This is the beginning of a series of columns written to help Catholic parents make solid educational choices for their children by comparing and contrasting various ways for families to give their children a Catholic education. The presumption of the series is quite simply that we, as Catholic parents, are primarily responsible for giving our children an education that includes the essential ingredients of Catholic teaching no matter where they learn their ABC's and 123's. Throughout the series I will use specific references to schools or situations in the diocese of Fall River, Massachusetts, where I currently live. I do this because, just as every public school system will be different in every town, so will each diocese have different Catholic schooling options, and different regions will have more or less support for home schooling. I am including specifics because the specifics are what each family has to consider when making educational choices: the needs of their specific child or children, their specific work, their specific extended family, and the specific school systems within their specific region of the country. All of the educational choices my husband and I have made, and are still making, for our children are very much in light of our specific, geographic location as well as our ideals about how provide the best education possible for our children.
During the first weeks of our home school year, I always write this definition on the board: "Discipline is remembering what you really want." By writing this, I invite my students/children to pause and think, "What is it that I really want out of this year of school? What is going to keep me going when I don't feel like finishing a math assignment or writing a book report?" Stickers, special privileges, and good grades can be the immediate, external rewards, but the long-term reason for learning — what a student really wants — cannot come from either a parent or a teacher. The reason for this is that what each of us really wants is a question of internal motivation, not external enforcement.
As Catholic parents, charged with providing our children with 12 to 16 years of education, we also have to ask ourselves "what we really want" as it relates to educating our children. What is the biggest purpose for which we are educating our child? Good grades? A good job someday? Good athletic, music, or art programs? How about good friends and eventually a good spouse? What about the non-intellectual, social, and religious aspects of an education? Because our children's school environment profoundly impacts our family life, and because autumn is the time for open houses and entrance exams for next year's school enrollment, I have compiled some thoughts on the educational choices available to Catholic parents.
First, I want to state clearly that the most important things our kids need to know are primarily learned at home and are being taught all the time. The quality of our children's formal schooling is of secondary importance to the quality of our children's home life. Having said that, I must also say that I believe every Catholic kid deserves a Catholic education. I believe that giving our children an authentically and thoroughly Catholic education is at the core of what God and the Catholic Church ask of us as parents. I think it is a necessity, not a luxury, but if you disagree with me, please don't stop reading just yet.
If you have previously thought that the only way to give a child a Catholic education was to enroll him in a Catholic school, you'll be happy to know that there are other options. On the other hand, if you have previously thought sending a kid to Catholic school or to CCD was all you needed to do as a parent to give them a Catholic education, you may be surprised to learn that this is no guarantee. Here's why; we parents are responsible for their faith formation, not a school or a teacher.
When we asked to have our children baptized by the Church as infants, we promised before the gathered assembly to be their "first and best teachers in the ways of the Faith." As our children's primary teachers in spiritual matters, we are responsible for three areas of Catholic knowledge: heart, hand, and head knowledge. First, our children need to be introduced to our God who loves them. Second, they need to be shown how to love him back. Third, they need to be taught about Church history, doctrine, and prayer. They need to know Scripture and to hear stories about the saints, heroes, and villains associated with Christian faith. The basic idea behind the Catholic school system is that all three of these would be taught in a synchronized way and strengthened until they become the spiritual backbone of a well-formed Catholic adult.
A generation or two ago, many Catholic parents were able to turn to parochial school systems for help in living up to their baptismal promise. Today, not as many parents are able to draw on this valuable resource. If we cannot access the help of a good Catholic school system, we will need to be more disciplined ourselves about investing time and energy in educating their hearts, hands, and heads in all things Catholic. Over the next few columns, I will explore ways that we Catholic parents can remain true to our baptismal promise no matter where our children learn their ABC's and 123's.