Reporting for Duty

Lately, I have been reading some very sad things. Our local paper is doing a series called “Our City, Our Children” and highlighting local problems, mostly relating to educational issues, and also giving people resources for how they can get involved with the children who are being impacted by these issues.

The first one that really caught my attention was the one about children not showing up for school. At least, not on the first day. I have to say, I was pretty surprised.

Apparently there are *massive* numbers of children in Indianapolis (and, it would seem, in just about every urban area of the US) who just *don’t show up* on the first day of school. Or the second. Or the third. Or sometimes until two weeks after school has started.

Now, if we’re talking high school kids, it makes sense that some would fail to show up, because honestly, once a child gets to be a certain age, there’s only so much forcing you can do. But there’s little doubt that if a five year old is showing up two weeks late for Kindergarten, it’s because their parent(s) failed to bring them to school.

Surely these parents must have really good reasons for keeping their child out of school for two weeks, making them miss (1) important rules and procedures for how to interact in the classroom, (2) important social relationships (3) LEARNING, right?

However, as I continued reading this article, I realized that the top three *important* reasons parents listed for failing to get kids to school were: (1) I didn’t know when the first day of school was (2) Kindergarten isn’t that important (!!!!) (3) I don’t agree with the school calendar. Seriously?!?

Now, if listed reasons had been (1) I can’t find transportation for my child (2) I can’t afford school supplies, uniform, etc. I would feel a lot more sympathy for the parents. But what I’m reading above as reasons for *robbing educational opportunities from your child* is because you are too lazy to find out when the first day of school is (1), too ignorant to know how important learning is (2), or a fool who takes out their own disagreements with the school system on their child, who can only lose in this situation.

What really gets me though, is that there has been an intentional campaign on the part of the city to get these kids into school. Between my house and downtown, there are no less than three billboards announcing the first day of school and how to register your children. There have been t.v. commercials, as well as *door to door* personal invitations to parents of IPS kids to get them into school on the first day. And yet, still there are many who will not be there until the first week of school is over. There is no reason for anyone who doesn’t live under a rock in this city to not know when the first day of school is.

The most heartbreaking thing though, is that these children, who are already at such a disadvantage just by *attending* an urban public school, are being held even further behind by their own parents, who should be wanting to do everything they can to make life better for their kids. It baffles the mind.

It might seem like I’m just going off on a ramble here, but stick with me, I have a point. I just didn’t realize this was such a problem! When I taught in Chicago, I was working at a catholic school. Granted, it was a *terrible* catholic school, but compared to the public elementary school two blocks over, where the police came at least once a week, my school was an oasis. The parents of my students had their fair share of problems, to be sure, but I suppose since they were paying tuition, they weren’t going to miss the first day of school — or any other.

Knowing that so many parents are dropping the ball on something so important, I couldn’t help but think of the help the Church’s wisdom can offer to all parents about what is expected of us when we take on this awesome responsibility. I know that I, as a soon-to-be (thanks be to God!) parent, want to know exactly what God expects of me in relation to this little soul he has trusted us with!

So what are the primary duties of parents?

The primary source I consulted for this part of the post is the Catechism, though the apostolic exhortation of John Paul II, Familiaris Consortio, has much valuable information to aid the conversation. Paragraph 2207 of the Catechism begins the portion on duties of the family saying the following:

“The family is the original cell of social life. It is the natural society in which husband and wife are called to give themselves in love and in the gift of life. Authority, stability, and a life of relationships within the family constitute the foundations for freedom, security, and fraternity within society. The family is the community in which, from childhood, one can learn moral values, begin to honor God, and make good use of freedom. Family life is an initiation into life in society.”

Just based on that paragraph, we can surmise a few big duties that parents are called to perform in raising children. (1) Providing authority, stability, and relationships and (2) instilling moral values, honoring God, and making good use of freedom.

What’s really interesting about this, is what comes next. The Catechism then says that the family, “should live in such a way that its members learn to care and take responsibility for the young, the old, the sick, the handicapped, and the poor.” However, if a family cannot do those things, it falls on other people, families, and to some extent, society to help the families provide for their needs. This involves the beautiful Catholic principle of Subsidiarity. Yay for subsidiarity! Subsidiarity basically means that things ought to be done, and decisions ought to be made on the most local level possible. Of course this applies to families too!

Paragraph 2209: “The family must be helped and defended by appropriate social measures. Where families cannot fulfill their responsibilities, other social bodies have the duty of helping them and of supporting the institution of the family. Following the principle of subsidiarity, larger communities should take care not to usurp the family’s prerogatives or interfere in its life.”

Using subsidiarity as a guideline, we (as society) have a duty to families to offer support when needed, but at appropriate levels, taking care not to interfere too deeply in the family’s life.

In regards to the duties of parents specifically, they extend beyond those listed in paragraph 2207.

(1) Provide moral education and spiritual formation of children.

This one is the most important, and we know that because it comes first. Paragraph 2221, “The role of parents in education is of such importance that it is almost impossible to provide an adequate substitute.”29 The right and the duty of parents to educate their children are primordial and inalienable.” Educating one’s children in the moral life and spiritual formation is both a right and a duty. This means no one should be able to interfere with the moral/spiritual education of your children, but, it also means that parents are shirking their responsibility if they expect any school, church, or other person, to teach their children about God, so they don’t have to do it themselves.

