What Does it Mean for Parents to be the Primary Educators of Their Children?
Throughout the ages, the Church has referred to parents as the “primary educators” of their children. In our modern culture, this title may seem odd, since most children are educated by many outside influences each day: school teachers, catechism instructors, tutors, coaches, media sources, and others. What does this title really mean for the parent of today and how can it be lived out practically?
Looking back into the treasury of Catholic tradition, various popes have written extensive documents on Christian Education. They delve into the importance of providing children with a well-rounded education that serves their underlying purpose of being children of God with the ultimate goal of salvation. A key component is always the primary role of the parent to the point of near-irreplaceability."The role of parents in education is of such importance that is almost impossible to provide an adequate substitute" (Pope Paul VI, Gravissimum Educationis).
This unique role is not merely about quantity but quality. Even though outside influences may occupy more time with the children, parents still retain the primacy of underscoring what is truly important in life. Each document on Christian education is very clear to point out with the seriousness of the parent’s task to educate the children. Parents come first in terms of unveiling the world for their children, rather than just teaching them individual subjects.
Nonetheless, parents have the duty to choose wisely what and who these outside influences are. The Code of Canon Law states, “parents are under a grave obligation to see to the religious and moral education of their children, as well as to their physical and civic training, as far as they can” (Code of Canon Law, c.1113). Regardless of which kind of schooling is chosen for each child, parents should not hesitate to involve themselves in whatever may concern this serious responsibility.
With the principles that the Church lays out as guidelines, how can parents practically live out their duty as primary educators of their children? Here are a few suggestions.
Pray together as a family everyday
Prayer itself teaches children spiritual truths about their purpose in life. A strong prayer life, while vital to the individual, is no less essential to the family as a whole. A good place to start is with family morning prayer (even if it’s in the car on the way to school), prioritizing prayer before meals, and ending each night with evening prayers before bed. Try building a family rosary into your routine and pray it after dinner. If your children are very small, try starting with just one decade at a time. See the end of this post for additional suggested prayers.
Practice visible signs of faith
Children soak up all that is around them. Parents should strive to live out the liturgical year by celebrating feast days and fasting during penitential days. Doing so will invite children to see that it is our Lord, not personal whims, gives color to life. There are many resources to living out the liturgical year as a family (see the end of the post for additional resources). Special attention should be given to wearing sacramentals such as a scapular, marian consecration chain, saint medals, or crucifix, or apparel with religious significance. Adorn your home with images of your family’s favorite saints and other Catholic artwork depicting the life of Christ. Parents should be seen practicing visible signs of faith such as kissing a crucifix in prayer, going to confession, or consuming Catholic media. Most importantly, we must strive to always be a physical example of the love and mercy of God and the Blessed Mother.
Cultivate virtue, eliminate vice
Our commercialized society seems to evaluate parents based on how many exciting experiences and which of the latest material goods they provide their children. The Church has a completely different criteria and instructs parents saying, “disorderly inclinations then must be corrected, good tendencies encouraged and regulated from tender childhood...” (Divini Illius Magistri, 59). The parents must cultivate an environment of virtue and discipline of vice. The Catechism explains further that, “Parents have the first responsibility for the education of their children. They bear witness to this responsibility first by creating a home where tenderness, forgiveness, respect, fidelity, and disinterested service are the rule. The home is well suited for education in the virtues. This requires an apprenticeship in self-denial, sound judgment, and self-mastery - the preconditions of all true freedom…” (CCC 2223). Thus, what society may see as a “lacking” environment (fewer after school activities, trips, toys, choices, etc.) may actually provide the very space needed for parents to encourage sacrifice, appreciation, prudence, and reflection. By giving our children “everything,” we may not be leaving much room for virtue.
Form children in the “why”
Praying together, being a good example, and enforcing virtue, will be cold and shallow-rooted if children do not find the goodness, beauty and truth underlying these choices. Parents should discuss with their children how all these educational aspects have God as its end, and how beautiful and good that is. "...since education consists essentially in preparing man for what he must be and for what he must do here below, in order to attain the sublime end for which he was created, it is clear that there can be no true education which is not wholly directed to man's last end…" (DIM, 7).
All in all, the role of parents is vital to the lifeblood of the family. Being a primary educator is an arduous calling but the reward is worth it. “…as a rule, it will be more effective and lasting that which is received in a well-ordered and well-disciplined Christian family; and more efficacious in proportion to the clear and constant good example set, first by the parents, and then by the other members of the household" (DIM, 71). As parents, we should find encouragement in this great task we have been given by God to educate our children, for with this crucial task comes an overflowing of grace.
May the Holy family, Jesus, Mary, and Joseph pray for us!
Additional resources to live out the Liturgical Year:
The Catholic All Year Compendium: Liturgical Living for Real Life by Kendra Tierney
Around the Year with the Von Trapp Family by Maria Von Trapp
Catholic Cuisine: Recipes for Living Out the Liturgical Year by Jessica Gordon
Examples of prayers to say together as the family:
O Jesus, through the Immaculate Heart of Mary, I offer You my prayers, works, joys and sufferings of this day for all the intentions of Your Sacred Heart, in union with the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass throughout the world, in reparation for my sins, for the intentions of all my relatives and friends, and in particular for the intentions of the Holy Father. Amen.
Follow with Prayer to Our Lady. Prayer to Guardian Angel.
Prayer before meals:
Bless us O Lord, in these thy gifts which we are about to receive from thy bounty through Christ our Lord. Amen.
Prayer before bed:
Lord, we beg you to visit this house and banish from it all the deadly power of the enemy. May your holy angels dwell here to keep us in peace, and may your blessing be upon us always. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.
Follow with a prayer to Our Lady. Prayer to Saint Joseph.
1. Gravissimum Educationis, Pope Paul VI, 1965 (http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_decl_19651028_gravissimum-educationis_en.html).
2. Code of Canon Law (http://www.vatican.va/archive/cod-iuris-canonici/cic_index_en.html).
3. Divini Illius Magistri, Pope Pius XI, 1929 (http://w2.vatican.va/content/pius-xi/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_p-xi_enc_31121929_divini-illius-magistri.html).
4. Catechism of the Catholic Church (http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG0015/_INDEX.HTM).