In A Nutshell
In Parenting with Grace, family counselor Gregory K. Popcak and his wife, Lisa, present a parenting handbook for Catholics. This book provides some good advice, common sense, and helpful aids to strengthen one's family life. Unfortunately, Parenting with Grace oversteps its bounds by designating "attachment parenting" decidedly more "Catholic" than other methods of parenting. Furthermore, Parenting with Grace promotes an educational style of discipline, one that is skeptical of all punitive measures, as the "Catholic way" to discipline and, in an appendix, Gregory Popcak argues that there are "irreconcilable differences between Catholicism and corporal punishment." Apart from the weak support of these conclusions, the mission to find the most "Catholic" parenting method is itself misguided. The Church does not officially endorse one parenting style over another, as the Popcaks note in their introduction, and this is for good reason. The Church recognizes that the virtues of good parenting can be acquired and exercised in many ways. Thus, according to the principle of subsidiarity that she endorses, the Church prescribes certain precepts that she leaves to be determined by the prudence of individual couples. As Dr. Eugene F. Diamond points out in his book The Large Family: A Blessing and a Challenge, "There may be elements in the art of child-rearing that all families share, but the family unit is intensely personal, and therefore theories about the ideal family are emotional and seldom dispassionate" (pg. 39). Parenting with Grace is sure to raise the ire of good Catholic parents who love and serve their children in ways other than those the Popcaks deem most "Catholic."
Parenting with Grace endorses a parenting style that involves extended nursing to age three or beyond, co-sleeping in a "family bed," wearing small children in a sling close to the mother's body, and a method of instructional discipline. This book has some good advice, practical examples, and handy assessment aids that assist parents with children of any age. The advice covers a wide range of issues and focuses on building relationships and enjoying every stage of a child's life rather than controlling behavior and waiting for this or that "troublesome" stage to pass. There is much of value in this book, but the error it contains is glaring and of such a provocative nature that it merits detailed consideration.
In the introduction to Parenting with Grace the Popcaks write: "While we cannot claim to present the one, right, Catholic way to parent (we have neither the authority nor the desire to do such a thing) we can enumerate some of the values which stand at the heart of Catholicism and, using an ethnopediatric approach, introduce you to the parenting methods which research suggests will increase the odds of your children exemplifying those values in their own lives" (pg. 27). Great! This reasonable and worthwhile objective, however, does not extend beyond the introduction.
The Popcaks claim they have no desire to present the one, right, Catholic way to parent, yet they openly suggest that there is one parenting style which is decidedly more "Catholic" than others (pg. 26). They even subtitle one chapter in the book "Daring to Discipline the Catholic Way." In addition, the Popcak's present us with this analogy: "Just as other Christian denominations possess some truth, but the Catholic Church has "the fullness of truth," other parents are capable of having good relationships with their children, but we believe that parents who avail themselves of the parenting style we present here are capable of entering into the "fullness of family life"" (pg. 137). Drawing out the analogy, just as other denominations are said to possess some truth insofar as their claims agree with the implicit or explicit teachings of the Church, other parents are capable of having good relationships with their children, but only insofar as the parenting styles of these other parents agree with those the Popcak's present. Further, just as the Catholic Church can claim the "fullness of truth" because it alone has the one, true faith, the Popcak's believe that those who avail themselves of the parenting style they present can claim the "fullness of family life" because, the Popcak's must also believe, this work presents the one, right, and presumably most "Catholic" way to parent.
The Popcaks indicate in the segment of the introduction quoted above that they will argue from ethnopediatics (the study of how different parenting styles work to support a culture's values) and "research" in order to establish which methods will increase the odds of children exemplifying Catholic values later in life, but this is not the method of argument used throughout the book. Ethnopediatics is not even mentioned beyond the introduction where the Popcaks present a cursory overview of Western detachment parenting and disorders found in the West that they link to these practices. In fact, there is little scientific evidence of any form offered in support of their conclusions.
