The role of the mother in education

Originally published in the November 2009 of The Angelus magazine.


The role of the mother in education

By Michael J. Rayes

I owe a debt to my mother. Virtues go easily from mothers into the hearts of their children, who willingly do what they see being done.” (Cure of Ars)

Diapers. Lunch. The telephone.

Motherhood sometimes seems marked by the tedium of changing diapers, the exasperation of preparing lunch, and the frustration of not enjoying a phone conversation because the baby began crying. But amid the clamor of domestic life, Catholic mothers can really find peace of soul knowing they are doing God’s will bringing up souls for Heaven. Raising children is rewarding and fulfilling work that sanctifies the mother and helps her grow in virtue. Each stage in the development of children calls for a different maternal approach that draws on her strengths.

Early childhood development: birth through age four

The important consideration during these years is the mother must be home for the children. Pope Pius XI wrote that civilized order itself is in danger “if even the mother of the family, to the great harm of the home, is compelled to go forth and seek a living by her own labor.”[1]

Children at this age experience psychological development more from people than their external environment. There is also very little adult memory of events from before two years of age—usually no memory at all. This is because the baby’s brain changes dramatically fast. PET scans show so much brain growth from birth to 12 months that a one year old’s brain looks more like an adult’s than a baby’s.[2] The important thing at this stage of life is for the mother to spend a lot of time with her toddlers and preschoolers.

The critical thing is a large quantity of time, not “quality time.” Lethargic as well as hyperactive mothers will do equally well if they are simply available for their little children. The toddler will sometimes come to the mother and spend four or five minutes leaning on her. The child needs this reassurance. Then the child runs off to play again. The mother must be in the house for this to happen. It can be harmful for the child’s development when the mother works outside the home. Stability is a good thing at this age, but even if the family moves every year, the presence and availability of the stay-at-home mother will naturally mitigate the effects of moving.

A recent study confirms what Pius XI taught almost 80 years ago. Researchers investigated the effects of poverty on child development. They discovered that “among the protective factors that made these children more resilient, a secure attachment with their caregivers was most important.”[3] In other words, create an emotionally secure and stable family life, and your children will not be affected by shut-off notices and old, used furniture.

Desire to please the mother

Children before age seven respond very well to the mother and wish to please her. Use this to your advantage. You can come right out and say you are not happy with their behavior. Make it personal. This works with a 5-year old; it has almost no effect on a 16-year old.

This desire to please you as the mother also means that your moods greatly affect them. Their emotional security hinges upon your own joy or sorrow each day. But deeper emotional instability in the mother has an even greater negative impact. While studies show that a few months of post-partum depression has no lasting effect on the child, brain researchers showed that lingering depression directly affects the child’s ability to learn and respond to stimulation. The left frontal area of the brain showed reduced activity in 40% of babies in a study with depressed mothers. This area of the brain is associated with outward emotion. However, nine out of ten babies with non-depressed mothers showed a high level of left frontal brain activity.[4]

The age at which the baby is at greatest risk of “later behavioral problems and cognitive impairment” from maternal depression is six to eighteen months. Lingering depression should be treated, first in sacramental confession; then, listening to the counsels of one’s pastor; and finally through professional counseling if the priest advises it.

Mothers are very busy dealing with their small children. God gives them the grace and strength to deal with their families, but they have to ask for these blessings. God wants you as the mother to feed and care for your children, but also be their first teacher.[5]

Children should learn the alphabet from their mother because she is the preschool teacher. Preschoolers also learn how to behave at Mass from their parents. Two-year olds are capable of sitting and kneeling still, without turning around or excessive wriggling, from the Prayers at the Foot of the Altar through the Kyrie. Three-year olds can almost make it through a Sunday Mass. Four-year olds can behave through an entire Sunday sung Mass or a Low Mass with a sermon.

But parents have to expect this behavior and consistently reinforce it. Colorful religious books, strategic seating in the pew next to a parent, and corrections of dangling arms or sliding legs should do it. Spankings also reinforce the importance of remaining quiet in church, but use these sparingly, go outside to do them, and only after a warning. I withhold doughnuts after Mass for bad behavior. I keep the doughnut-deprived child in the chapel after Mass to say prayers and practice kneeling upright, instead of letting her bawl while watching her siblings eating doughnuts.

Boundaries

Two and three-year olds need to learn boundaries. They are beginning to have strong wills and they cannot control them. The mother must be firm and consistent. “No” means no, regardless of the drama of the child’s temper tantrum. The father’s role is very important in providing this firmness, both by his own firmness and by supporting his wife.

