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The Role of the Family in Education

Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

The role of the family in education is an ocean. We could begin by saying that the family is indispensable for education. We could also say the family is the most important source of education. We could even say there is no real education without the family.

What we need to do, therefore, is to be more specific as to how the family and education are related. To do that we must first explain what we mean by the "family," and what we mean by "education."

As commonly understood, a family is a group of persons who are related by marriage or blood and who typically include a father, mother, and children. I would like to refine this definition to concentrate on the Christian family in which the parents are united in a lifelong commitment, as husband and wife, and whose children are being nurtured in the true Christian faith.

I would also like to focus on education as an organized program of teaching the minds of the children in God's truth, inspiring their wills to respond to this truth, and training their whole person for a peaceful and happy life here on earth as the prelude of that eternal life for which they were made.

To simplify things, I will address myself to the following questions, and answer them as best I can in the limited time at our disposal:

  • Who is to give this education in the family?

  • What is the education to be given?

  • How to live this education?

Who Gives the Education in the Family?

It may seem surprising, but every member of the family is to be involved in educating the rest of the family.

Of course the parents are the principal educators of their children. Behind this statement stands a cardinal principle of the natural law. When we speak of parents as procreators of their offspring we mean they are to generate their sons and daughters twice over. The first generation is the more obvious one of bringing their children physically into the world. A child, we say, is conceived as a human being through the physical cooperation of father and mother. But their responsibility only begins when the child is born. They must provide for the mental and moral upbringing of their offspring, and must continue doing so all through life.

As Christians and Catholics, we believe that God became man to give us what we casually call a supernatural life. This is a share in the life of God which a child receives at baptism. We further believe that when our body dies, our souls must be alive with this life of God if they are to enter into a heavenly eternity.

Immediately we see that parents are to provide not only for the natural life of their children but for their supernatural life as well. Also called the divine life. This life must be nurtured and sustained no less, in fact even more, than the physical life. Again it is the parents who are to insure that the supernatural life of their sons and daughters not only survives but actually thrives. Neglect here becomes devastating as the history of Christianity so clearly reveals. Barring a miracle of grace, children depend on their parents to remain spiritually alive in the grace of God. All the physical resources in the world cannot supply for what the children most need if they are to remain in the friendship of God. And the parents have the primary duty to insure that their children are not only "well off" in terms of space and time, but are prepared for their entrance into eternity.

In opening this section, we said that the whole family is to be somehow involved in family education. The parents' role is not only primary; it is fundamental. Without elaborating on the subject, we may say that other members of the family are also to contribute their share. There is such a thing as mother and father educating each other; children educating their parents; brothers and sisters educating one another. In fact, part of God's providence in creating the family is precisely the mutual exchange of ideas and inspiration among those who form the family. As Christ tells us, "Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there I am in the midst of them." This promise of the Savior is especially verified in the Christian family.

What is the Education to be Given?

We are asking, "What is the content of this education which the whole family, and especially the children, need to receive?" This education consists of two basic truths of the Christian faith, two basic norms of Christian morality, and one basic principle of Christian spirituality.

The Christian Faith. The first basic truth that should be taught in the family is why we are created. In the words of St. Ignatius, "Man is created to praise, reverence, and serve God our Lord, and by this means to save his soul." This is the fundamental truth which the children must be taught, without which there is no education worthy of the name. The children must know that they were made by God out of nothing. They must know that all the benefits of being created are on their side. God wants them to be at peace in this life and perfectly happy in the life to come. On both counts, peace of soul here on earth and beatitude in eternity depend on our faithful submission to the will of God.

The second basic truth of our faith that the children should be taught is why God created "The other things on the face of the earth." They were created "for man, to help him in attaining the end for which he is created." What are these other things that are to help us reach the goal for which we were made. They are everything that in any way enters or touches our lives. Every person, place, or thing; every pleasure and pain; every circumstance in which we find ourselves; every thought and every desire; every sight we see or sound we hear---are all intended by God to be so many graces leading us to heaven.

If there is one thing children should be taught from infancy, it is the absence of what we call "chance" in their lives. Everything is part of the loving providence of God, provided by Him to enable us to reach Him in whom alone our heart can find rest.

The secret is to teach the children to see the hand of God in everything and not make the mistake of thinking that anything merely "happens." For us Christians, there is no such thing as fate or fortune or misfortune. All is part of the wise and loving plan of God for our salvation and sanctification.

Christian Morality. Having taught the children the two basic truths of the Christian faith, they are also to learn what are the basic norms of Christian morality. Once again, they are mainly two --we are to use the creatures that God puts into our lives discriminately and we are to use them dispassionately. Believe me, this is not theological speculation. It is down to earth practicality. The language that I am using in this conference is necessarily technical. But the reality behind the language is embarrassingly practical.

The Need for Discrimination. The experience of the ages has taught the followers of Christ that they must make an inventory of the kinds of creatures that enter their lives. In general we can distinguish four kinds of creatures. There are those that God wants us to enjoy. Others He wants us to endure. Still others He wants us to remove. And finally there are creatures He wants us to sacrifice.

I cannot exaggerate the importance of teaching this to children from their tenderest years. Long before what we commonly call the age of reason, they are to know that everything in their lives is somehow intended by God to bring them to heaven. But they must also know that there is a difference, what a difference, in the way they respond to the persons, places and things which, as they mistakenly suppose, happen in their lives.

They must know, for example, that part of God's love for them is to endure certain things in order to show their love for God. There are eloquent passages in the Scriptures telling us that without suffering we cannot honestly say that we are following Christ. The Savior told us, "If you wish to be my disciples, you must take up your daily cross and follow me."

