Interview on Parenting a Large Catholic
By Kathleen Naab
CHICAGO, Illinois, 12 JAN. 2009 (ZENIT)
God the Father subjects to human free will his desire to pour out new
and the rewards of responding to this desire are countless, says a
couple that has parented 19 children.
James and Kathleen Littleton wrote about their experience of
responding to God's creative love in a book about raising their 14
living children, "Better by the Dozen, Plus Two."
The Littletons also spoke with ZENIT about their decision to have
such a large family, and why it required separating themselves from
prevailing cultural opinions, even perhaps among Catholics.
Part 2 of this interview will be published Tuesday.
Q: What do you suggest for couples seeking to discern what God asks
of them through the Church's call to responsible parenthood?
James: Here I believe we are discussing openness to life within
marriage. The answer to this question lies in the law of love, and also,
of course, in hope and trust as opposed to fear, which so infects the
world today. Kathleen and I made the regretful mistake of beginning our
marriage succumbing to the lie of artificial contraception. By the
sublime grace of God we converted from this error, and have been
showered with the undeserved grace of having thus far 19 children, 14
living on earth and five in heaven.
The Church teaches that it is necessary that each and every marriage
act remain ordered per se to the procreation of human life
Catechism No. 2366. The Church does allow for couples to space the
births of their children for just reasons via natural family planning.
So we must deal with the subjective question of couples discovering the
will of God each month regarding their openness and readiness to embrace
and be open to co-creating new life in partnership with him, of bringing
a beautiful new person into existence in time and eternity, an
unrepeatable, unique human person with an irreplaceable and necessary
mission for the glory of God and the salvation of souls.
This possibility is not an imposition, but rather a transcendent gift
of the very creative power of God himself. It is humbling and
awe-inspiring to think that our Heavenly Father chooses to subject his
ache to pour out new life to the choice and generosity of human beings
on whom he has bestowed yet another awesome power, that of free will. He
will never interfere with our free will, yet ultimately we are called to
respond to this and all his gifts in love.
The key virtue of hope, which our beloved Pope Benedict is attempting
to turn the world toward, is vital with regard to openness to life in
marriage. Kathleen and I have met so many people who only needed one
word of encouragement or one example to find the hope and courage to do
what they already knew they wanted in their hearts, what God wanted, to
be open, if so blessed, to having another child in their marriage. Their
sense of joy, relief, and peace was evident when they shared or implied
their decision to be open to bring another life into time and eternity.
No, we are not saying that everyone needs to have as many children as
physically possible without regard for their circumstances. But we are
encouraging couples to be generous and re-evaluate the possibility of
having another child if God grants this gift, to examine this in a
prayerful way open to God's will, with a supernatural, faith-filled
When we pray and contemplate Jesus Christ and his love, and the
magnificence of each human person in comparison with inferior things
such as our fears, and yes, our tendency often toward selfishness and
materialism, when most importantly we live the Eucharistic and
sacramental life, when we seek the guidance of the sweet Guest of our
souls, the Holy Spirit, and when we humble ourselves to seek the counsel
of wise and holy people, our response to our merciful Father's gift of
life will take on a new, deeper, and true perspective.
We suggest couples not apply their reason and intellect alone, or
what the dominant culture attempts to impose, but also faith
and even with a higher regard for faith
so as not to try to make God small, not to put him in a tiny box. Our
heavenly Father has the power and ability to provide all we need, and he
will. He is never outdone in generosity. There is a great feeling of
freedom and peace that one experiences when one takes a bit of a risk
and puts out into the deep in love and trust in our infinitely loving
Kathleen: God is the one who creates, we are only cooperators. The
creation of a new human life lies in God's will for us. It is up to God
to bless us or not with a new child. This calls for great generosity,
faith and trust in his plan for our marriage and our lives. But it is
also very freeing
to know that God is with us at every moment
and if he created us, he will sustain us.