A very critical component of healthy early childhood development is eliminating the television. Numerous studies reveal the negative effects of TV viewing. Both “good” and “bad” television shows contribute to a child’s lack of focus because the scenes change every 30 seconds. In an article I wrote earlier this year for The Latin Mass magazine, I mentioned a study demonstrating that “TV decreased play’s intensity and cut by half the amount of time children focused on a given toy.” This study was done on a TV show playing in the background, not a TV program the kids were actually watching.[6]

All through childhood, the mother should unfold the correct attitude toward work. Dr. Rudolf Allers, a pioneering Catholic psychologist, wrote that, "Parents should make the child early acquainted with the nature of work….The quite small child can put away his toys…and can easily be taught that these little duties are his work.” Rather than the child reacting to an overburdening parental expectation of perfection or, at the other end of the spectrum, a feeling of constantly being in the way, the correct training in duty “helps to lessen the distance between the child and adults…he knows himself already to be a fellow-worker, and grows up in a spirit of willing industry.”[7]

Pre-first Holy Communion years: kindergarten through second grade

When it comes to Kindergarten, there are two healthy options: a traditional Catholic school or homeschooling. It is far healthier for the child at the age of 5 or 6 to continue learning from his mother at home than to spend hours each day grouped with neighborhood kids in a public-school setting. A Catholic school, on the other hand, must have the last end of man (eternal salvation) as its main objective, according to Pope Pius XI.[8]

By the first or second grade, the child learns to read. This unfolds a new world for them. The mother’s role transitions from a lot of direct action-based teaching in preschool, to supervised learning from books in elementary school. Catholic children who hardly watch any TV will naturally become voracious readers. They also need board games and fun activities. There should be absolutely no video games. Instead, the child must have an accurate portrayal of reality. An occasional non-violent cartoon with no commercials (like the older Winnie the Pooh cartoons) is better than an interactive video game. They learn more from the game, but this is part of the problem. They crave learning, and this leads to gradually more computer time over the years, which leads to Internet usage, modern thinking, and pornography—in your beautiful Catholic family. Nip it in the bud.

First Holy Communion

The mother should actively prepare her children for First Holy Communion. In my work coordinating catechism and sacramental preparation classes, I’ve run across two types of parents. One type wishes to prepare their children almost from their fifth birthday. The other type waits until the children are teenagers. Clearly, waiting too long is not good, but preparing a child who is barely 5 years old is different. Some children are perceptive and precocious (as Pope St. Pius X noted himself); some are not. The best answer is to communicate with your husband and come to a mutual decision. Ask your pastor and First Holy Communion teacher for advice. Most children should enter a First Holy Communion class after their sixth birthday.

The mother should be heavily involved, teaching the child the necessary prayers during the week and talking about Jesus and Mary. When your child’s First Holy Communion is two months away, talk about the Host every week. Ask them questions about Confession and make sure they know the procedure. Talk about the difference between consecrated and unconsecrated hosts a couple weeks before receiving the Sacrament. Your husband should also support you and review material with the child, but the mother is typically more involved in early childhood education.

Elementary education: 8 to 12-years old

By the time your child reaches third grade, around 8 years old, your role as the mother is to direct and supplement what your child learns through books, lessons, and projects.

Most families should use a brick-and-mortar school at this age instead of homeschooling, but homeschooling by the mother will still be effective as long as the mother is consistent. This is especially true of melancholic girls, but children of any temperament can be homeschooled if the environment is consistent. The husband’s support is absolutely necessary. Without his engaging support or at least positive tolerance of the homeschool environment, it will fail.

It is easier to homeschool girls—and it is more effective. Boys, especially as they grow into the junior high age, require male teachers as role models and task-masters. The mother’s role as the primary teacher becomes less effective as the boy grows older. Fr. Thomas Hughes wrote of traditional Jesuit education and the role of the male teacher. In his words,

It is indeed an eventful moment, when a man becomes a teacher of others. They may be boys. But, whether they are boys merely blossoming into life, or youths on the verge of manhood, the teacher of them has to be a teacher of men; and perhaps more so with the boy than with the man, inasmuch as his control of the younger student has to be so much the more complete."[9]

Why is this control of a boy so important? According to Fr. Hughes, it is to “form a whole human nature, which is still pliable and docile.”

The role of the mother for her 8-12 year old child is to continue helping with reading, writing, math, and other academic subjects, whether she is the primary teacher or the child has another teacher. The mother should be the first person to whom the child turns when help is needed with homework. The mother also continues her active role in catechetical instruction. Religion must be taught every year; it should not be dropped between the First Holy Communion and confirmation years. It can be taught in question-answer format (as with the Baltimore Catechism), Bible stories, learning about the Mass, and the lives of the saints.

