Faculty Essays

Parents as Primary Educators

Written by Michael Moynihan on April 27, 2015.

I once mentioned to a parent, rather in passing, that our educational philosophy at The Heights School is based on our belief that parents are the primary educators of their children.  I was surprised when the parent reacted rather negatively to this proposition.  He expected that in exchange for the tuition money he paid to the school, he would be assured that his son was being well educated.  His understanding seemed to be that he was hiring a school to “add education” to his son.  Like many others in modern society, he saw the school as the primary educator.

This view that schools are the primary educators does have some merit: after all, it seems just to expect that teachers and school administrators are competent professionals with a certain expertise in educating youth.  The problem is that the ideal relationship between school and family is quite complex.  Practically speaking, a model of education that sees the school as capable of unilaterally undertaking the task of educating children is, as this essay will suggest, doomed to fail.  On the flip side, understanding what is meant by the claim that parents, not schools, are the primary educators of their children can illuminate a path for future educational success.

Understanding what is asserted, and what is not asserted, by claiming that parents are the primary educators of their children requires some careful thinking and analysis.  One aspect of the word “primary” is that it connotes the sense of initial or first.  Few people would argue with the claim that parents are primary educators of their children in this sense of the word.  From birth a baby experiences reality through the care given him by his parents.  Perhaps he perceives his parents, and especially his mother if she nurses him or regularly feeds him, as basically equal to reality at first.  As time goes on, he comes to understand more about the world around him in the home that nurtures him as he learns to speak his first words and begins to discover that the world is a vast and exciting place.  He will observe how food comes into the house and how his parents interact with the outside world:  neighbors, friends, relatives and people in the marketplace.  He begins to understand that there are four seasons to the year, each with its own unique characteristics.  His most natural response to these observations will be to question his parents or older siblings about what he discovers.  He will ask about nearly every hypothesis he forms.  Through this process the family mediates reality to the child; it would be accurate to say that the child evaluates his experiences and knowledge through the lens of his family.  It is easy to see how parents are the primary educators in this sense, as the first educators of a child and the ones most directly responsible for setting up the family environment through which the child comes to understand reality.

The role of the parents as primary educators, however, does not diminish as a growing child learns more independently.  Parents, and the family and home they govern, remain the lens through which the child continues to view what he learns, especially as he ponders the meaning and significance of the education he receives at school.  In most cases a child will perceive education as valuable – good in itself or good for another purpose – or worthless largely depending on his parents’ view of education and the corresponding way they govern their home.[1] If his parents create a loving home that is open to the world, a world they view as fundamentally good and worth knowing about, then the child will be likely to value and attain the specialized knowledge that his teachers convey.[2]  If his parents approach the world as the place where the clever and persistent are able to obtain material wealth or prestige, then the child will likely value education as a means for social and economic advancement.  In this case, education is valued, but for lesser utilitarian motives.  Students who value education as a means to achieve success often are overly grade-conscious, at times to the detriment of their education.  Worse still, if parents live as if pleasure is the purpose of life, not daily attempting to master their appetites and seek more noble things, then their children likely will lack the self-mastery necessary for true study.

Along these lines, parents should appropriately limit the influence of the entertainment culture – television, video games, and aspects of the Internet – and encourage, first by example, good habits of study and reading.  If they do, their children will be much more likely to acquire the intellectual virtues necessary for education.  True education involves a training of the mind, a building up of the ability to focus and concentrate at times, and to calmly ponder and contemplate at other times.  I would suggest that it is deficiencies in this area that are at the heart of the educational crisis we face as a society.  It is not that parents will directly assert that education is worthless.  The problem is, rather, that the home environment they establish is one that is strongly influenced by the modern entertainment industry.  Instead of reading quality books, the children spend far too much time watching television, using a computer, or playing video games.  The comforts of the modern home interfere with the acquisition of the disciplined habits of mind necessary for real study and contemplation.  Even if we had the best possible schools, which we certainly do not, it is absurd to think that any school can educate someone in six hours a day for roughly half of the days of a calendar year when the rest of the time the child is in a deficient home environment where he is excessively entertained by the television or video games.  The modern entertainment culture provides strong challenges for those who should be traveling the difficult road of disciplined study.

I do not want to place too much blame on parents for the problems in education today.  In my experience working with parents I have found that many simply do not understand the true nature of their responsibility to act as the primary educators of their children.  Our current education system deserves some blame for this.  The problem is that most educators – teachers, administrators, and textbook writers among others – see themselves as the real primary educators.   We could examine the historical roots of the modern educational experiment and find numerous examples of direct assertions that the modern school system was set up to be the primary educator of the nation’s youth.  The modern educational experiment, in its very historical roots, is based on the premise that an excellent school system can provide universal education fairly to all members of society, apart from and in spite of the family situation.  As we look at the world of modern education today, there are many signs that this errant view is so deeply imbedded that it is simply taken for granted.  While some people are advocates for more parental choice in education, such as some think vouchers would bring, most educators are resistant to being accountable to parents.  The main forces behind trends in modern education are well-funded national groups vying for influence to promote their agendas.  The textbook industry is strongly influenced by the governments of Texas and California purchasing texts for the entire state up through twelfth grade.  This process invites political groups to exercise their influence through censoring what they do not approve of in the texts.  The current history textbooks, although rich in pictures and graphics, are shallow in text and analysis after going through this crucible.  Several other examples could be given.  In this milieu, the omission of discourse on the fundamental and primary role parents necessarily play in the education of their children is shocking.  This omission reveals with bracing clarity the fact that the modern educational system views itself as the primary educator of children and is attempting to unilaterally undertake the education of our youth.