Where scientific research is evoked, the arguments are sound and convincing, but not necessarily supportive of the full extent of the Popcaks' conclusions. For example, the vast amount of research is most certainly in favor of nursing a newborn rather than bottle-feeding. The bulk of this same research, however, does not extend far beyond the infant age of twelve months when many of the benefits to mother and infant cease. The Popcaks, meanwhile, include extended nursing to the age of three as an integral part of the parenting style they endorse. Along with an example of how well it worked for them, the Popcaks make reference to Sheila Kippley's book The Critical First Three Years, but offer no convincing arguments themselves that extended nursing is any more "Catholic" than nursing for a shorter period of time. That is, unless this rhetorical question is intended as an argument: "Remember, according to ancient Hebrew tradition, Jesus would have been nursed for at least the first three years of his life. If God the Father saw to it that His only-begotten Son was reared in this way, would it not please Him to see all of His other children raised similarly?" (pg. 167). Following this line of thought, one wonders if it would please the Father to see His children imitating other Hebrew cultural norms such as wearing long hair, a beard, or sandals.
Throughout the book, Gregory Popcak relies extensively on his own moral and theological arguments. While it is clear from these that Popcak is pious and concerned, his arguments do not measure up to the rigor and integrity of the theological sciences. Perhaps the strongest evidence of this is in his provocative appendix to the book, "Ten Reasons I Can't Spank: A Catholic Counselor's Critical Examination of Corporal Punishment," where nine out of the ten reasons Popcak cites are theological or moral in nature. There are so many formal and material mistakes in these arguments that this space is woefully inadequate to address them all. Briefly, let us look at a few.
In reason number one, Popcak claims "on the one occasion when Peter attempted to use violence as an act of love on God's behalf (in the garden of Gethsemane), to "save" Him, Jesus called Peter "Satan"" (pg. 352). This is a glaring misquote of Scripture. In fact, Christ does not call Peter "Satan" in the garden of Gethsemane. It appears that Popcak confuses Matthew 26:52, the passage where Peter cuts off the right ear of the servant, Malchus, with an earlier passage where Peter rebukes Our Lord for saying that He must suffer and die. In response to Peter's rebukes Our Lord says, "Go behind me, Satan, thou art a scandal unto me" (Mt. 16:23).
In reason number five, Popcak says, "The Holy Father, in his recent encyclical the "Gospel of Life" condemns violence of all forms" (pg. 357). Rather than examining the meaning of the term "violence" as it is used in this encyclical to understand if the pope is in fact condemning spanking, Popcak looks to Webster's definition of violence, physical force used so as to injure, and claims that spanking fits this definition. Also fitting into this definition, however, are acts of self-defense and just war, which the pope would not condemn. It might be said that Popcak does consider the text of the encyclical when he attempts to interpret the pope's condemnation of "crimes and attacks against human life" so as to include spanking because, Popcak claims, spanking coerces the will. In the passage Popcak refers to, the pontiff quotes from the Second Vatican Council, which forcefully condemns major atrocities such as murder, genocide, slavery, and the selling of women and children. Included also on this list are "attempts to coerce the will." As the Council refers to all of the things on this list and others like them as "infamies," "poison to human society," and a "supreme dishonor to the Creator," however, it is apparent that spanking has no place on this list and that Popcak does not give sufficient consideration to the text.
Popcak also employs theological principles of his own making that, if taken at face value, are simply false, such as "God's justice is subject to His mercy" (pg. 359). He also uses commonly known and well-established theological principles incorrectly. For example, he says, "God's truths do not contradict one another" (pg. 353) to support his claim that the word "rod" cannot be used in different places in Scripture to mean different things. These are just a few examples of the many problems in this appendix. Whether one agrees with Popcak's stance on corporal punishment or not, theological arguments of this quality are inadequate support of his conclusions.
Parenting with Grace is well organized by chapter, but the paragraph headings are often corny attempts at humor such as "A Close Encounter of the Jesus Kind," which are not useful for identifying the paragraph contents.
In summary, Parenting with Grace, though it has some good parenting advice, does not follow its own objectives as laid out in the introduction. On the one hand the Popcaks claim not to be presenting the one, right, "Catholic" way to parent, and on the other hand they believe that they are doing just that. Furthermore, they do not argue so much from science as from experience and pious belief.
In closing, while the Church has time and again invited scientists to contribute to the Church's understanding in order to advance the welfare of marriage and family, I believe the Church intends that they contribute in their professional capacities. I do not think that the Church intends that they attempt theology, as Gregory Popcak, MSW (Master's degree in Social Work), LCSW (Licensed Clinical Social Worker), does in Parenting with Grace. On account of this, despite much of its good advice and common sense, I do not recommend this book.
You can purchase this book here.
You're a Better Parent Than You Think: A Guide to Common-Sense Parenting by Raymond N. Guarendi