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Betsy Kneepkens: With grey hair comes ‘expert status’

What do raising kids, grey hair, and wrinkles give you? Expert status. 

I chuckle every time one of my younger siblings calls me for advice. Having raised my children into young adulthood, my younger siblings, several years my junior, seem to need advice on parenting issues I never worried about, like: “Were you not exhausted after playing with your kids all day?” I responded, “No, never. I didn’t play with them all day.” 

Betsy Kneepkens
Betsy Kneepkens
Faith and Family

One of my sisters with a two-and-a-half-year-old asked, “I can’t potty train him; what should I do?” And I said, “Wait! He will be ready when he is ready.” Or my brother asked, “All the preschoolers here can read. Should I hold my son back?” I responded, “Well, all the preschoolers were held back from playing, so it sounds like your son is ahead of the class.” 

Mostly I do try to answer lovingly but with a bit of humor. Sometimes, I think my younger brothers and sisters overthink some of these nonessential parenting issues. 

Occasionally, the consultations are more complicated, and I have to use whatever wisdom I can conjure up. My sister, although raised Catholic, no longer practices. She would say she is intuitive and therefore doesn’t practice a religion. When I have substantial issues in my life, I seek answers through the lenses of my Catholic faith. Knowing the truth of natural law, the tenets of our faith, God’s plan for us, and directing life toward our hopeful eternity makes difficult situations easier to explain and understand. 

My sister, the mother of a sixth-grade girl, received a call from her ex-husband, who said he learned that the daughter shared a story about an older boy kissing her at a game. The ex-husband did not know what to do and basically directed my sister to deal with the incident. Anxiously upset and frustrated with her daughter, my sister called me for advice. 

Before sharing any guidance, I knew I had to help her unpack her emotions. I learned that she felt overwhelmed because her daughter’s father turned the problem over to her, and her husband did not think the matter was that big of a deal. My sister was angry because she heard this story secondhand, and therefore her daughter never came to her about the situation. It seemed she was left dealing with the incident alone. 

I started by validating the emotions that seemed fair, tried to de-escalate the feelings that were not necessary, and redirected the remaining temperament in a path where she could think more rationally. I started untangling the situation by suggesting that it was essential to determine if the story was true. If it was a lie her daughter was telling, I let my sister know she had many other problems on her hands. 

I spent the first few moments with my sister unpacking reasons why my niece might lie about something of this nature. Several ideas came to mind, like this young girl wanted others to perceive her in a certain way or she was giving an early sign for help? Or is she, a girl with essentially two dads, confused about the innate need to have a significant male person in her life? Is she subconsciously seeking male approval because she is not sensing that she has a solid male relationship in her life? A difficult concept to acknowledge, but for her daughter’s sake, a necessary conversation to have to get at the problem’s root. 

Assuming the situation did happen, I felt I needed to be frank. I said to my sister, “Raising your children without religion can make it difficult to explain why what your daughter did was inappropriate.” I shared that getting upset with her about the incident might make a girl already confused about male relationships even more frustrated. Leaving the discussion at telling her daughter she is too young creates a complicated rule for a tweener to understand why. I affirmed she was in a difficult position. 

I explained to my sister that I didn’t have the tools to help her, that the words or language I would use with my children would not make sense to her daughter. Discussing with her the way I did with my kids, leaving God out on the matters of love and sexuality, more likely would leave my niece feeling empty, worthless, and more confused. I let my sister know I struggled to create an impactful message that adequately addressed how inappropriate her behavior was and why she was not mature enough. Especially since 11- and 12-year-olds do that sort of thing because they think they are old enough to do them. Only through Christ can we understand how poorly placed a situation like this is in a young girl’s life. 

I thought I would use this opportunity with my sister to share how I would handle the situation if it had happened to one of my kids. Most importantly, I let my sister know that we tried to give our children a firm foundation in our Catholic faith as parents. This base provided our children with a common understanding, language, order, and direction. We accomplished this primarily by being a family that was not only regularly practicing Catholics, but every member of the family was trained in Pope St. John Paul the Great’s Theology of the Body. 

If approached with a similar situation, my husband and I would ask our son or daughter how the incident respected the values and beliefs we hold. We likely would have a conversation to remind them that they were created male and female and that difference was intended and with purpose. We would then talk about how Christ gave his body as a gift and was intentional and purposeful in his giving. 

We would share how many friends see their incident as acceptable and normal in this world. However, we are striving for something entirely different — life beyond this. We need to carefully treat with grace that which God has allowed us to give away to another, making the gift special and sacred. As followers of Christ, we seek more for others and ourselves — affirming that special relationship between males and females. When we allow this interchange to be unique and properly placed in humanity, treating it as normal and casual devalues the gift. 

As parents, we tried to establish the groundwork so that the conversation would flow easily. Our children’s formation allows us to use language we all understood, reinforce everything we believed, and hopefully prepare them to make profound decisions in these sorts of situations. We would know not to shame but rather to challenge each other to strive to keep holy relationships in our lives holy. 

It is hard to welcome grey hair, wrinkles, and aged experience. However, if it could mean that my siblings thought my husband and I knew what we were doing as parents, I willingly accept the physical unpleasantries of aging. I actually hope my siblings, over time, see that the decisions we made as parents were just the result of living a life rooted in Christ. When they get a better grasp of that, they will not only find parenting easier but they will grow closer to the Lord. 

From that lifestyle of following Christ, all else will flow. He came so that we might have life and have it more abundantly (John 10:10). Happy Easter! 

Betsy Kneepkens is director of the Office of Marriage, Family, and Life for the Diocese of Duluth and a mother of six.