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Catholic Activity: Parents are the First Teachers



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Parents may not feel confident in their role as the primary instructors of their children. Some may feel they are not learned enough. Mary Reed Newland addresses these parental concerns, also reminding parents of the special grace given to them for this task.


Do Parents Know Enough?

It is now apparent that one requisite in this matter is parents—or at least one parent—who cares enough about God''s truths to ponder them. Actually, the desire to teach these truths, as well as the words, methods, ideas, grows with thinking them through (meditating—though the word seems to frighten people) as best one can. Help is needed, of course, from reading, instruction, whatever is available, but help will not be sought without first thinking the matter through. Many invalid objections to teaching ("I can''t," "I don''t know enough," and the like) are silenced as soon as parents begin to think about the few (so they claim) truths with which they are familiar. The notion that one must be specially educated to teach religion to one''s small children can be disposed of immediately by examining the lives of saints whose parents were unschooled, even illiterate. Illiteracy is hardly a requirement, but the success of such mothers as Assunta Goretti and Margaret Bosco dispose of the "I don''t know enough" excuses. Père Auffray writes of Margaret Bosco:

This poor unlettered Piedmontese woman had a subtle sense of true education. Neither anything nor anyone, neither the priest as a preacher nor as a catechist, nor the teacher in his school, can replace the mother: she alone can fashion the heart. A high and noble duty which Margaret Bosco instinctively understood; and how she devoted herself to doing it!

At the bottom of this education, as at its top, was God . . . . She would seize the least opportunity of impressing this thought of their Creator in its various aspects upon the hearts of her sons. On a starry night she would take them out and say: "All the stars are wonderful; it is God who put them there. If the sky is so lovely, what must paradise be like?" Or else, in the presence of one of those magnificent dawns which tinge the snowy girdle of the Alpine horizon with a ruddy glow: "What wonders God has made for us, dear children!" If hail had destroyed the humble family vineyard wholly or in part: "Let us bow our heads!" she murmured. "God gave us these beautiful bunches of grapes, and now He has taken them away. He is the Lord. It is a trial for us, for the wicked a punishment." And on a winter evening, when the family was huddled together round a flaming log and the north wind was whistling or icy rain was hammering on the roof: "Dear children, how we should love God for providing us with what is needful. He is indeed our Father who is in heaven."

It was not only for the needs of the body that this watchful mother was so vigilant; more than all she took thought for the training of the soul, and she began by feeding her children''s minds with the pure teaching of the faith. She could neither read nor write, but she knew all the catechism by heart, and Scripture history and the life of our Lord as well. From her memory all this living doctrine, patiently doled out, was passed on into the minds of her boys. She might have found some excuse in her daily care for handing over this work to the zeal of the curé of Castelnuovo; but in Italy, at that time, the catechizing of children took place only in Lent, and that meant for these children walking more than six miles a day; she preferred to teach them herself everything she knew, trusting to her work being checked or completed by the curé of the parish. This early Christian teaching, falling from his mother''s lips, explains much in the harassed childhood of little John Bosco.5

It explains, in short, why the bitter poverty, the hard work, the ill-tempered jealousy of a cloddish half-brother did not warp the mind and destroy the spirit of this brilliant, dedicated, game little boy whom God had destined to be a great shepherd of souls.

Parent Vs. Scholar

Margaret Bosco, Assunta Goretti, Charles and Brigid Savio (not illiterate, but simple people) cancel out our excuses. God did not make a mistake when He left the teaching of the little ones to the parents instead of the scholars. It might be said, with all due respect, that the scholars know too much to teach them, for small children learn best truths that are simply taught in the language of their daily lives by means of the love of their parents. Like Margaret Bosco, we have the catechism, Holy Scripture and, in the Gospels, the life of our Lord. Unlike Margaret Bosco, we can read. "She might have found some excuse in her daily cares for handing over this work. . . ." But she did not. "She preferred to teach them herself—everything she knew. . . ." Perhaps this is the difference between the parents of the saints and the others.

