Making Sense of Parents as ‘Primary Educators’

Parents are the first and foremost educators of their children.

Catholic educators can sometimes ignore this fact, especially when students appear to lack solid formation and even basic care in the home. Trained to be experts in pedagogy and curriculum, teachers and especially college professors may not think much about what parents want and may regard even simple communications from them as interference and undue distrust of professionals.

Parents, too, can forget or refuse their key role in the formation of their children, for whom they are accountable to God. Generations of parents have been told to take a hands-off approach to child-rearing. And many Catholic adults do not receive the sacraments and deny Catholic teachings, while failing to form their children in the faith.

Still, the Church is clear: “Since parents have given children their life, they are bound by the most serious obligation to educate their offspring and therefore must be recognized as the primary and principal educators” (Gravissiumum Educationis, 3).

So how does this work? Within the rapidly growing field of homeschooling, there is no parent-school relationship—but parents still must collaborate with homeschool curriculum providers, publishers, tutors, priests, and collaborating parents. In schools and colleges, a “parent as primary educator” policy can be difficult to navigate. Yet respecting parents’ primary role is necessary, even essential, to Catholic education.

Sources of parents’ role

Some have misread Vatican documents to imply that a parent’s role as “first” educator refers only to early, pre-school learning, and the role of primary educator must later be given over to professional teachers. But the Vatican speaks many times of the parents’ role in formation throughout a child’s life, and despite objections arising from our culture’s insistence that an 18-year-old no longer needs parents, I think today the job continues through college.

As for whether only professionals should direct education, there’s the obvious fact that, throughout much of Christian history until the last couple centuries, most parents partly or wholly handled the education of their younger children.

Parenthood, practiced rightly with due respect for the rights of the child, is a natural aspect of the vocation of marriage. It follows from the lifelong love and commitment of a man and a woman, producing offspring for whom the parents are primarily responsible in the graced bond of matrimony. If a child’s guardian is not a natural parent in a loving marriage, still the guardian assumes responsibility for providing an upbringing that attempts, as much as possible, to fulfill the nature and obligations of parenthood within marriage.

Education is a key obligation of parents. Vatican documents that reference parents’ primary role in education often cite the natural and divine status of the family.

Parents are the ones who must create a family atmosphere animated by love and respect for God and man… It is particularly in the Christian family, enriched by the grace and office of the sacrament of matrimony, that children should be taught from their early years to have a knowledge of God according to the faith received in Baptism, to worship Him, and to love their neighbor. (Gravissimum Educationis, 3)

Here it is clear that the Church’s foremost concern for children is their integration into the life of the Church and their relationship with Christ. The family is vital to the moral and social formation of young people. However, does this suggest that intellectual formation belongs primarily to professionals and is not included in parents’ primary role? The Vatican documents repeatedly speak of parents’ primary role even when their children are enrolled in schools—even Catholic schools—and so parents must be responsible for intellectual as well as moral and social formation.

We can also find a foundation for parents’ educational role in the rite of Baptism. Parents affirm that they will raise their child in the Catholic faith. Many interpret this to mean catechesis only, but baptism begins the Christian’s journey to salvation, which implies more than knowledge of the tenets and practices of the faith—as important as these are. The human gift of intellect is key to human dignity and our ability to know, love, and serve God and others. Surely the full work of Catholic education—forming the intellect integrally with one’s physical and moral development, so that a young person is healthy, knowledgeable, wise, and virtuous—is entailed in Catholic formation. Therefore, it can be said that a Catholic child has a baptismal right to Catholic education from the parents.

A health analogy

St. Thomas Aquinas employs an analogy of bodily health when explaining how people learn. I think the analogy can also be applied to the question of a parent’s role in education.

Consider this: aside from education, parents are responsible for ensuring a child’s physical health. They do this by providing food and shelter, teaching healthy habits, and caring for illnesses and injuries. If a parent must seek the professional help of a doctor—and invariably this will be necessary in today’s world—the parent never considers simply handing over primary responsibility for the child’s health. The doctor provides much-needed expertise, and the parent yields to that expertise to the extent necessary, but ultimately the parent must decide what is best for the child, including the choice of whether to get help for the child and which doctor should provide it.

Why is education perceived to be any different? One reason may be that schools require more waking hours with a child than even the parents have at home—and that’s something I believe deserves some reflection. But regardless, ultimately it is the parent’s primary responsibility to ensure that a child is educated, and that includes the choice of educator. Yet so few parents today take up this responsibility, blindly accepting or even ignoring what happens in school.

Catholic educators may chafe at substantial parent involvement with a school or college’s day-to-day activities. And it’s right that Catholic schools limit such direct engagement, if it interferes with education. But parents must at least have the information needed to assess whether a school is serving the parent’s needs and objectives for their child, so the parent can enter into dialogue with the school or choose to withdraw. The parent can also choose to take on a child’s education entirely.

On the all-important matter of monitoring fidelity to Church teaching and fulfillment of the mission of Catholic education, “This responsibility applies chiefly to Christian parents who confide their children to the school. Having chosen it does not relieve them of a personal duty to give their children a Christian upbringing” (Sacred Congregation for Catholic Education, The Catholic School, 73). By “utilizing the structures offered for parental involvement,” parents must “make certain that the school remains faithful to Christian principles of education.”

Ultimately it comes down to this: parents must take full responsibility for the education of their children and the choice whether to employ professionals in that task—and which ones. Catholic educators, in service to parents, should fully support this role and help parents know and choose the special value of faithful Catholic education. In all, the complete Catholic formation of the student must be paramount.