Faculty Essays

The Father as Teacher of His Children

Written by Michael Moynihan on June 30, 2015.

By Michael Moynihan

It is easy to overlook an important responsibility that each father should fulfill, namely teaching his children about reality. Reality can be defined as a complete worldview that is consistent and in accord with all known information from various perspectives, especially the perspective of faith. It is not that fathers are consciously neglecting this duty. Rather, it simply does not become a priority for most fathers given all the other responsibilities they have. After all, fathers are usually the ones who must provide for and protect their families, which often means long hours at a demanding job. It is also crucial that a father be a good husband to his wife, supporting her and devoting time to spend with her each day. It makes sense for a man with limited time to make caring for his wife a top priority: after all, if a man supports and loves his wife, she will be so much better able to care for the children. It is easy to see how a father ends up working very hard to support his family and care in particular for his wife, and as a result takes little or no direct role in the education of his children. This may be especially true of fathers who are confident that the education their children are receiving at home or in a carefully chosen private school includes solid faith formation and is in accord with the values of the family. While understandable, this is a critical mistake, because in the area of the direct instruction of his children there is no replacement for the father. Indeed, no other teacher is able to teach a wholesome, realistic outlook to children as effectively as the father. This is even more the case in the context of the modern nuclear family.

The Mysterious Protector 

If we reflect on the role of the father and his place in the family we can see why he needs to teach his own children. A baby or young child typically experiences his mother as the one who nurtures and comforts him, in a sense almost as an extension of himself. The father, however, is “other.” Even a father who is very affectionate with his children is still seen as a more mysterious figure, someone for whom the mother has a great deal of affection and someone whose presence immediately changes the family dynamic. As a baby begins to become aware of himself and the world around him he begins to see his father as the one who mediates the outside world to him and to the rest of the family. Traditionally, the father is the protector of the family and the one who interacts most with the outside world, securing the family’s place in the world. As a child grows he naturally looks to the father to see how he should relate to the world, and to all of reality. The mother is a sign and expression of the love and care of a family; the father necessarily represents the family and its members in their engagement with what is outside. In this context, a father conveys a vision of reality to his family simply by who he is and by his outlook on the world. If his vision of the world and reality is limited to a place where it is necessary to fight to secure benefits for the family, if the world is fundamentally a hostile place where those with the right street smarts can get ahead, then his children will naturally approach the world as an enemy, something to be conquered for gain. If he approaches the world as a place of danger, his children will naturally learn to fear reality. If he approaches the world as a place where one can find many pleasurable things, many forms of entertainment, then the children will view the purpose of life as to have fun. And if the father views the world as fundamentally good as created by God, yet tarnished by evil and sin and as such a wonderful arena for the great drama of the salvation brought about through The Church, then his children will view their roles as joyful soldiers striving to become saints, fighting on the side of the underdog, which they also know is the winning side.

Passing Along The Truth

Since a father already, simply by being a father, mediates an understanding of reality to his children, he is likewise, simply because of who he is as father, in a position to teach as no other adult can. If he sends his children to a school with teachers who support the values and faith that he and his wife share then he does well. If the father also teaches his children about reality and especially about the faith then he is essentially paving the way for his children to engage their studies in school and embrace the truth that is being taught there. On the other hand, to the extent that he fails in this role, his children will not be as prepared to embrace the truth. On the far extreme, if he never teaches his children and is seen by his children as someone who would not be able to speak with the authority of one who teaches, then his children are not likely to have a healthy interest in learning the truth about reality. Rather, the dominant paradigm that they use to understand reality will likely be an anti-metaphysical one, a paradigm perhaps based on power and antithetical to the category of truth. Evelyn Waugh paints a humorous yet shocking picture of this deficiency in his character of Rex in Brideshead Revisited. Rex, when learning about the Catholic faith, is unable to distinguish the truth claim about God as a Trinity of Persons from the fictional musings of a young girl about sacred monkeys in the Vatican. For Rex the category of truth is irrelevant; he views “belief” as only having value for some other motive as evidenced by his remarking that he is surprised that the priest giving him instruction is concerned with what he believes since he is a powerful man who can “do things” for Catholics. Likewise in many upper school students, belief is not firmly located in the metaphysical category of truth. The Catholic faith is a source of comfort and family stability, but it is not a radical proposition that demands a full commitment of self. It can thus easily be rejected, especially when it is recognized as incompatible with immoral yet attractive life choices. The hedonism of our culture easily washes away a faith that has no metaphysical basis, a faith that is followed merely out of social conventions and values but is not firmly rooted in the realm of truth. Even more important than the actual lessons taught by a father to his children is what the father conveys by the very act of his teaching. On the most basic level, the child naturally comes to value learning about reality simply because his father thinks learning about reality is so valuable he is taking time away from his other responsibilities to teach his children. The child thinks, “If Dad believes it is important that I learn about the world and my faith then it must be really important.” A child sees that this man–who has always been seen as a symbol of the outside world, of reality, of that which is “other”–is concerned with passing on the truth about this reality to him personally. And this man, who has such power and authority, by teaching that he is subject to a higher authority, to God, is naturally seen as participating in the fatherly providence of God. Children quickly recognize that suffering is a part of human life. As they grow they also come to confront the limitations of one’s particular place in the world and, even further, the fact of evil and the destruction and pain it causes. All of this serves to present great questions to the young person: How will I navigate my way through this world? Is there meaning and purpose to my existence? Am I called to do anything particular? What is my vocation? Through the father’s act of teaching the truth about reality children come to see that, despite the apparent reign of evil, reality is fundamentally good, fundamentally in the control of God’s providence, and as such is the inheritance of the children of God. They see that there is providential care poured out on them, not to erase the challenges we face in this life’s battles, but to help us find our way to strike the right blows for the winning side, a victory that will only be fully realized in the life to come.

