"Everyone who belongs to the Truth hears my voice…" (John 18:37)

Parenthood: Lessons in Diplomacy from the Cold War


Pope John Paul II and President Ronald Reagan, 1984

On a long car trip recently, I was listening to a book on the life of Saint John Paul II called The End and the Beginning.1 In it, the author describes the Pope’s role in helping to bring down communism and dismantle the Soviet Union. Because I was just a kid in 1978 when Karol Wojtyla was elected pope and still a new Catholic in 1989 when the fabled ‘Iron Curtain’ came down, this information was essentially new to me.I mean, I’d heard bits and pieces of the story before but never really knew what had taken place – the way events unfolded and how the Pope had helped diffuse tensions and instil courage in the people, first in Poland and then all over Eastern Europe. By all accounts, JPII was a brilliant theologian and a beloved pastor, but I also discovered that he was an astute negotiator and skilful diplomat.

As I listened, I found myself completely mesmerized and taken in by this remarkable man who was my ‘first’ pope. It wasn’t only the circumstances of his life that intrigued me – the way God had uniquely prepared him to lead the Church (and, really, the whole world) at this particular point in history; it was also his way of being with people – his presence and approach that was strong, yet gentle. He found a way of meeting people where they were, yet never deviated from his commitment to the truth. No wonder he was hailed John Paul the Great almost immediately after his death! And though it occurred to me that many local and world leaders in all areas of society could benefit from the wisdom of his words and example, even parents could stand a bit of improvement in the areas of tact and diplomacy.

Here’s some of what I took away:

Knowing what to say (or not to say), and when. Timing is everything. Which means sometimes it’s better not to say everything you know – at least, not at first. Perhaps it will be too overwhelming – the recipient just isn’t ready to hear it all yet. What will advance God’s plans more, our words or our silence? Sometimes we must speak up, but at other times our silence is a more profound witness, and we must let the Holy Spirit do His work. When it comes to parenting, I’ve learned that too much information isn’t always such a good thing. Sure, we might have the answers, but kids don’t always want to hear their parents’ wisdom. Often it’s better not to try to TELL them anything at all… Just ask good questions, or make subtle suggestions, and let them figure it out. You never know – they may just come to the same conclusion as you did all on their own. 

end-of-the-roadStay focused on the big picture. Always keep the desired ‘end’ in mind and never lose sight of what you’re trying to accomplish. For example, our family likes to play games. But sometimes our youngest has trouble following the rules and doesn’t want to play fair; she thinks she should get special treatment just because she’s the youngest. But we know better than to go down that path, recognizing that if we do, it’ll affect much more than just the outcome of this one particular game. We’d be setting her up for an unrealistic view of life – that things will always work out in her favour or somehow be fair. But as adults we know that’s not the case – life isn’t fair. We must allow our children to fail at times so they can learn resiliency and perseverance – and a dose of humility.

The importance of “saving face.” When it comes to your kids, look for win-win situations. No one (especially a two-year-old) wants to feel like the ‘loser.’ So even if you catch them in a lie, try not to back them into a corner. It’s not the loving thing to do, nor will it help things anyway. Be creative in finding solutions and reasonable in exacting punishment. Let your kids see that you will listen, but ultimately do what’s best for the entire family. Just because you’re the parent doesn’t necessarily mean you need to throw your weight around. You just have to out-maneuver them at times and remember that, in the end, you’re both on the same side. Negotiating with your kids is sort of like riding a 10-speed bike: finding the right amount of tension to keep things moving along without having to work too hard.cropped-tug-o-war11

The pope never used force or issued any big ultimatums the way many world leaders do. Instead, he worked quietly behind the scenes to ignite a “revolution of conscience” in his native Poland. Essentially, he helped people understand their dignity and inspired them to stand up for what was right. The truth will set you free!

Respect their individuality and freedom. Part of the reason John Paul II was so well loved is that he keenly understood human nature. He had a way of making everyone he encountered feel important, honoured, and respected. (Which isn’t the same thing as tacit agreement, by the way…)

Whether you’re dealing with Communists in the midst of the Cold War or with a strong-willed toddler or teenager, it’s important to treat them with dignity, as individuals made in God’s image. Part of that means that what works for one child won’t necessarily work with another. One kid tugs at your heartstrings while another only seems to know how to yank your chain! They are all so different, and there are no magic formulas. Parenting is a bit like learning to fly a kite – you just have to know when to let the string out and when to reel it in.

keep-out-parentsRespect their privacy. Ask too many probing questions and you’ll be faced with a Cold War all your own… They’ll put up walls and you can forget any meaningful conversation for a while. But make sure your kids have someone they can talk to, even if it’s not you. What’s most important is that the person is trustworthy and will give them sound advice. Sometimes an older sibling, a grandparent, or a teacher can break into territory where parents can’t. It also doesn’t hurt to give frequent reminders about the confidentiality of the confessional.

As parents, we would do well to take a cue from our priests who understand that some secrets and revelations are best kept that way. No one needs to know your child’s deepest fears, first loves, quirks, habits, or unfulfilled dreams unless they are ready to share them. If your child tells you something of a very personal nature, we must respect their privacy and keep it to ourselves. Chances are, it took a lot for them to share it with you in the first place. And never succumb to the temptation to use it against them in moments of frustration or anger.

Invested, but not attached. For nearly 10 years of his pontificate, Pope John Paul II worked tirelessly to bring down Communism. What began in 1979 on his first papal trip to Poland would spark a fire that would become unstoppable. And though securing freedom for the people of Eastern Europe was certainly something that was close to his heart, the Holy Father knew that it was God’s work – that if it were meant to be, God would bring it to fruition. In other words, JPII was invested but not attached to the outcome.PopeJohnPaul-finaledit-019

There’s a lesson here for parents as well. Naturally we want our children to succeed – to do well in school, excel in sports, learn to play an instrument, or just be ‘good’ at something. But when we become attached to their accomplishments (which, in some distorted way, then become our accomplishments), it reeks of conditional love. Unconditional love means we love the person apart from their actions – no strings attached! – simply for who they are. We must find a way to love and encourage our children without obsessing over every mark or score, without focusing on every success or failure. Don’t let that become the barometer of our love! Ultimately, our children need to know that what we desire most for them is that they discover their vocation and fulfill their life’s purpose – not make straight A’s.

True Measure of Love

Diplomacy is an art and JPII was a true master. Most of us will never be called upon to negotiate matters of the same weight and bearing as our beloved pope, yet the lives and well being of our children are just as important. They’ve been placed in our care and we must learn to love them deeply, but not in a way that’s either stifling or overly indulgent.

As parents, no doubt there will be many times when we don’t know what to say or do – precisely how to help our children. How can we ever know if we’re doing the right thing? The answer is relatively simple: What requires more love? For whatever asks more of us – whatever requires us to sacrifice and pour ourselves out for another – will always be the correct response, the right path. Jesus teaches us this by His very life and death. And what could be a better example of sacrificial love than parenting? Understanding this truth is simple enough, but living it day in and day out…well, that’s quite another thing. Thank goodness for grace!

– Kelley Holy


1 George Weigel (author) and Stefan Rudnicki (reader), The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II – The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy; (New York: Random House Audio, 2010); available here: http://www.amazon.ca/The-End-Beginning-Victory-Freedom/dp/0307715493/ref=reader_auth_dp

2 I converted to Catholicism in 1986.

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