The Catechetical Review - Communicating Christ for a New Evangelization

Catholic Schools — Building Support for Parents from Catholic Schools

Authored by Clare Kilbane in Issue #10.3 of Catechetical Review

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Parents in a car dropping off their daughter at schoolTeachers, administrators, and others working in Catholic schools are devoted to their students. They want what is best for them. This is why they will want to increase the variety and level of support offered to parents. Doing so will not only help mothers and fathers fulfill their responsibilities to their children but also help the school fulfill its own obligations—both to those whom they serve directly and to the Church and her mission.

The Church consistently affirms the importance of the family. In Lumen Gentium, Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, we are told that “the family is, so to speak, the domestic church. In it, parents should, by their word and example, be the first preachers of the faith to their children.”[1] The Council also teaches that “the family is, as it were, the primary mother and nurse of this education. There, the children, in an atmosphere of love, more easily learn the correct order of things.”[2]

Yet, the family is not merely important to those within it but to all of society as “the original cell of social life,” given how “authority, stability, and a life of relationships within the family constitute the foundations for freedom, security, and fraternity within society” (CCC 2207). Indeed, “the family is the community in which, from childhood, one can learn moral values, begin to honor God, and make good use of freedom. Family life is an initiation into life in society” (CCC 2207). However, parents benefit from the buttressing of the Catholic school, which, as part of the Church, ought to partner with parents in fulfilling their responsibility of providing for the Christian education of their children.

Cultivating an Awareness of and Empathy for the Situation of Parents

The fact that parenting has been a normal part of human existence across history makes it easy to forget the magnitude of its importance. Even educators and school administrators who are parents themselves may not consciously appreciate how significant parenting is, nor how much it demands. They also may not be aware of the various factors undermining parents’ efforts and how much impact even a slight increase in a school’s support for them might have. Although there are already many duties and interests vying for the time of education professionals, bolstering families is a powerful investment—one that is not only appropriate to their professional vocation but also crucial to their Christian vocation as ministers in the Church.

The first step in enhancing ministry to parents is developing an appreciation for the demands placed on parents today. Doing so allows educators, especially those new to the profession, to become more aware of what their students’ mothers and fathers experience outside the school day. It also helps school staff at all levels to listen to individual parents more attentively and to respond to them with greater empathy and charity. Although the situation of parents would seem obvious, it is worth bringing to mind some key considerations.

Though unquestionably rewarding and significant, the work of parenting does not often feel this way. It is physically and mentally taxing, involves countless selfless acts, and has responsibilities that extend around the clock, day in and out, for decades. In fact, there’s so much required of a parent that Salary.com determined the annual compensation for a person performing the work of an “at home” mother in 2021 would be more than $180,000![3]

At a minimum, according to the state, parenting involves supervising, feeding, clothing, housing, and educating a child, as well as attending to their physical and psychological protection and health. But parenting is certainly more than this. If it seeks to form a whole person—including their physical, psychological, intellectual, moral, and spiritual dimensions—then effective parenting also involves emotional care and nurturing as well as discipline and the inculcation of values and a religious worldview. Catholic parenting involves even more. The Church teaches that “through the grace of the sacrament of marriage, parents receive the responsibility and privilege of evangelizing their children. Parents should initiate their children at an early age into the mysteries of the faith of which they are the ‘first heralds’ for their children. They should associate them from their tenderest years with the life of the Church” (CCC 2225).

Of course, all aspects of parenting are complexified because every child is unique, and parents must respond to each dynamically as they grow and change, no matter how many children they happen to be parenting. Making it increasingly complicated is the fact that the efforts of parenting must be coordinated among two or more people, and in the case of single parenting it is almost exclusively borne by one.

Modern parents experience some special struggles. Though conveniences such as cars and dishwashers have made some tasks easier, others are more difficult. Keeping children safe from bullying, pornography, and other dangers is ceaseless and more arduous in our technological age. Many parents also find that raising their children according to their personal values is also harder, with young people’s exposure to the diverse views and values pervading the culture nearly unavoidable. In addition, the costs associated with providing for children’s material and educational needs have risen, along with parents’ work hours and stress levels.

