“It’s amazing what they share. I don’t know what I would have done without this ritual,” she said. “You’re able to navigate some tricky issues [in private conversation].”

Good Use of Freedom

“Obsession is not education,” Pope Francis writes. “We cannot control every situation … what is most important is the ability to lovingly help them grow in freedom, maturity, overall discipline and real autonomy.”

Two models that have helped Dr. Samuel’s family are the apprenticeship model, and a principal from classical education.

Using folding laundry as an everyday example, she laid out the order of apprenticeship: First, I do, you watch. Second, you help, I’m next to you. Third, you do, I help. Finally, you do, I watch.

“It’s this way of slowly forming them, guiding them to independence,” she explained. “You’re guiding them less and less, training them to do things on their own.”

Risky or dangerous situations, however, “are when it’s more challenging to let them have more autonomy,” Dr. Samuel said. “To train them to face risk and danger wisely, there’s a second model.”

From ages zero to eight or 10, the goal is to “expose kids to truth, goodness and beauty.” During ages 10-15 parents can “start to expose them to error… and you help them build a filter.” From ages 15-18 parents begin “increasing teens’ autonomy, with guidance … then at 18, it’s time to let them go,” she said.

“Pope Francis says kids need to be allowed to face risk and learn from mistakes, and experience natural consequences,” Dr. Samuel noted. “We have to let our children feel the pinch, so they can start to become grownups.”

As a low-screen-time family by design, the Samuels read a lot, she said. “But letting them have their pick of the shelf is not always prudent.” Up until age 14 Dr. Samuel reviews her children’s reading choices. After that she requires they use a website to read book reviews on content.

Healthy Family Life

Pope Francis really emphasizes the need for affectionate homes, Dr. Samuel pointed out. “Parents are responsible … for instilling in their children trust and loving respect,” the Pope writes. “When kids no longer feel with all their faults that they are important to their parents, or that their parents are sincerely concerned about them, this causes deep hurt.”

This reminded Dr. Samuel of a study recently conducted by Tyler VanderWeele, director of the Human Flourishing Program at Harvard University, which examined the effects of parental warmth on child rearing.

“Children who did the best came from homes that were very high in parental warmth and discipline,” Dr. Samuel explained. “The surprising thing was that the families with kids who came from very permissive homes but with high affection were second best. The key factor in child success was parental warmth and affection.

“If you’re having a hard time being a good disciplinarian, work on the warmth,” she said. “Our children need to feel unconditional love.”

One concrete way to implement that is through hugs, Dr. Samuel said, explaining that research reveals hugs of six seconds or longer trigger the release of serotonin in the brain, creating feelings of happiness, calm, confidence and alleviating sadness.

“I am not a touchy-feely person … so that is hard for me,” she related. “But we did this for a few weeks, and I have to tell you, the hugging definitely helps.”

Pope Francis also talks about having forgiving homes, Dr. Samuel said. “‘It is important to train our children to ask for forgiveness and to repair the harm done to others,’” she quoted the Holy Father.

“Our homes have to be places where apologies and forgiveness happen a lot … and that requires due process. Hear both sides of the story… ask [the children] to forgive each other, and where applicable, find a way to repair the inequality they’ve created … And ask for forgiveness from your children … it is such a powerful example of humility.”

Having a tech-savvy home, Pope Francis writes, is essential. “This doesn’t mean preventing children playing with electronic devices, but rather finding ways to help them develop their critical abilities and not think that digital speed can apply to everything in life.”

Dr. Samuel limits her family’s screen time by age, intentionally keeping the numbers low, and using the Qustodio application for all devices in the home to control content. None of her children has a smartphone, and no social media is allowed.

Passing on the Faith

Pope Francis, said Dr. Samuel, wants us to have robust ways of passing on our faith. In the Samuel family, emphasis is placed on “loving the things that make us Catholic, that distinguish us from other faith traditions.” Those include attending Mass, receiving Communion and Reconciliation, as well as Eucharistic Adoration, visiting the sick and devotion to the Blessed Mother.

Some tactics they employ are recognizing the children’s developmental stages and what they are capable of absorbing. “When they were little, before Mass we would take them to the park so they could get some of their energy out … they were so much better behaved,” she noted. “We read the Mass readings on the way to church in the car and discuss what they mean. We also try to emcee the Mass, whispering in their ear what’s going on.”

Dr. Samuel believes that children will enjoy something more if they learn to do it well – and that includes experiences with Catholic practices.

“We try to go to Confession once a month, and we review the examination of conscience for kids and the Act of Contrition in the car on the way there,” she explained. “After Confession, we always go for ice cream. … I’m a big believer in making them want to enjoy the faith.”

No Guarantees

“I don’t want us to have a fairytale view of Catholicism,” Dr. Samuel said. “You can do everything right as parent, but can’t always expect a happy ending ... there’s no guarantee – that’s not life.”

She noted that several families she knows have encountered great suffering as their children entered the teenage and young adult years. “They would get so mad at the faith because this wasn’t the way it was supposed to turn out,” she related.

But the lesson of the prodigal son and loving father, Dr. Samuel continued, is a good reminder for how to proceed with our children. “We have to learn to love our children in good and bad times … when we experience difficulties in parenting, that’s when we really do a deep dive into the love God the Father has for us – because we have been the prodigal children … all we have to do is learn to love unconditionally.

“Pope Francis says that ‘all of us should be able to say thanks for the experience of our life in the family that we came to believe in the love that God has for us.’”