GROWING UP CATHOLIC | What to do with unruly boys? Ask St. Don Bosco, mentor to the troubled

What to do with unruly boys? Ask St. Don Bosco, mentor to the troubled 

I recently looked in the backyard and saw my 5-year old son enthusiastically beating a tree with a giant stick. His brother, 7, was shirtless and balancing precariously on top of the swing set. The shirt, I noticed, had been discarded for good reason — it was crumpled on the ground and soaked through with mud. Where he found the mud I'll never know.

As a parent, there's nothing to be done but pretend you never saw it. It isn't that the behavior is bad, it's just that it's difficult to teach children the finer points of spiritual and mental development when they're so unruly. There's also the social component — the pressure to present a perfect family to the adoring public with every hair in place — but I can barely get my boys to take their annual bath and stop roaring like lions during Mass.

If you, too, wonder how your unruly boys (girls can be pretty wild, too) might be tamed, St. Don Bosco has a remedy. As a priest living in 19th century Italy, he didn't have children of his own, but through his oratory and orphanage he became surrogate father for thousands of young men. At that time, gangs of orphaned boys wandered the streets of Turin thieving and causing trouble. Most people avoided them, but Don Bosco, whose feast we celebrated Jan. 31, saw their potential.

He liked outcasts, the boys who stole apples from the fields and weren't natural students, who were ignored and unkempt. He sought out these jobless, homeless vagrants because anyone who got into trouble was his friend. He was soon the leader of a rowdy, noisy oratory composed of every rascal in town. With a little love, the boys transformed and became devout. Most of them went on to lead successful, happy lives.

Here are a few principles St. Don Bosco followed:

Join in their games. Let them be boys. It isn't the end of the world if they're noisy and dirty. Spending time rough-housing with them builds trust, which is why Bosco would often play games in the yard with his boys.

Give them responsibility. Nothing turns a boy around like giving him an important job at Mass such as serving at the altar. Having him memorize and lead prayers is also a big winner. Children in general respond well to being given important jobs.

Help them develop virtue. Virtue is the inner strength that prompts us to make good choices and seek happiness. Virtuous children flourish even after they grow up and the threat of punishment from parents is gone.

Be a mentor. Kindness wins their hearts. Bosco avoided having to punish the boys too much by spending time with them and helping them make good choices before they got into trouble.

Let them question, even if the questions are challenging. Respect them and they will learn to return that respect.

Father Michael Rennier is parochial administrator of Epiphany of Our Lord Parish in St. Louis. A former Anglican priest, he was ordained in 2016 under a pastoral provision for the reception of Anglicans and Episcopalians into full communion with the Catholic Church. He and his wife, Amber, have five children. 

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