If it is true that parents are the primary educators, and almost necessarily so, then this entire modern educational project is doomed to fail.  Many educators have taken the dominance of the entertainment culture as a fact and have attempted to find ways to convey information through entertaining means.  Conveying information through means modeled on modern entertainment is less than a pale shadow of the noble view of a liberal education that has enriched the lives of so many throughout history.  It is the current educational paradigm, based on schools being the primary educators, that is miserably failing; the problem cannot be fixed by simply doing something better within this failing paradigm, applying the correct band-aid.  For example, the one area where there seems to be political consensus is that improvements will somehow result from updating school facilities and investing in technology.  But what good will a set of new computers with Internet access do if the students do not use them to complement a life of diligent study?  Without addressing the real problem, these improvements will do little good.  Politically, one party stresses better funding for public schools, and the other stresses greater accountability by the public schools through success proven on standardized tests.  Neither addresses the real problem: we must recognize that parents are the primary educators of their children and take seriously the implications this has for how a school is established.  While it is noble to strive to provide each child with the same educational opportunities, indeed to leave no child behind, it is not possible for any institution to do this on its own when, in fact, parents are the primary educators.

So what would a school be like if it was established on a model that takes very seriously the truth that parents are the primary educators?  In sum, such a school would strive to be an extension of the homes of parents who are fully activated primary educators.  The school and home would work together in the task of passing on the riches of a liberal education to the next generation.  From a student’s perspective, he would daily experience the same fundamental mission from school and home.  In class the spirit of study would necessarily intensify, but reading, study, and industrious work would be a strong part of the family culture as well.  There would be frequent communication between teachers and parents.  At the school in which I work, teachers are required to maintain close lines of communication with parents.  Common topics of discussion include a student’s academic strengths and weaknesses, his study habits, and even his generosity in contributing to the community, to being an outstanding citizen.

In a school that respects the role of parents as primary educators, parents would be consulted on important decisions regarding their children, such as setting up his academic program or establishing consequences in a disciplinary situation.  Such a school would necessarily have to be more personal than institutional.  Treating each student and family as persons is not easy.  It requires policies that are flexible enough to allow for competent people to make prudential judgments in many situations.  Granted, some policies should be written so as not to allow for exceptions (i.e. each student must study English and math all four years of high school).  But most would be written as guidelines that govern what is typical but do allow for exceptions when it is in the best interest of the persons involved.  Obviously, such a school would not cater to the entertainment culture.  Both parents and teachers would foster strong habits of reading and study.  There would be great caution about embracing any new educational fads.  The teachers and parents would frequently repeat that there are no easy shortcuts to achieving a liberal education.  The teachers would resemble “academic coaches” who encourage and challenge the students to strive after a liberal education in a disciplined manner.  The best teachers would master not only the art of teaching but would be, themselves, committed lifelong students, both of their particular disciplines and of all things intellectual that contribute to a human life well lived.  A teacher’s passion for education would have a tremendous impact on his students.  In a certain sense, it would cause others to become genuinely interested in study and learning.

This may seem like an unrealistic vision.  How can all this be accomplished by rethinking the relationship between home and school?  While it will certainly be difficult to pursue this vision, it is the only option to move forward from where we are.  Because parents are the primary educators of their children, over time schools will necessarily follow the culture of the home.  Today, as teachers strive to help their students learn, they turn to the entertainment culture to look for ways to communicate to their students.  Rather than accomplishing the noble goal of providing all children with an education, schools are floundering under the weight of a culture that no longer has the strength to travel the disciplined road of study and contemplation.  Modern – or postmodern to be more precise – schools have become extensions of contemporary home life.  This situation can be reversed.  People today are very industrious and hard working.  Parents are willing to make great sacrifices for their children.  If we were to change our culture of education in such a way as to help parents understand their irreplaceable role in the process, as fully activated primary educators, we could begin to harness their efforts for the good.  Ultimately, what is needed is the humility to admit and correct the erroneous premise of the modern educational experiment – namely, the assertion or assumption that schools can be the primary educators – and acknowledge, in theory and practice, that parents are the primary educators of their children.

1. It is obvious but worth noting that the assertion that parents are the primary educators of their children does not mean that they are the ones who must teach their children any particular academic subject.  At school a child may learn more about Latin or chemistry, for example, than either parent knows.  Parents have every right to expect that these subjects will be taught well by the teachers as school.
2. Parents are the ones who will necessarily convey a fundamental view of reality to their children.  All people come to experience the reality of evil in the world.  If parents have a noble and optimistic view of life then their children will recognize the reality of evil in the world for what it is, the result of the unfaithfulness and cruelty of men who have turned from their true purpose.  The world itself, however, they will always see as fundamentally good, even if not their final home.