When dealing with all this, parents today generally have less assistance to draw on than those of past generations. Fewer can rely on the support that might be gained from living in family support networks. Those with the highest education levels are most likely to be in this situation: only 4 out of 10 adults with post-graduate degrees (45%) and 48% of those with a bachelor’s degree live within an hour’s drive of extended family members.[4] They also are less likely to have a strong network of friends[5] and neighborhood connections than in past generations.[6] And there are more single parents as well, with one quarter of children in the US under the age of 18 living with a single parent.[7] Parents also lack support from the culture, which offers less guidance to help them understand their duties and how to fulfill them. When it does, the advice can be inconsistent and can even contradict parents’ beliefs. All this leaves parents with not only less support but greater confusion and anxiety. In short, it is at the same time both harder for parents to know what to do and to do it effectively.

All of these reasons contribute to why so many parents were struggling before the disruption of the Covid-19 pandemic. However, their troubles appear to have only multiplied and worsened in its wake. Over the last few years, many parents have lost loved ones or seen their significant relationships fracture in some way. A large percentage of parents are dealing with employment transitions, including job changes and unemployment. Along with these, they have endured sometimes severe adjustments to their income and financial stability. Others continue their work, but in a more competitive and stressful environment. Still others have transitioned to “remote work” situations where, though still drawing a salary, they have lost a valuable connection to community and companionship with other adults. Is it any wonder that the mental health of parents is suffering? A recent study conducted by Harvard’s Graduate School of Education showed that parents’ mental health difficulties exceeded those of teens, with parents reporting increased rates of anxiety (20% of mothers and 15% of fathers) and depression (16% of mothers and 10% of fathers).[8]

Given all this, it is not surprising that many parents cannot or do not live up to their responsibilities, leaving their children’s care to be assumed by relatives, family associates, or the state. The recognized shortcomings of these parents have contributed to a gradual erosion of societal respect for the distinctive role they occupy for their children. Increasingly, parents are considered “just another person” in young people’s lives. To illustrate: in many public schools, in an effort to be inclusive and remove the stigma for students who are not being raised by their parents, it is common to refer to the adults raising children as “guardians” and “caregivers.”

More and more often, school policies intended to protect children from the harmful influences of parents (which in some cases is warranted) are siphoning parental authority and undermining their rights. This is evident in the cases when school professionals actively withhold information from parents about their children, sometimes even to the point of excluding parents from involvement in decisions that affect their child. Young people themselves are also becoming increasingly confused about the influence and importance of parents, in part because today’s youth are part of the first generation that can simply turn to Google for answers. Over half of 500 children in a survey conducted in the UK indicated that they would google the answer to a question before asking a parent—leading some to wonder if a growing number of children doubt their need for parents at all![9]

The Catholic School’s Response to the Needs of Parents

Catholic schools are in a perfect position to respond to the needs of parents in powerful and important ways that will positively affect them, their children, and the larger culture. The support parents so sorely require need not involve large-scale or resource-intensive efforts. Instead, it can be catalyzed through small but regular shifts or “tweaks” in the personal interactions and current practices that are already central to the work of schools. The following are some suggestions for how to better support Catholic school parents.

Listen to Parents and Families

Parents and teachers already interact a good bit through parent-teacher conferences, incidental correspondence, interactions during school drop off and pick up, and more. School professionals who bring extra attentiveness to these interactions and strive to listen more carefully and professionally to parents’ experiences and needs can foster a sense of connection and make a big impact. The respect and caring parents feel when they are “heard” will remind them of their importance and the school’s partnership in and support of their efforts.

Helping a parent may be easier than one thinks. In many cases, what educators learn while listening can be effortlessly addressed to make a parent’s situation better or address a problem. Often, they may find that they can quite simply share a resource parents do not know about or connect them with a service or network of families already in the community that offers aid or a connection.

When possible, practicing more formal types of listening is also a helpful means for collaborating with parents. Needs assessments and efforts to seek out information through focus groups or intentional interviewing might be used to both identify needs in a school community and locate resources and ways to address them that already exist. In these cases, rather than meeting the need itself, the school helps “connect the dots” so stronger, more universal networks of care are developed. For example, a school may be able to create a resource sharing space (e.g., a bulletin board or a website) that helps parents, grandparents, and extended family members connect. This would allow, for instance, those who need after-school or weekend child care to more easily connect with those who need additional income.

With both types of listening, special efforts should be made to seek out and be receptive to parents who might be considered “on the margins,” including those who are single parents, new to the community, or going through times of crisis.