(2) Parents are the primary educators of their children.

Paragraph 2223: “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.”

It’s important to make a distinction here. The Catechism isn’t saying that parents have a duty to homeschool their children. What they mean by “primary educators” becomes more clear at the end of the paragraph. Parents are the primary educators of their children in the “school of virtues”. Of course it’s not practical and should not be expected that every family will want to or be able to homeschool their children. But all parents must operate a “school of the virtues” from their home, in which, through word and deed, their children learn what it means to be a moral person. Think about it from a practical perspective: if you don’t teach your child what true freedom is and what real morals are, someone else (who may, more often than not, not know what either real freedom or morals are) will.

(3) To be a good example to their children.

The Catechism says that parents have “grave responsibility” to give good example to their children.  Some ways to be a good example to our children could include:

– daily prayer/ reading from Scripture

– frequent reception of Sacraments (especially Eucharist and Confession)

– Volunteering time to do the Corporal works of mercy (and explaining what the Corporal works of mercy are to your children! – See Matthew 25).

– Tithing (and explaining why you do so to your children)

I guess for me, I think being a good example is one of the most important ones. I was raised by my grandparents, who are not Catholic. So I did not get spiritual formation at home, but I can tell you, I did get an education in the moral life from seeing what my grandparents did. Their sense of right and wrong was imparted to me more in their actions, than in their words. I’d be willing to bet that the same is true in terms of spiritual formation too.

(4) Learning Solidarity with others.

Parents have a duty to help their children understand the problems and sins that are facing the world, and to avoid the attitudes and actions that propagate those problems, as well as learning how to be in solidarity with others who are suffering because of “degrading influences which threaten human societies” (2224).

(5) Providing for physical and spiritual needs.

Parents are the primary educators of their children, as we know. But parents are also responsible for the physical needs of their children. I think it’s common in our society to see taking care of physical needs to be the most important (and indeed some people might think only) responsibility they have to their children. Of course, the physical well being of children *is* important, because children are vulnerable and often not able to provide for themselves the food, shelter, and care that they need. But it’s important to know that to the Church, and to us as her members, the spiritual needs of children are just as important. We see this all too often in children who are raised in very well to-do homes, with every need met and exceeded, yet who have no concept who God is nor who they truly are either.

It’s not an either/or. As parents, it’s a both/and.

This is a tall order. Seriously. Of course, every parent will fail. I mean, Mary and Joseph did a pretty darn good job, but it’s pretty much downhill from them. :)

I’m not a parent yet (137 days to go!) but I already know that there will be times, probably many times, when I fail to educate our children well, or fail to be a good example. It’s part of what it means to live east of Eden. It’s a fact that we’re never going to get it 100% right.

But I also know as a parent-in-training (PIT?) that having the expectations laid out for me in advance can help me to strive for those things which will teach our daughter about who God is, who she is, and how to live. Through God’s grace, I pray our family will learn those things together.

What do you think of the Church’s words on duties of parents? Which duties seem easiest and most difficult for you to fulfill? How can we help all parents understand their duties to their children?

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  • Grace

    Those articles have been so depressing. It really doesn’t help that it’s like reading my job or looking at my case load.

    I know the church lays out these things in a sort of priority list, with #1 being meeting spiritual needs. My life would be easier, and I would see a lot less heartbreak, if people would focus on the providing for physical needs part.

    I’ve had plenty of cases where the people are just downright cruel abusive towards their children. But I’ve had the infuriating experience of having a few families who took the order listed above too literally. Everything about God was paramount, and physical needs were neglected and used as rewards, rather than what they are–needs.

    I know this is an extreme example, but it’s what I deal with everyday, so it’s hard for my mind to not leap to it. I know these people have something wrong with them, but if you hear them talk, they don’t believe so–they believe they are following God’s will, exactly.

    Sigh. If you saw my blog entry on Aug 10, you’d know why I’m so pessimistic about people right now. I didn’t mean to write a novel!

  • Katie

    This post was moving to me, because as a teacher in an urban Title 1 school, I can better understand my job when I replace the word “parent” with the word “teacher” in the Catechism.

    True, when the school day is over, my job, insofar as my contract, is over. But my calling remains.

    Even today in school, while I was teaching writing, one of my students raised his hand and asked me to write about my first Communion while modeling how to write a personal narrative. My students know I’m Catholic – I wear my medal – and they really ask for an example as they watch the way I walk. I can’t begin to express the amount of time I spend teaching and imbedding moral education into the curriculum. If they don’t learn it here, they won’t get it. The reality is…these “ignorant” parents who claim that they don’t know the first day of school are typically drug addicted and neglectfully unreliable.

    I”m really quite astonished that I never before read the Catechisms words and applied it to a teacher’s role…but really, that’s exactly what I’m called to do as well. 😉

  • Rae

    That is extremely sad. Also insane is the number of parents who let their children stay up late on school nights when sleep is so crucial. The thing is, I’m not sure how those of us who aren’t parents or teachers are supposed to be involved. I think that we share responsibility (to a much smaller extent), but I have no idea how to *act* to make things better.