Imagining More Than a Career

I’d like my children to identify vocations (and perhaps professions) that will provide for their needs and give them some degree of personal fulfillment. But I would never tell them that their careers are the most important thing.

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Sometimes I find myself totally entranced watching my children play make-believe. The latest game for my older boys involves my two-year-old strapping on plastic armor and a sword and attacking his seven-year-old brother shouting, “king!” My older son happily plays along, and they sword-fight throughout the first floor of our house. I don’t know where that came from, given we rarely watch movies—perhaps a book in which they saw a king wielding a sword.

Even that my kids play—creatively, unstructured, without adult supervision—seems to set them apart from a lot of their peers. I know because I see those peers—when I pick up my daughters at ballet, when I spy kids on the sidelines of little league games, when I take my kids to the doctor’s office. And, in most cases these days, other kids are on a device, using only their eyes and their thumbs. I wouldn’t say they’re mindless; no, they seem very, very engaged.

One of my best friends is a tenured professor at a venerable Catholic liberal arts college. He tells me things have gotten a lot worse just since he began teaching in 2015. Back then, he says, he was still instructing students who had not known smartphones since their earliest years. They were better students, more communicative, more engaged in class. Now, he relates, he walks into class to find all the students quietly thumbing away on their iPhones. 

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Today’s students’ attention spans operate at a fraction of what their predecessors possessed just a decade ago. It would perhaps be unfair to expect as much from them—nothing in their grade-school education has prepared them to intelligently discuss Aquinas or Austen. Not that many of their parents care about that. The goal is to equip their progeny for the workforce not contemplation (though even there, many employers are complaining that the younger generation is egregiously unprepared for the professional world). 

I have different hopes and expectations for my children. Certainly, I’d like them to identify vocations (and perhaps professions) that will provide for their needs, and, hopefully, give them some degree of satisfaction and personal fulfillment. But I would never tell them that their career—if we must call it that—is the most important thing. Far from it.

My highest aspiration for them, of course, is their eternal welfare. I want them to be Catholics who understand their faith and embrace it as their own. I want them to feel joy in prayer and in the presence of Christ. I want them to understand that nothing matters more than God. My highest aspiration for my children, of course, is their eternal welfare. I want them to be Catholics who understand their faith and embrace it as their own.Tweet This

But apart from that, I want them to have life, and in abundance (John 10:10). I want them to delight in God’s creation, which can inspire and shape them in ways that are unique to their personalities and interests. I want them to discover the unique, interesting men and women God created them to be. I want them to learn what it truly means to love and be loved. And that, my friends, is unlikely to happen if your child’s default recreational time is spent in front of a screen. 

No, children need to have their imaginations awakened, to be filled with wonder at the world in its remarkable splendor and diversity. They need to be instructed in what is good, true, and beautiful, so they can discern those qualities for themselves. They need exciting, fun stories that catechize them with an appreciation for creation, as well as the cardinal and theological virtues that are required for the good life. 

I’ve written before at Crisis on the kind of literature that my wife and I believe is helping to accomplish this challenging vision. But I felt remiss that my recommendations at the end of that article were so limited. Thankfully, Cheri Blomquist’s book Before Austen Comes Aesop: The Children’s Great Books and How to Experience Them offers a guide far more extensive and systematized than anything I could conjure up. “We must allow the Children’s Great Books to take their rightful place in English courses—in the elementary grades but also beyond them in middle school and high school,” writes Blomquist. Divided into three sections—a reading list, reading adventure guides, and appendices—I’d say this is a must-have for any parents who want to properly form their children’s moral and intellectual life. 

Playing off the Great Books of Western literature, Blomquist’s list is based on four criteria: the book must have played a significant role in the history of children’s literature; it has influenced the development of Western literature; it has been valued by young people for much of its existence; and it has long been considered excellent literature. Of course, no such list will please everyone, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that my wife and I are at least on the right track. The list includes classic texts like Padraic Colum’s The Children’s Homer, Ingri and Edgar Parin d’Aulaire’s D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths, Howard Pyle’s The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood, and George MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin.

But I’m just scratching the surface here. Thankfully, we live in Northern Virginia, where there are periodic book sales at our public libraries that offer excellent opportunities to supplement our own family library at a very reasonable, discounted rate. But I imagine we’ll be purchasing quite a few of Blomquist’s recommendations online, as well. 

Admittedly, the formation of children goes far beyond the books we encourage (or coerce) them to read. But I’d propose that forming your children in great literature pays dividends in other ways. Our kids love playing outside: in the woods, along the stream, on the playground. When I observe them, they are often playing make-believe games based on things they have read. My oldest daughter has persuaded her siblings to help her build an “abbey” in the woods behind our house because she’s obsessed with the best-selling Redwall series.

I have no idea whether all of this will result in better preparing our kids for college or the professional world. I’m not sure that I care, frankly. “The glory of God is man fully alive,” declared St. Irenaeus, and I doubt he meant a six-figure salary defined by cubicle drudgery. If my kids’ imaginations and characters are sufficiently stoked in the proper direction, I have a feeling they’ll find their way in this world one way or another. They’ll love life (and their Lord) too much not to.


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