Husbands and Wives and the Education of Children

by William E. May, Ph.D.

Introduction

Men and women are able to have sexual intercourse and to generate new human life by doing so. But non-married men and women are not fit either to have sexual intercourse or to generate new human life, nor do they have a right to have such intercourse and generate new human life.

Each human life, no matter how generated—through non-married sexual union, artificial insemination and other new “reproductive technologies,” or through the marital act—is a great gift of God, made in His image, with inviolable rights that must be respected by others and by civil law. But generating this life non-maritally is morally wrong because it violates the child’s right to a stable  home rooted in the life-long commitment of the child’s mother and father where it can take root and grow “in wisdom and in grace before God and man.”(see Luke 2,52). There is, however, one exception to this; it occurs when a child is generated by a married couple not through the marital act or “maitally,” but through in vitro fertilization (IVF)(1). In this case the couple, who are the child’s mother and father, can provide the child with a stable home. A married man, now the woman’s husband, and a married woman, now the husband’s wife, also have the inviolable right to educate their own children, a right that others and, in particular, the civil government is obligated to recognize and protect.

This paper does not deny that single parents, whether male or female, whether married or never married or divorced, have a right to educate their children. Its focus, however, is on the right and duty of married men and women, husbands and wives, with respect to their own children’s education.

What does this parental right to educate one’s own children mean? What are the obligations of the parents in that education? What roles do husbands and wives have in that education? These are the issues this paper addresses.

The basic educational task of fathers and mothers

Centuries ago, St. Augustine wrote: “children are to be welcomed lovingly, nurtured humanely, and educated religiously [i.e., “in the love and service of God and neighbor”]” (St. Augustine, On Genesis according to the letter, Bk 9, ch. 7). This is the basic educational task, or, better, “sacred mission” entrusted to them by God. It is in the home where the child can learn discipline, how to postpone the immediate gratification of his desires, and how to recognize that he must not be selfish and self centered but willing to help others.

This task, this mission, is indeed a difficult one that requires the parents to be patient with their children, with each other, and with themselves. They know that it takes a long time for a child to realize that he is not the center of the universe and that if he wants to be respected by others he must respect them. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you; do not do unto others what you would not have them do unto you.” The Golden Rule, he will gradually learn, if his mother and father follow it themselves, is a very good one.

What obligations do parents, husbands and wives, have in this educational mission?
The basic one has already been expressed. Another that is absolutely essential is this: Husbands: Remember that the best gift you can give your children is to love their mother. Wives: Remember that the best gift you can give to your children is to love their father.

Some of the most important other obligations include the following: 1) spend time with your children; 2) nurture their gifts, help them to discern their personal vocation; 3) when they hit adolescence, talk with them, listen to them and get to know their friends; 4) make your home a place where your children will want to bring their friends, confident that they will want to bring their friends home and that these young men and women are good ones to have as friends, and get to know their parents and make them your own friends; 5) give them physical affection because this is important for healthy development, and it is especially necessary for the father to express his love for them this way; 6) tell them what they do well, not only what they need to change;7) make your children do their homework promptly, perhaps before supper or before after-supper diversions. If they need help with their homework help them if you can or, if an older (or perhaps more gifted) sibling can do so without grave inconvenience, have him or her help the younger sibling; 8)do not let your children waste time by watching too much television or surfing the Internet and monitor the kind of television watched (consider forgoing television altogether and instead rent or buy good DVDs for in this way you will control what kind of entertainment ought to be enjoyed); 9) use appropriate means to block internet access to poisonous materials; 10) do not let your children smoke (this is bad for health and character and can lead to drugs) or consume alcohol until they reach a more mature age;  11) encourage them to engage in sports or in extracurricular activities such as dramatic plays, music, debating teams, etc.

Do wives and husbands have complimentary roles to play in the education of their children?
There are good reasons for thinking that they do. The bond between children and their mother is strong by virtue of their symbiotic tie during pregnancy, birth and nursing. This relationship is essential in laying the foundations of healthy development. In addition it involves those qualities associated with mothering: unconditional availability, receptivity, and tenderness. Because of these qualities and also because studies show that women, on the whole, are far more interested in persons and in personal relationships than men are, it seems that the mother is the parent better suited as having a primary role in educating the children when they are infants, toddlers, and in the lower grades.
 
It is obvious, however, that the father's loving presence is needed for the well-being of the children. But unlike the mother, the father is, as it were, an “outsider” who has to insert himself into the bond between mother and child as a “second other.” He has to be introduced to the child by the mother. If the father, with the help of the mother, succeeds in being welcomed as father, children of both sexes are helped in relating themselves to the cultural universe outside the home.

Applying all this to the great privilege and mission of educating their children it seems, as indicated already, that the mother is better equipped than the father to educate children during infancy, toddler years, and lower grades, whereas the father’s role increases as they enter adolescence. He is the only one who can show both his sons and his daughters how a man ought to act toward women, i.e., with profound respect, never lusting after them or seeking to consume their sexual values, but loving them as persons made in the image and likeness of God and called to be holy. This is most important for both sons and daughters, for daughters need to know how to tell whether potential boyfriends or, later, beaux, are men who have the virtue of chastity, i.e., that they are men like their own father.

Conclusion

Married men and women, husbands and wives, have the sublime mission, duty, and right to educate their own children. This parental right must be recognized and honored by civil society. It is not conferred on parents by civil authority but is a right with which they are endowed by reason of the fact that they have freely chosen to give themselves irrevocably to one another in marriage, and marriage and children go together.  Husbands and wives cannot “unspouse themselves” nor can they “unfather” or “unmother” themselves. They thus have the privilege, the duty, and the right to be their children’s primary educators.

William E. May is Senior Research Fellow of the Culture of Life Foundation and emeritus Michael J. McGivney Professor of Moral Theology at the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family in Washington, D.C.

© 2011 Culture of Life Foundation.  Reposted with permission

(1) However there are other serious moral concerns with generating human life through IVF that are not discussed as part of this essay.



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