Without question, parents are the primary influence on the faith lives of their children. Study after study shows that when parents are strong spiritual leaders, and when fathers—yes, dads in particular—teach and witness the faith to their children, the kids are far more likely to grow up and live faithful lives themselves.
What kind of role do you want the Catholic faith to play in the lives of your grown children? That’s the kind of role that faith should be playing in your life right now. You are the primary educators of your children—not the pastor, not the youth minister, not the Sunday school catechist, Confirmation coordinator or Catholic school theology teacher. You and your spouse have the privilege and the responsibility to teach your children about their Christian faith, which also requires that you continually learn about it yourself.
Familiaris Consortio is abundantly clear about the role of parents in educating their children: “Since parents have conferred life on their children, they have a most solemn obligation to educate their offspring. Hence, parents must be acknowledged as the first and foremost educators of their children. Their role as educators is so decisive that scarcely anything can compensate for their failure in it. For it devolves on parents to create a family atmosphere so animated with love and reverence for God and others that a well-rounded personal and social development will be fostered among the children. Hence, the family is the first school of those social virtues which every society needs” (FC 36). I love how loaded this paragraph is with insight into how strong of an impact that parents, the spiritual leaders of the family, have on their children’s education:
- “Since parents have conferred life…they have a most solemn obligation to educate” — As spiritual leaders, our crucial leadership role as teachers only begins when our children are brought into the world. There is an expectation, an obligation even, that we educate them, and not leave them to their own devices to figure out how to live life well. It’s unfortunate how many parents today want to let their children “figure things out for themselves” or “experiment to find out what works for them.” Our culture is raising up a contingency of misguided parents who believe that in many areas of life (sexuality for example), children should educate themselves, lest parents “shelter them” or tell them what to do, think, or believe. As spiritual leaders, we cannot hide from the obvious truth that our role as educators matters, preventing our children from growing up to become tumbleweeds, guided by the whims of the cultural winds. As Proverbs 22:6 states, “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.”
- “…The first and foremost educators…” — The role of parents as educators supersedes the roles of school teachers, catechists, culture, the media, and others in teaching one’s children. Think of what that means for your leadership. “It is in the bosom of the family that parents are ‘by word and example . . . the first heralds of the faith with regard to their children…’ It is here that the father of the family, the mother, children, and all members of the family exercise the priesthood of the baptized in a privileged way ‘by the reception of the sacraments, prayer and thanksgiving, the witness of a holy life, and self-denial and active charity.’ Thus the home is the first school of Christian life and ‘a school for human enrichment’ (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1656-1657). As the spiritual head or spiritual heart of your family, you have the privilege and responsibility of being the first evangelists to your children, by your teaching through word and example. Both of those components are critical, too. Your children need your direct, verbal teaching and opportunities for those teachable moments abound. “You shall therefore lay up these words of mine in your heart and in your soul…And you shall teach them to your children, talking of them when you are sitting in your house, and when you are walking by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise” (Deuteronomy 11: 18-19). But they also need—perhaps to an even greater extent—your witness to and model of the faith by the example of your life. By observing the leader that you are, they are more likely to grow up to become strong spiritual leaders themselves.
- “…Scarcely anything can compensate for their failure in it” — James 3:1 says, “…for you know that we who teach shall be judged with greater strictness.” Why? Because we have minds, hearts, and souls in our hands as teachers of our children. God entrusts us as the spiritual leaders of our families to take this job seriously: to teach his children, whom he has so lovingly lent to us, how to know, love, and serve him.
- “…Create a family atmosphere so animated with love and reverence for God and others” — Another way to put this is that our goal as spiritual leaders is to create a family environment that operates on the principle of self-donation, in which we love by abandoning our own selfishness and seeking to serve the God and each other.
- “A well-rounded personal and social development will be fostered among the children” — As the primary educators of your children, you have control over their ultimate “life curriculum.” You have been empowered with the ability to instill the most well-rounded experience of learning that your children can acquire, because only you can equip them with the best integration of personal, social, spiritual, mental, emotional, and physical formation.
- “…the family is the first school of those social virtues which every society needs” — Your important role as a spiritual leader and teacher is not only for the benefit of your family, but for the benefit of society as a whole. You are teaching your children how to be virtuous, how to be saints…and saints change the world.
When it is so easy to get caught up in worry over the grades our children have, what accomplishments they accumulate or extra-curricular activities they engage in, what colleges they will go to or what careers they will pursue, we must be reminded that education is first and foremost an endeavor aimed at learning how to live life well, how to exercise one’s fullest potential as a human person, created in the image and likeness of God. With effort and over time, our job as parents and spiritual leaders of the family is to ensure that home life becomes an ideal environment for raising saints.
Editor’s Note: This article is adapted from Katie Warner’s book, Head and Heart: Becoming Spiritual Leaders for Your Family (Emmaus Road Publishing, August 2015), with permission of the author and Emmaus Road Publishing.