Parents as Primary Educators

(CNS photo/courtesy of Misericordia University)

In my last post on Jennifer Senior's All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood, I highlighted this question from Chapter 4: What is the role of parents?

In today's world, Senior observed, parents have outsourced -- to schools, companies, and others -- many of the responsibilities they once performed exclusively. What parenting now involves, wrote Senior, is not very clear.


I do not have children (one day, I hope), so I am no expert on this topic. And I want to say upfront that I sympathize with the demands that parenting entails. Parents feel pressure not to let their children fall behind. It can be an arduous task sifting through the variety of activities and programs that are offered without end.

Having said that, I'm an educator, and I'm also an educator in the Ignatian tradition. This tradition, connected to the larger vision of Catholic education, sees parents as the primary educators. As I wrote in a previous post, I've had countless encounters and conversations with parents over the last five years that have informed my perspective, and which have revealed that the role of parents remains urgent and vital. 

What follows are words of advice based on what I have learned from the great parents I've known and worked with, the example of my own parents, and my own observations of the conditions and expectations that produce happy, successful students. This list is not complete, and it's offered in a spirit of humility.

To parents who wonder what their role is, this is what I say:  

  • Know their influences and friends and respond to troubling signs. Parents have always had to search in closets and under beds; now that searching includes browsers and cell phones. Find out what music your children listen to, the web sites they visit, and the movies they watch, and turn them away from what is low and demeaning. Don’t be afraid to be nosy; that’s part of your job. If you don't know whether your child has a Twitter, Facebook, Instagram or other social media account, find out. Decide whether he or she is mature enough to possess one. Ignorance is not bliss. 
  • Diminish distractions. Create conditions where your children can complete their homework without competition from devices or games. If that means removing computers, televisions, or cell phones, do it. In defense of your child's dignity, be bold. There are a number of apps, like Freedom and SelfControl, which block websites or prevent Internet access entirely. Regardless of the method, help orchestrate silence and solitude.
  • Nurture reverence for learning. Too often, our culture frames education as a necessary evil, as something that students must undergo to achieve the freedom of adulthood. With this mindset, students lack the motivation to master their studies. Too many students leave middle school without appreciating the gift of their education, an opportunity denied to much of the world. To prevent this self-defeating attitude, help them see education as a sacred quest for truth that will enable a productive, independent, and selfless life. Connect today’s math problems with tomorrow’s flourishing.
  • Help your children learn from failure. As students make their way to college, they will struggle with exams, be cut from teams, or be overlooked for awards and honors. They will start to realize that life is a mix of the fair and the unfair. Do not set an example of blaming the coach or the teacher; rather, help your child work through his or her setbacks with humility and optimism, not with exhortations to an unreachable or artificial perfection.
  • Be active in shaping a noble, dignified sensibility. Teach them to greet people with a handshake, eye contact, and a confident "hello." Teach them to dress and act in ways that indicate self-respect, and help them value Mozart more than Jay-Z.
  • Find opportunities to take delight in your children just because they are your children, not simply because they've won an award or received good grades. Eat family meals frequently, where you share your stories, the highlights of your day, your fears about tomorrow and all the reasons you're thankful. 
  • Remind your children that they are loved unconditionally. 
  • Remember that you are the primary educator. In the sanctuary of the home, your child develops fundamental orientations toward life, relationships, work, people and school. You must plant and nourish the seeds of a good character and good citizenship, and you cannot outsource this role. If these habits aren’t reinforced early in your child’s life, they may never develop, or they will develop under the influence of unsavory guides who may permanently harm your child’s development


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