We proceed from teaching the knowledge of God who made the child to the plan he devised for making him. We may tell the children quite truthfully that God made the world in order to have a place to put them. We may read about creation in the first chapters of Genesis. The cycle of the liturgical year, if we follow it thoughtfully, turns our minds often to the story of creation, especially as a preparation for Christmas and Easter. Reading aloud about creation and the Fall during Advent rehearses the family in the start of the Redemption; during Lent it prepares them for its climax. Both remind us that He is coming again, a last time, and we must be about the business of preparing for Him. The story of creation is easy to tell and to relate to a child''s delight in nature; no one may beg off. Without this story first, the story of the Fall and the Redemption makes no sense.

God made the world out of nothing, and when it was done, beautiful and good, He made a man and named him Adam. From Adam He made Eve—and there was the beginning of our family. He made Adam and Eve lord and lady of creation and put all things before them to serve them. He asked them only one thing in order to test their obedience and win their reward—life forever in heaven with Him—but they disobeyed and spoiled His plan. This was the first, the original sin.

Now we take the little one up another step in his appreciation of God''s love. Simplifying, but not altering, the story of God''s love, we explain the Redemption.

God did not stop loving man, nor stop wanting him. He still wanted Adam, Eve, Christopher, all the rest, but Adam, father of us all, had spoiled His plan. How was man to pay God back and "even things up?" (From very early, children grasp "paying back and evening up.") I once asked my children this question after drawing on the blackboard a simple stick figure picture of the world and the things in it, with Adam and Eve weeping guiltily for having spoiled "the plan." "How are they going to pay God back?" I was startled at the simple answer of the six-year-old. "They can''t pay Him back," he said. "Everything''s God''s. They haven''t got anything to pay Him back with." (Without the picture, crude as it was, I think the point would not have been as quickly seen. Pictures, tangible things, sights, sounds, smells, all the wealth of the senses can be brought to play in teaching religion in the home.)

He was quite right. Man had nothing to pay God back with—yet pay he must. It was man''s debt; man had to pay it. We teach them how and why He did it with the same simplicity as we teach the other things. "God looked down and loved man still, and wanted him. It is as though He said: `Since man cannot pay his debt because everything he has belongs to Me, I will become a man and I will pay it. Then man can be with me forever as I planned." He wanted us as much as that!

This much knowledge of the creation, the Fall, and the Redemption belongs to almost every Catholic who has managed to give at least half an ear to the catechism lessons and to the sermons of his life. I cannot remember meeting any Catholic who did not know at least that "God died for our sins." Parents who know this much could, with daily reflection for at least fifteen minutes (perhaps while the mother washes her dishes, the father makes his way to work) explore these teachings and with the help of the Holy Spirit find themselves quite able to teach them. Add to this evening sessions of reading aloud, discussions that could be encouraged at bath time, bedtime, any time, the reminders of these truths that we find in the prayers of the Mass through the year, in the Credo, when we say the mysteries of the Rosary, and we have abundant material for the "untaught" parents.

Parents' Special Grace

We must remember that together with their natural aptitudes, the parents possess the unique grace of their vocation which prompts them when there is the occasion to teach, and helps them with the teaching. This grace is given only to the parents—not to sisters, not to grandmothers, not to baby-sitters, no matter how competent. (If God should take the parents from a child, of course He would compensate.) Others in the child''s life have their graces, but not the parents''. Let us suppose that the father or mother is busy at some chore when a minor brawl destroys the peace. This is one of the occasions a parent would use to teach a small lad that he must not—what? Kick his brother? Bite his brother? Spit on his brother? (There is an extensive list of possibilities.) "You must not do that. It is wrong and displeasing to God. Our Lord said when He was on earth that whatever we do to one another, we do to Him. You see? It is the same as kicking Christ when you kick your brother." For a four-year-old, this is explanation enough. He does not question. He does not object. Neither does he master seeing Christ in his brothers, for a long, long time, but he begins to try. This is the point. Parents will attest to the difficulty of loving Christ in one another. All the more do they see the wisdom of striving to love Him thus at an early age. Christ says we will be judged on this. Evidently it is the only motive that will satisfy God. We must teach it to our children. It will be the doctrine we will develop for them a few years later when we introduce them for the first time to the idea of the mystical body.