He also will give us the grace of state to be good parents and
providers. And if he doesn't bless us with a child, that too is his
will, and he intends only what is good for us. We only need to live each
day with greater faith, love and generosity
to ensure that God's will, not mine be done
for this alone will make us happy and give us peace.
Q: You propose that the formation of a child starts with prayer while
he or she is still in the womb. But does formation of character begin as
early as infancy? And if so, how?
James: Yes, the formation and sanctification of children begins in
the womb and certainly through infancy and beyond. Jesus is the one who
sanctifies; we merely cooperate with his work. Consider Luke 1: 41, when
John leaps in Elizabeth's womb at Mary's greeting
this happens when we bring our babies in the womb and infants to Mass or
for a visit to our Eucharistic Lord Jesus, where graces radiate from
Christ into the souls of our children and of course into us.
There are many useful practical techniques available via various
sources for formation of character at various ages, and we provide some
of our ideas and experiences in our book. But suffice it to say that all
techniques are fruitless unless connected to the vine of Jesus Christ.
Here we see the primacy of grace, where in order to form our children in
virtue we must first and foremost take them to Mass, as well as the
other sacraments, especially the sacrament of penance, and pray with
Saying Yes to Life
Interview on Parenting a Large Catholic Family
By Kathleen Naab
CHICAGO, Illinois, 13 JAN. 2009 (ZENIT)
Children can be obedient
and their obedience can be immediate and joyful, says a couple that has
parented 19 children.
In "Better by the Dozen, Plus Two," James and Kathleen Littleton tell
about their experience of raising obedient children, as well as children
who know how to think critically and are open to a vocation to the
priesthood or consecrated life.
The Littletons also spoke with ZENIT about the tricks of raising
successfully such a large family, and what their adult children say
about the experience, now that they are out of the nest.
Part 1 of this interview appeared Monday.
Q: You say you expect "immediate and joyful" obedience from your
children. Can you explain how you achieve this?
James: We try to raise our children with a spirit of sacrifice. We do
not want our children to come to us when they are grown and say, "Mom,
Dad, why did you ruin me by always giving in? Why did you always give me
what I wanted, when I wanted it? Why didn't you give me the capacity for
sacrifice? Why didn't you form my will when you had the chance?"
We try to form our children to be obedient. Obedience is expected to
be immediate and joyful, manifesting quality and diligence. In other
words, when they are asked to do something, they are expected to do so
immediately with a positive attitude, giving their best to the details
of the task, and getting it done as quickly as is reasonably possible,
without wasting time. The lack of any one or more of these qualities is
really not obedience.
How do we achieve this? First, our children are not angels, they are
human, so it is always a work in progress. We try to make them clearly
aware of what is expected of them. There needs to be consistency and
diligence both in what we expect and in holding them accountable. Then
there can be negative consequences when a child is not obedient, such as
doubling the requested chore when a complaint is given. I am not a big
proponent of regularly giving warnings, though I will on occasion where
prudence suggests. And, we do strive to predominantly use a wide variety
of positive motivations including, for example, rewarding the
best-behaved child after a designated period of time with perhaps a bag
of candy. The added benefit to this is forming our children to share
the recipient of the candy has the free will to keep it all, or to
share. We have been blessed to witness how they have all learned to
share in this way. Or the reward may involve a special outing or sports
I also strive to meet with each of my children on a monthly basis to
offer spiritual guidance one-on-one, though not always as consistently
as I should. They each have goals appropriate to their age, for example,
a virtue they are concretely working on as well as their prayer
commitments and goals. So they are partners in taking responsibility for
working on their own formation. This is essential.
And most importantly we receive the sacrament of penance together as
a family on a weekly basis. We have been blessed to have received
special permission from our pastor for our children to receive this
sacrament as early as age six. The self-reflection and the graces of
this sacrament of mercy are indispensable in growing in virtue and
holiness, and make our job as parents 99% easier.
