Not being a parent or a teacher, I’ll be gutsy here and suggest that what children need most from home and school is also what they most desire: happiness that is found in identity, independence, and intimacy—a positive identity, appropriate independence, and healthy intimacy. These interrelated items that they need most in their youth are also what we need most in our adulthood, for they will continue to bring happiness. As a Christian, I take it even further to add that they will bring happiness not only to this world but the world beyond.
Much of our identity is shaped before we take our first breath, as we are defined by our ethnicity, religion (or lack thereof), parental traits that we inherit, family status, etc. When features appear, especially outstanding ones like freckles, green eyes, red hair, a stutter, or lisp, we are further defined; and soon our preferences and interests surface. In school, we get identified for the roles we assume: smart, athletic, funny, sociable, quiet, artistic, etc., as we accept, embrace, reject, or merely endure the identity we’re given. If we don’t claim an identity, peers will make sure we get one through playful nicknames or not-so-playful labeling. It happens in childhood and in adulthood. Seinfeld fans will recall how George Costanza wanted to be “T-bone” but was forced to be “Co-co.” We should help our youth assert positive identities that, like a favorite T-shirt, they can wear with comfort. We should also help them to discover their identity in the Lord, i.e., to put on Christ. It will help them to have a wholesome identity throughout the rest of their lives.
As kindergartners go off for their first days of school they, and their parents, take a huge step from the path of dependence to that of independence. As little ones mature, they keep seeking further independence—though always counting on that place of safety and security found in parents and home. As the outside world of friends, teams, overnights, make-up, weapons, piercings, tattoos, etc., become increasingly interesting, adolescents seek further independence. Family, school, and church personnel should do our part to help youth move from dependence to independence to interdependence in appropriate ways with ever-increasing freedom and responsibility, as well as understanding of being rooted in, and dependent upon, God. In our Catholic culture, families share foundational anchors of morality that shape attitudes, behaviors, habits, patterns and destiny. With age-appropriate emancipation, our youth will grow into healthy adults who balance their dependence and independence with suitable interdependence within a society where people look out for and encourage one another in meaningful ways.
A third realm where we can help kids become happy, healthy, and holy adults is intimacy. Our attitudes toward affection, attachment, rapport, and love are acquired in our homes and through our families. Popular references to love-languages today tell us that some households emphasize the importance of physical touch and deep interaction more than others. Many little kids are huggers—they hug everyone! As they grow, the need for tactile engagement among peers remains but gets expressed in other ways: games, organized sports, dance, etc. When children are given a healthy and wholesome sense of conversation, respect, friendship, closeness, and physical interaction, they will have better experiences as adolescents that date, young adults that fall in love, and older adults that bear affection for all people, using the love languages of the Gospel: charitable service and sacrifice. Our institutes can assist with this, too, as we help children interact in appropriate and wholesome ways.
Identity, independence, and intimacy are three things that our children want and need; adults also want and need them because they bring happiness. Schools, homes, and churches can work together to assure that kids gain a positive identity, independence suitable to their age, and a wholesome sense of intimacy at every stage of youthfulness. This will lead to a holier and healthier adulthood in this life and, I believe, eternal happiness in the life beyond.