If it is Christ we serve in our children, Christ we love—then it is Christ we teach. This was the vocation of Mary and Joseph—to bring forth Christ and care for Him in many ways, among them to teach Him. Parents can find in our Lord''s manner of teaching in His public life, striking confirmation of the claim that teaching in the home truly forms the minds and souls of children. There is abundant evidence during the three years of preaching that the daily tasks of Mary, the work and teaching of Joseph, formed Him as a child. Mothers will gain a substantial idea of the ways of the Christ Child by observing the ways of their own small children (excepting their faults), for He was as human as they. Despite their shortcomings, from their own maternal responses they can guess at the responses of Our Lady. She too explained, in answer to endless questions. And because we know something of the splendor of her mind and soul, we know she would have lifted His mind from the natural to the supernatural with her explanations. She was the greatest of contemplatives, after her Son, and it is not guesswork to imagine that she likened the life of the leaven to the life of the soul, the saving qualities of the salt of the earth to the saving qualities of the salt of wisdom, a supply of oil in reserve against the darkness to the life of virtue in preparation for death. Lesser mothers like Margaret Bosco have taught the same way. All mothers and fathers are meant to teach this way. To discover Mary teaching her Son as she worked, prayed, recreated, is to begin to discover the mind that was in Mary—and this we may imitate. The same is true of St. Joseph. His fatherly instruction of the boy Christ is evidenced in the parable of the wineskin, the parables of building, farming, the seasons, the weather, the ways of householders and their servants. The minds of Mary and Joseph formed the mind that was in Christ. This is inevitable in any family—our family as well as the Holy Family.

Christ, the Model Teacher

Christ in the Gospels teaches the parents how to train their little ones in virtue. This is the mystery of the Gospels: they feed the little ones as well as the great. With respect to telling lies, for example, He teaches us: "The devil is the father of lies." This is simple and to the point and states the case exactly. One can confirm this for a child by reading aloud the scene in the Garden of Eden where the devil told the first recorded lie. Omission does not deny that among the lies he has fathered are also heresies, errors, unbelief, false teaching, and so forth. It simply concentrates at the moment on the fact that the devil is also behind the business of telling your mother you didn''t when you did, the only aspect of lying with which a small child has any concern. (It goes without saying that he will be helped to expand his understanding of truth as be grows older.) One must give a child reasons why he must not lie, and our Lord has stated these also. They cannot be improved upon. "I am the Truth." "Be with Me or be against Me." "Whoever hears the truth hears My voice," and more. These help to identify conscience for a child. No one will deny the need to identify conscience with the voice of God, as soon as possible. One child, having steadily refused to tell the truth about something, was left to sit on a chair while his mother went off to fast for him, and pray. (When there is nothing else for parents to do to help a child with virtue, they can always fast and pray.) He returned after a half hour to admit the truth. "I am so glad you told me at last," said his mother. "What made you tell the truth?" "I sat on the chair and I heard Him say it in my head: You know you did it." It is good to know who speaks with the voice of conscience. (Should any reader wonder if the child imagined this to be a "locution," he did not. Questioning showed that he meant quite simply that he had listened to his conscience.)

Together with the rich lessons of the Gospels, the lives of the saints provide abundant examples of the how of acquiring virtue, their variety rescuing the constantly repeated lessons from becoming nagging sermons. Virtue, St. Catherine and all the other saints teach, is acquired by being practiced on its opposite. Our Lord told St. Philip Neri that he would acquire patience with the two irritating sacristans, precisely as he resisted the temptation to be impatient with them. A small boy understands this quite easily. Each time he fights the temptation to tell a lie, disobey, be ugly to his brother, the virtue of truthfulness, obedience, or kindness grows a little stronger in him. Sad to say, each time he does not resist the temptation, he forms a little bit more a habit of naughtiness. But to know how it works and where one stands is very helpful. It gives, together with the love of God, the best reason for resisting temptation. Virtue must be practiced, just as one must practice tying his shoes, catching a ball, swimming the dog paddle. "I gave up my own will at last!" shouted a small boy I know after many unsuccessful tries. Oh good—now he must start to practice keeping this a secret!

No wonder, when there is so much to learn and to practice, that this learning should not be postponed for the five or six years it takes to reach the parochial school. Furthermore, if this is to be taught by the sisters only, and not the parents, there is reason to wonder if the teaching will penetrate as deeply as it might. It is the home that makes the most lasting impression. God has designed family life that way.

Activity Source: Teaching Religion at Home by Mary Reed Newland, B. Herder Book Co., St. Louis, Missouri, 1963