Kathleen: We try to raise our children imitating Christ as our model
of virtue. Christ's sole purpose on earth was to do the will of his
Father in heaven, not out of fear, but out of total love. Thus, we as
parents attempt to form our children in prompt and joyful obedience
based on the same motivation
love, not fear. Love is self-giving and each child needs to learn that
they are here on earth, like Christ, to serve, not to be served. Service
is a manifestation of love for another, whereas sullenness, lack of
charity and isolating oneself, is not of God, and creates division and
disorder. When one refuses to cooperate out of selfishness, the entire
family is hindered.
Each member of the family needs to do their part in the finely tuned
working of the household. Self-giving love is a coming out of ourselves.
This doesn't come naturally to children
for that matter, even to adults
and often parents needs to keep reinforcing the lesson. This is done
through continuing explanation of the reasons why we work together, by
consequences for poor choices, but most importantly through positive
witness and the enjoyment of the fruits of an ordered and peaceful home
that is a haven of love. When achieved, prompt and joyful obedience
brings harmony and order to the home, whereas without it, chaos and
disorder reign. This is how we help our children to understand that each
of them are loved, needed and an integral part of the family
each with a unique place and mission within it.
Q: You also endeavor to form your children in critical thinking. What
are the practical steps you use in this effort?
James: We train our children in critical thinking, often engaging
them in conversations on this subject. This is vitally important. For
example, we will bring up a current event or something we came across in
the media, and then examine it with a critical eye for the truth, for
how it measures up to God's supernatural view. We will examine perhaps
what the agenda of the writer might have been. We will talk about the
influences perhaps of the dominant culture, or a morally relativistic
cultural view that is being expressed, and how it compares with the
objective truth. We will look at how the event, article, or movie
measures up to our Christian morality. This is a superb exercise in
helping the children develop critical thinking and discernment skills
that they will need throughout their lives. They will eventually need to
stand on their own two feet to discern the truth and live by it.
We try to allow the Holy Spirit to possess and move us as parents,
seizing opportunities wherever they may arise. We engage the children in
a mutual discussion to examine matters in the light of truth. This can
happen when the family is together at a meal, or any time and place. For
example I was recently with my children filling my van's tank at a gas
station when I observed a large banner above the door to the convenience
store saying, as I recall, "Get more good stuff!"
So we spontaneously had an animated conversation, replete with
passion and humor, about this sign and its message of materialism. Do we
really need more stuff? Don't we have enough stuff? Where would we put
this stuff? What will we do with this stuff when it becomes junk? Will
more stuff really make us happy or would we end up craving more "good
stuff"? We had a lot of fun bringing out the ludicrousness of this
message. Experiences like this, I believe, deeply inculcate the truth
and a proper critical discernment of the various false and misleading
messages the culture is constantly hurling at us.
Q: Now that some of your children are young adults, what do they say
about the experience of growing up with so many siblings? Are there any
attitudes or practices that you have changed as parents based on their
advice or feedback?
James: I don't think they would have had it any other way. This is
particularly evident by the fact that all of our older children like to
spend a lot of time with the family when they are, for example, home
from college. Is there ever friction? Yes, of course. But in a large
family in particular I think each family member learns quickly that he
or she is not the center of the universe, and also the indispensable
virtues of quick forgiveness and tolerance.
As to the second part of this question, one lives and learns, but
essentially Kathleen and I would not have done things much differently
than we have. As for myself I wish I could have done better in tempering
my choleric temperament and impatience, as I am often "reacting," rather
than being calm and collected. Yet, I am amazed and consoled by the
reality that Jesus knows how each of us is. He knows all of our human
faults and weaknesses, and yet he still chooses to entrust us with the
stewardship of his children. I am convinced that he makes up for all
that is lacking in us. We are merely called to try our best and to
confidently trust in him for the rest.