The mother should encourage and exhort her 8 to 12-year old children to participate at Mass. She needs to communicate regularly with her husband regarding modeling behavior at Mass (kneeling properly), using a hand missal, prayers after Mass, other devotions in the home, and, of course, service at the altar for boys. Learning to serve Mass brings them closer to God and the Church while teaching them to be men at the same time.

A stable home environment at this age range is critical. Try not to move from house to house when you have school-age children. They need domestic stability to build a foundation of unchanging metaphysical truths upon which they can depend. They learn more by example and environment than rote learning from books–although book learning is important!

Confirmation

Both mother and father should prepare the child for confirmation. The mother may have done most of the work preparing for First Holy Communion; now the father should do just as much work as the mother quizzing the child over necessary prayers and material for Confirmation. However, parents should resist the temptation to pick their child’s confirmation sponsor. Let the child select his own sponsor; this builds confidence and helps the child learn that his Catholic Faith is his, not simply another grim chore in which he only participates to please his parents. The Catechism of the Council of Trent teaches that confirmation should not be delayed until adolescence;[10] if a traditionalist bishop is not available before the child turns 13 or 14, strongly consider driving or flying to another town to get your child confirmed in the traditional rite.

As the child develops, he gradually perceives the father’s authority as greater than the mother’s. Children are slightly less motivated to make their mothers happy as they reach their pre-teens. Yet the transition to adolescence awakens in the child the desire and duty to master new responsibilities. This is especially true of the oldest boy or oldest girl. This becomes a balancing act for the mother. You want to encourage this sense of duty, but not discourage the child by putting too much pressure on him. Psychologist and author Kevin Leman wrote that oldest children who were expected to be “perfect” can lead very sloppy, lethargic lives as adults. “Slobs and poor students,” wrote Dr. Leman, “are often discouraged perfectionists who have given up trying because it hurts too much to fail.”[11]

Early adolescence: the junior high years (ages 13-15)

The natural passions rage at this stage of development. The mother needs to be consistent and calm in the face of the raging emotions of her young teen. St. Thomas Aquinas outlined these “irascible” passions 800 years ago in the Summa Theologica. School administrators may not recognize Thomism but they sure know anger, daring, fear, hope, and despair (St. Thomas’ list of passions) when they deal with junior high students.

A consistent domestic environment remains just as important at this stage as when the child was in elementary school. Even if you move, the parental approach should be the same and disciplinary boundaries need to be in place. (And try not to enroll them in Secular Valley Godless Public Middle School.)

Mastery of self

Two important considerations should be mentioned. The young teen should work on something and become good at it: A game of sports, a musical instrument, or even a culinary pursuit should be undertaken. The child needs to struggle in some area for years and progressively become better until he or she masters it. Football, the trumpet, baseball, the clarinet, ice skating, and preparing a five-course meal all have things in common for the young adolescent: They require consistent practice, training from an experienced adult, and they teach the adolescent confidence to take on adult duties. If this confidence is not learned, the young adult may become emotionally unbalanced.

The second consideration is that homeschooling at this age is not very effective. The mother cannot teach a 14-year old by sitting with him, going over an assignment, and then leaving him alone for 20 minutes, as she did with her 7-year old. The young teen no longer automatically does what his mother says. He questions her wisdom with his undisciplined intelligence and revolts against her authority with his uncontrolled passions.

The young adolescent male needs male teachers along with the mother, either in a brick-and-mortar school, or by outside tutoring along with the father taking a very active role as the primary teacher. Most fathers can follow up on homework assignments and spend time each night backing up the mother.

The young adolescent female needs both male and female teachers as role models in her life, in addition to her parents, so she learns that ladylike behavior and virtue are important concepts in themselves—not simply because Mom said so.

Teens rebel. They question. The goal is to channel this questioning instead of suppressing it. These days, they could question the scope of government, the conciliar Church, road design, American macroeconomics, and other unquestioned aspects of modern life. But they should learn from other adult role models that the Catholic religion is the one and only true Faith given us by Christ Himself. The Faith is not simply an idiosyncratic preference of the child’s parents that must be cast aside if the child is to express his own individuality. This, sadly, is too often the reason why young adults stop attending the traditional Latin Mass.

Charity in raising children

St. John Bosco once said that charity must animate all one’s work with children. His method was to persuade children to want to be good on their own. When your 13 to 15-year old children see that discipline is for their own benefit and that it is actually fair, they will respond much better. But this requires a lot of patience on the part of the teacher and the parent. Pray to your children’s guardian angels to intercede for you.

Don Bosco also noted that “if a disciplinarian is charitable, he can be as firm as he wants.” He spoke of the respect that teachers must have for their students as baptized Catholics. This approach was markedly different than other schoolmasters at the time. He demanded obedience and constantly encouraged the children to behave, but he put up with their natural boisterousness. Visitors noticed his personal rigor and attention to a strict schedule, but also a lot of yelling and running outside the classroom.

