By KATHY SCHMUGGE
COLUMBIA — “Parenting is a terminal illness,” said Kathleen Chesto, Ph.D., half joking as she described the joys and challenges of “Parenting Children in a Changing World,” during the two-day seminar sponsored by the Charleston diocesan Office of Evangelization, Catechesis and Christian Initiation, where she explored the faith lives of young adults and children.
Chesto, who has her doctorate of philosophy in ministry from Hartford Seminary and a master’s degree in religious studies from St. Joseph College, shared her insights as a mother of three young adults and her 25 years of experience in family ministry and religious education on the parish and diocesan levels with the participants at the Holiday Inn Northeast Feb. 1-2.
She based her first talk on her new book, Exploring the New Family, which attempts to bring light to the spiritual struggles of the post adolescent, a group she defines from around the age 18 to 30. All three of her children fall in this age group, and she solicited their help and the help of their friends to come to a better understanding of this generation.
While sympathizing with parents who have post-adolescent children who can be self-absorbed, materialistic and noncommittal, she asked the adults to look beyond the faults and try to see their driving forces. “They are our children. We made them,” she said with a smile and spent the rest of the day contrasting their world with the one she grew up in. “We who parent today’s 20-year-olds represent the transition from centuries of belonging to land and family to being defined by what we do,” she said.
According to Chesto, these post adolescents don’t know who they are, where they are from and wait to pick the perfect job to define themselves. Relationships are fragile because even if their parents stayed together, such commitment is rare today especially among young adults who want to “find themselves first” before they make any commitment to another.
Defining religion like a “bridge that connects the ordinary to the sacred,” Chesto sees her generation as fighting over the “bridge,” in some cases forgetting the bridge’s purpose, causing many of the young to jump off the bridge and try to swim to sacred ground. She describes the abandoning of their religion as a lonely and individualized faith journey that leaves nothing behind, no opportunity for others to connect the spiritual with their ordinary existence, and they run a risk of losing direction through the distractions of the world.
Although as a parent Chesto shared some concerns about this age group, she seemed to have more positive things to say for their future. She believes that they will be the ones to bring about a renaissance in the church because of their sincere searching for truth and God’s great and infinite love for them. She sees the majority of the post adolescents as being followers of St. John’s Gospel, which unlike the other Gospels that give details and genealogy, St. John starts with, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God.”
This information generation is constantly bombarded with information and tune out easily; so Chesto does not recommend the “commercial for Jesus” approach. They need the big stories that St. John tells, the personal invitations, according to the speaker. She encourages parents and church leaders to reach out in a personal way, sharing their own faith experience. The generation tends to be deficient in knowledge about their faith; they thirst for it and will come like Nicodemus to Jesus alone and by night.
Youth and violence
For the younger children who are still forming their beliefs and behaviors, parents have an awesome responsibility to help them. Chesto warned against the “artificial needs” prevalent in children today. They are bombarded with it in the television and by their peers and it affects their moral development, according to Chesto. They truly believe and even convince their parents that they must have the latest toy or a faddish article of clothing. Although materialism, competition and business are not in themselves evil, she said they can lead to evil choices.
Another concern of Chesto is the growing violence among children. She is especially disturbed by a total lack of conscience in the killing done by the young who say things like “it seemed like a good day to kill someone.” Through limiting exposure to violence in the various media outlets and nurturing empathy, a parent can reverse some of the negative influences of the culture. She said that by respecting a child’s feeling and allowing them to express them will lead them into becoming compassionate people.
Chesto also recommends storytelling, a lost art these days, because it can also help a child enter into someone else’s happiness or sorrow, which is a springboard into empathy for others.
“We have forgotten how to teach morality, and we are losing our internal guide,” she said, believing parents should not wait until a child is 7 to start teaching them to be moral.
She also described “shame, feeling bad when someone who loves you catches you doing something wrong,” as a healthy moral feeling.
“We don’t want to shame children, but we should allow them to feel shame,” she explained, saying that more harm is done to self-esteem if the parent does not believe the child is capable of goodness.
Another emotion, guilt, which Chesto calls shame’s sister, is an important internal signal for the young as well.
“You don’t have to be caught to feel guilty,” she said, emphasizing the importance of having clear and realistic expectation so a child does not lose heart. “Don’t blame, and don’t yell. Instead teach them to take responsibility for their actions and let them fix the things they can,” advised the speaker.
She also sees the benefits of having a healthy sense of guilt and shame so a child can be motivated to live up to the reasonable expectations and thus get real self-esteem. Chesto, who spoke in South Carolina last year, gave useful information to parents and teachers. Her hope and reasonable expectations for the young can carve out a path for parents to go when they feel overwhelmed and defeated by a world that seems to contradict their efforts.