Kathleen: We have found that love multiplies itself. In other words,
the more one loves, the more one can love. With each new child, our love
as parents has grown and multiplied. Our love has increased, not
diminished. We have had parents admit to us that they fear having an
additional child because they think they've given all the love they are
capable of to their one or two children. They fear they won't have
enough love to go around, to give to any more. This fear is so
ungrounded in truth and in our own experience. The human heart is
capable of an infinite amount of love, as it is created in God's image.
Likewise, the love our children have for each other has multiplied
with each addition to the family. Our children even at a young age
surprised us with their excitement over each new baby. Never was there
any hint of a selfish thought that now there will be less love and time
on mom's and dad's part to go around. Quite the opposite
there was only great joy and happiness when we had an "announcement" to
make. Even now, my children continue to ask, pray and hope for more
babies to join our family
though that might take a miracle at my age!
Growing up in a large family naturally instills generosity and
service among the children, but it also develops a great closeness, love
and dependency among them. It is obvious to any witness that our
children truly care about each other. They are one another's best
friends because they have shared a closeness of age, have shared their
possessions and have shared the joyful, and at times, difficult
experiences of family life. They have grown up in a very tightknit
family unit. As we write about in great detail in our book, our system
of charge-master and younger charge has created a great bond of love
between the younger and older children. They truly love each other,
because the older ones have taken an integral part in the care and
nurturing of their younger brothers and sisters. This is a blessing and
has created a lifelong relationship that is very special.
As to what attitudes or practices we may have changed based on their
we must humbly respond that no, there aren't any. We have always tried
to raise our children with God's help and grace obtained through prayer
and the sacraments. We have prayerfully listened and acted upon his
inspirations, living our lives on a hierarchy of values and priorities,
always with God at the center of all we do.
We have often had to choose the narrow path, not allowing our
children to follow the crowd, but helping them to see the value of
living charity, modesty, and a virtuous life. God is the one who has
formed our children and he deserves the credit for any good that has
resulted. We now are seeing the fruit of a life united to him. We have
been blessed to hear our older children actually admit that we "were
right" even in the difficult choices. They have made the faith their own
and are living their lives upon the same principles and values instilled
within the family unit. "Raise them up in the way they should go and
they will never depart from it."
Q: Some of your children have participated in vocational discernment
programs and one of your sons is in a minor seminary. What do you do to
foster openness to a vocation to the priesthood or consecrated life?
Kathleen: The virtues of generosity, service to others, selflessness
and responsibility that are developed within a large family continue to
manifest themselves in the choices of vocation and career that our older
children have discerned to be God's will for them. Since our book was
published, one of our daughters has given her life completely to Christ
in the lay consecrated state. Our oldest daughter works full time for
the Archdiocese of Chicago. Our college-age daughters are choosing
careers that will enable them to use their formation in the Catholic
faith to serve others in the fields of education, law, medicine and
psychology, as well as looking forward to raising children of their own.
Our son is in a minor seminary discerning a call to the priesthood while
receiving an outstanding high school education and Catholic formation in
the faith. Each one of our oldest seven children have decided for
themselves to attend schools of discernment during their high school
years in order to give God the first chance with their young lives.
This has not happened by chance. From early on within our marriage,
God has worked in his own mysterious way to lead us to make him the
center of our family and our lives. At first it started through simple
spontaneous prayer to Our Lady, and she led us to her Son. Then more
frequent recitation of the rosary lead to daily Mass and weekly
confession as an entire family unit, and to a growing love and knowledge
of our faith and a complete embracing of the teachings of the Church.
The effect this has had on each member of the family is evident in
the way they are now leading their lives and the choices they are
making. Their lives are centered on God as they know that is ultimately
why he created us
to know, love and serve him and to bring others to do the same.
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On the Net:
"Better by the Dozen, Plus Two: Anecdotes and a Philosophy of Life
from a Family of Sixteen": http://www.lulu.com/littleton