In the same way, children must be trained, I would say, from the dawn of their birth to know that they have two kinds of inclinations: to do what is good and to do what is bad. There is such a thing as knowing you have a fallen human nature long before you can define the meaning of original sin.

Nor is that all. Teaching the young the meaning of life should also include inspiring them to become holy. It is here especially that Catholic parents have the privilege of possessing a faith which goes far beyond merely keeping out of sin or avoiding the prospects of hell.

The Anglo-Saxon world in which we live is so deeply affected by Protestantism that most Catholics do not realize how different is their own religious heritage. We believe that God's will is manifested to us in two different ways. God does indeed command us to do certain things and avoid other things, under penalty of sin. We call these divine precepts, and they are synthesized in the Ten Commandments.

But as Catholics, we also believe that God manifests His will invitingly. He offers us inspirations to do more than we have to under pain of sin. We may even say He asks us to do certain things, not because we are afraid of punishment but because we are animated by love.

Read the autobiography of the Little Flower, and you will see what I mean. Young Therese was a very gifted child. She had a strong, even stubborn will. But from infancy she was inspired by her saintly parents to give her whole heart to Jesus out of love. Only God knows how many parents in today's selfish world can prepare their children for sanctity by training them to the sacrifice of love.

Need for Internal Freedom. Knowing human nature, we must assume that children are not spontaneously drawn to what is pleasing to God, nor spontaneously repulsed by what is displeasing to Him.

Our human nature, weakened by sin and concupiscence, inclines us to what we want and not necessarily to what we need. That is why, again in the words of St. Ignatius, "We must make ourselves indifferent to all created things, as far as we are allowed free choice and not under any prohibition." To illustrate what this means we should, consequently, "not prefer health to sickness, riches to poverty, honor to dishonor, a long life to a short life. The same hold for all other things."

This is the bedrock of our struggle through life: "To make ourselves indifferent to all created things," according to the will of God.

This indifference that we are to cultivate is not a denial of the obvious. Pleasant things will remain pleasant, and painful things will stay painful. But we train our wills to control our desires for what is pleasant and our fears of what is painful.

Although I would extend this conference to a two semester course, three hours a day, six days a week, I could not recommend to you parents anything more important than the need to train your children in what the Church calls internal freedom of the will.

What do we mean by "internal freedom of the will" ? We mean that our wills are naturally drawn to what we like and naturally run away from what we dislike. Even St. Paul could say of himself that he was inclined to do what he knew was wrong, and avoided doing what he knew was right. This is a law of what I call our fallen human nature.

Either you train your children to not only know what they should do, but want to do it, or you are adding to the mountain of casualties in our country of men and women who are literally enslaved by their internal passions and fears.

How to Live this Education?

All that we have so far been saying is part of the wisdom of two thousand years of Christian living. But there is one more aspect to the role of the family in education that we must look at. We have to explain how this faith inspired education is to be lived out in practice.

To begin with, we must say that it is humanly impossible. The human mind has been too darkened and the human will too weakened by sin to live up to what God expects of His rational creatures. So how can they expect to do His will? Answer: Only by the help of His grace.

With the grace of God, children can gradually master their desires and cope with their fears. No single sentence of our Lord is more crucial than what He told us at the Last Supper, "Without me you can do nothing." And He meant nothing. We can do nothing on the road to our eternal destiny except with the help of His divine grace.

In saying this, I am opening up to you parents what you dare not ignore in the education of your children. Either you teach them and train them and inspire them to pray, or you are not giving them an education.

This is not a threat. It is simply telling you the truth.

In God's providence, the most fundamental and universal source of grace is prayer.

At the opening of this conference we briefly saw how the whole family, and not only the father and mother, has a role in education. No where is this either more important or, shall I say, more imperative than in the education to prayer. Every member of the family is to join in this indispensable educational process.

Christ Himself tells us that where two or three are gathered in His name, He is there in the midst of them. Certainly Christ is present in all those who believe in His name. But He is especially generous in giving light and strength to those who pray, and pray together with others. Whatever else you parents should teach your family to do, in the name of God, teach them to pray together as a family.

Closing Observations

All that we have said in this conference presumes what deserves a separate conference of its own. It is the fact that, in His ordinary providence, God uses human beings as the channels of His grace to other human beings.

The more closely people are related to one another and the more closely they are associated, the more necessary are these people as communicators of divine grace to each other. There is no more intimate relationship in human society than among the members of a family.

Moreover, we are channels of grace to other people in the measure that we ourselves possess the grace of God. The more deeply we believe, the more God uses us to communicate His grace of faith to everyone whose life we touch. The more trustful we are, the more He will use us to inspire hope in others. The more deeply we love, the more God will use us as conduits of His charity by every means of communication that we have with other people.

The implications of this mystery are stupendous. We end this conference where we began with the title, "The Role of the Family in Education." After all the books are written and all the speeches made, the principal role of the family in education is for each member, beginning with the parents, to be an effective channel of God's grace to every other member of the family.

Every family on earth is intended by God to be reunited as a family in eternity. This everlasting reunion depends on our generous service to one another here in time. No one reaches heaven alone. We either help others reach their celestial destiny or we shall not attain it ourselves.


"Lord Jesus, you came into the world as a member of the Holy Family. You want us to be saved and sanctified in our families here on earth. But we shall reach this destiny only by the help of your grace, through the intercession of your Blessed Mother.

"We beg you therefore for the light we need to know your mind and the strength we need to do your will. Only in this way, can our families fulfill their role of education, in preparation for the final commencement of eternity."

Copyright © 1998 Inter Mirifica

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