Managing the Demands on a Father’s Time and Energy

Fathers who are trying to care for their children know that they must spend time with them. There is no lack of evidence that even the busiest fathers are finding ways to be with their children. It is not uncommon to see fathers on the sidelines of a sporting event, as, for example, the father dressed in a business suit who has just come from work and has obviously made a conscious decision to take the time to see his son’s soccer game. Though it sometimes takes heroic efforts to do so, many fathers try to be regularly or nearly always present for family dinner. And many very busy fathers reserve time on weekends, especially on Sundays, for their families. The challenge then becomes structuring the role of father as teacher into family life in a natural way, creating the space for this to work. Different things can work well for different families.

A Time for Reading

In the evening after dinner and before bedtime is a natural opportunity for a father to spend time teaching his children. Many families already have routines where one or both parents read to children during this time. If a father makes a habit of reading to his children, especially his older children, it can be easy for him to add a few thoughts on the well chosen books that are read aloud together. Simply by choosing books that can help convey a proper outlook on reality, whether simply good literature or perhaps a book on the life of a particular saint, the father can naturally become the most important teacher of his children. This often works best if it is done in a place where younger children have a table where they can quietly draw or work on an art project while Dad reads to the older children. Again, the key benefit to this is not that the father conveys a systematic body of information, but that the father, by taking the time to teach and learn with his children, is modeling an outlook on reality. There are many resources available to select excellent books that can appeal to children of diverse ages. Many members of The Heights faculty are happy to make recommendations.

Creating the Space

To make family reading time work in a natural way it is necessary to ensure that other distractions do not prevent this from happening. Developing good habits of family life when children are young is a great help. Screens (TV, video games, computers, cell phones) need to be strongly governed by parents to create the “space” necessary for family reading. If family reading is competing with television shows then it will be more difficult to foster this type of time together as a family. Living free from the influence of screens in the home is a necessary (but not sufficient) condition for a father to teach his children well. The contemplative nature of reading together is less appealing to someone who is used to the intensity and pace of images on a screen. The desire for electronic stimulation would edge out appreciation of a spoken narrative. It is helpful to form children with a Christian view of time, namely that time is a treasure that we must sanctify. This rich view is not compatible with activities that merely “pass the time,” such as video game sessions. Much modern entertainment is really a practical expression of the nihilism prevalent in our culture, i.e. wasting time is equivalent, for all practical purposes, to asserting that there is no meaning or significance to be found in how we spend our time–which is basically nihilistic.

One-to-One Mentoring

As children get older, they become much more capable of independent and self-directed work. A prudent father will welcome this development and adjust his mentoring role. A bit of personal attention to help his older son or daughter plan their studying can go a long way. Such a one to one conversation could take place at home or at a local coffee shop. The tone should be collegial, as both look at the big picture and consider what is the best study plan for a comprehensive development of one’s intellectual life. Perhaps this will result in a goal to read a particular work of literature, study a particular time in history with the help of a biography, work toward mastering a foreign language, deepen one’s knowledge of his faith, or even advance in math. This is a wonderful opportunity to highlight not only the great benefits we enjoy as members of a free society where we can choose to pursue these goods, but also the danger of people failing to use their freedom for the good by not coming up with such a plan and thus falling into an unstructured and unfocused existence.

The Father and Son Talk

The most important teaching responsibility a father has toward his son is to help him understand God’s plan for human sexuality. I think it is best for a father to have this talk with his son initially when he is in around 5th grade, although late (even as late as high school) is better than never. The father should take his son somewhere away from home, perhaps on a hike. The father should explain God’s plan for human procreation and the upbringing of children and let his son know that there are many evil forces raging against this beautiful plan of God. It is an opportunity to explain the virtue of chastity and the nature of the ascetic struggle for a clean heart. The father should continue by telling his son that this is a very sacred matter and that it needs to be treated with discretion. It would be wrong for his son to try to teach the intimate details of this subject to his friends, as this is the job of their fathers. Nonetheless, not all fathers know how important it is to talk about this with their sons so it is possible that some boys will learn about human sexuality from other sources, many of which lack our understanding of the beauty of God’s plan. If anyone starts speaking inappropriately about these matters it is good to stand up for what is right, letting it be known that such talk is wrong and should be stopped. The father should end by encouraging his son to come back anytime with questions or to ask a priest in confession.

Father and Daughter

Another very natural yet powerful teaching opportunity is a father taking his daughter on a “date.” This can be something very simple such as taking her out to lunch or for ice cream. What happens when a father does this is very important and occurs completely apart from any explicit lesson. In fact, it is probably better if the father does not try to teach or cover any particular agenda. The mere occasion of taking his daughter out communicates to her that she is valuable and loveable and that she deserves to be treated with dignity. Later on, when she begins to date, she will judge men by how well he lives up to her image of her father. When a young man asks her out on a date, she will know what to expect from him because she has seen the gentlemanly way her father has treated her when he took her out. The partnership between Heights faculty and parents truly enables us to work together in this wonderful conspiracy for the good which is The Heights School. We will continue to strive to do the best possible job in teaching and mentoring your sons. If the boys see how much parents value learning, assisted by the particular leadership of the father in this area, our work to help educate your sons will be much more effective.