Later adolescence: ages 16-19

When your children reach 16-19 years old, your motherly role is somewhat diminished. You give advice when the teen needs to make a decision, but you should not wash your teen’s laundry. He should have learned to do that already. Mothers with more than one teen should almost never have to wash a dish. Her job is to follow up in the kitchen and do the minute details the teens usually miss (or remind the teens to do them), such as wiping down counters and polishing the silverware.

Household management

Your role is now to direct the household. You are more of a manager than a worker. Teens and pre-teens are capable of work and it’s good for them. A half-hour to 45 minutes of household chores per day is not unreasonable, even if they have homework or sports practice. Your maternal function is to remind the teens of their duties, thank and praise them for jobs completed, and to warn them of consequential lost privileges if they shirk their duties. This punishment should usually come from the father.

Absolute boundaries still exist. There are moral and behavioral norms in your family that must be followed no matter the age of the child. The child should fully understand by age 14 that moral boundaries come from God, not his parents. By age 16 the child needs to comprehend that he is a member of his community, his parish, and the Church Militant, as well as his own family. I do not recommend homeschooling teenagers unless there is a very good reason for it.

Teenage boys, no matter how virtuous, should absolutely never have an opportunity to be alone with a younger sister, cousin, or niece. Never have a teenage boy baby sit anyone unless he is part of a group of baby sitters.

Role of the father

Teens need and respond to the father. By age 16 they have much less respect for the mother’s authority and are not motivated to please her. The relationship with the mother changes; teens will eventually develop more respect for her as they grow into adulthood. In the meantime the teen should build a strong relationship with his or her father by participating in activities with him (such as learning how to drive). The father must also back up the mother and not tolerate any disrespect toward his wife. His positive comments about the mother of the family will help maintain a strong bond between the teenage children and their mother.

Teen duties

By the time a child is 18 or 19 years old, he or she should know how to run and operate all the systems in a modern household: the dishwasher, clothes washer and dryer, vacuum, stove top and oven, unclogging a toilet, changing air-conditioning filters, general cleaning, driving a car, checking the oil, mowing the lawn, and so forth. These should be part of a gradual progression of duties from, for example, folding the towels when the child was 6 years old, to vacuuming the carpet as a 10-year old, to running the dishwasher at age 13, and so on. A few broken dishes over the years is well worth your maternal angst, as you realize the dishes (and newly pink undershirts from washing colors with whites) were sacrificed in your quest to raise self-reliant, mature ladies and gentlemen. Your true goal is to return the souls back to God, who temporarily entrusted them to your motherly care.

Conclusion

To form well-adjusted children to know, love and serve God, the mother must:

  • Provide a loving, nurturing, stable environment.
  • Ensure boundaries are consistent and aligned with Church teaching.
  • Recognize that children have different needs as they grow. Many mothers are too permissive with young children, and too restrictive with teens.

The most important thing a mother can do for her children is to love her husband. All the care and nurturing in the world will be shattered the day you announce your divorce to your children.

Manhood can be summarized in one word: sacrifice. Womanhood is summed up in another word: submission.[12] When men sacrifice for their families and women submit to their husbands, harmony ensues and the children thus have the stable environment they crave.


Michael J. Rayes is a lifelong Catholic, a husband, and father of seven. His new book on making children behave at Mass will be published by Rafka Press.


Footnotes

1 Pope Pius XI, Casti Connubii, Dec. 31, 1930, no.120.

2 Rima Shore, Rethinking the Brain (New York: Families and Work Institute, 2003) p.21.

3 Shore, Rethinking the Brain, p.46.

4 Shore, Rethinking the Brain, p.39.

5 Pius XI, Divini Illius Magistri, Dec. 31, 1929, no.32.

6 Greg Toppo, “Even background TV can impact kids’ attention” (USA Today online: July 15, 2008) §.3.

7 Rudolph Allers, MD, Understanding Children and Preparing Them for Life (Fort Collins, CO: Roman Catholic Books) p.11.

8 Pius XI, Divini Illius Magistri, Dec. 31, 1929, no.18.

9 Rev. Thomas Hughes, S.J., Loyola and the Educational System of the Jesuits (Ridgefield, CT: Roger A. McCaffrey Publishing) pp.175-176.

10 McHugh & Callan, trans., The Catechism of the Council of Trent (Rockford, IL: TAN Books and Publishers, Inc., 1982, orig. publ. 1923) pp.207-208.

11 Dr. Kevin Leman, The Birth Order Book (New York: Dell Publishing, 1985) p.217.

12 Cf. Ephesians 5:24-25 & 33; also Rev. George A. Kelly, The Catholic Marriage Manual (New York: Random House, 1958) pp.21-25.