Cultivate Communities of Care

One of the reasons people choose Catholic schools is to find belonging and a community that shares their values. Within these already strong communities, school administrators, pastors, and others in leadership can challenge each community member to live Christian values more fully. Instead of being characterized simply by their festival and fish fry, a Catholic school can be known for modeling the love of Jesus Christ within the community and beyond. In such an environment, all are expected to do their part to reflect the Catholic mission of the school and become ever more fully a community of connection and care. Therefore, administrators, teachers, and staff must be intentionally and continually challenged to live Gospel values and embody divine love to all and, in doing so, provide parents with personal support.

The school plays a crucial role in setting up expectations for supportive behaviors and interactions that help parents. Administrators and staff might need to formally, explicitly, and regularly articulate that all newcomers must be welcomed (and what doing so looks like); that school community members should seek to consistently support one another (not merely swoop in if there’s a crisis); and that they should live out the social teachings of the Church within the school community (not just beyond it through fundraisers and service projects).

 For example, a coach or “team parent” could make sure that no family faces a financial barrier to participation in a sport, that all participants have transportation to practice and competitions, and that families feel they are an important part of the team. Practically, this could look like eliminating unnecessary costs (e.g., professional team photos or personalized gear), setting up carpools to strategically share responsibilities, and addressing unstated and unrealistic expectations for participation (e.g., attending every game, putting on an elaborate sports banquet, etc.). Everyone, whatever their family looks like, will benefit from the fruits of this effort.

Improving these existing structures is a good place to begin helping schools become more distinctively Catholic communities that support parents better. As these initiatives succeed, the school can then consider how new and more extensive efforts might be made to build stronger networks of care, giving greater support for the work of parenting in a Catholic framework.

Support Parents with Distinctively Catholic Educational Opportunities

While schools should support parents where needs are felt most keenly, they should not stop there. It is also important to provide education that helps parents understand and grow in their role and increase their effectiveness. Every Catholic school should commit to sharing Church teachings about the sacred role of parents and their responsibilities as the primary educator of their children in a sensitive and pastoral way.

This means, however, that they may need to gently but firmly “push back” on notions parents may have absorbed from the culture, such as that they can “outsource” responsibility or abdicate their authority to the school. For example, schools can equip parents to provide education in human sexuality themselves rather than expecting it to be done at school. They can also work with the parish, diocese, and other organizations to help parents learn their faith and to properly catechize their children, even sharing research on effective Catholic parenting as well as practical resources and guides.

Supporting the education of parents need not be a monumental task in order for schools to have an impact. “Seeding” school newsletters with brief, “just in time” lessons from Church teaching can have a powerful and cumulative effect. Existing programming can be modified to focus more on the goal of parent education as well. Likewise, from the time a student is admitted, the school can consistently present proper respect for parents in how it addresses them and holds them accountable for fulfilling their responsibilities (while providing them needed support).

Aid Parents in Forming Intentional Communities to Support Their Growth

Parents grow into their role and obligations, and they benefit from community support when striving to do so. Although all members of the family are called to virtuous living, fathers and mothers “have a grave responsibility to give good example to their children” (CCC 2223). This means personally and consistently modeling the virtues and fostering them in their children as well. Parents, as the first to proclaim the faith to their children, are called to evangelize them in the home, where children learn to live in Christian community (CCC 2224, 2225). Parents also “have the mission of teaching their children to pray and to discover their vocation” from God (CCC 2226). To do all this successfully, parents gain much from communal support.

With only a little effort, schools might shift some of their present activities to scaffold parents’ growth in these ways. For example, the parents’ association or other groups might, with a little encouragement and direction from a school administrator, offer a regular opportunity for parents to discuss these Catholic responsibilities and how to fulfill them, or tap a parent leader to initiate an “accountability group” where parents could form bonds and accompany one another as they grow into the challenges of parenting and virtue.

Remember the Power of Prayer

In addition to these other supports, schools should not forget prayer and what it can offer parents and families. As prayer is “the raising of one’s mind and heart to God or requesting of good things from God” (CCC 2559, quoting St. Thérèse of Lisieux), schools can regularly and explicitly pray as a community that God bless parents in their sacred roles and that families can grow in holiness through ordinary, daily life together. School staff can also encourage parents to strengthen their personal prayer lives and to expand their ability to lead their children in prayer, sharing resources to aid in this whenever possible. Lastly, mothers and fathers should be invited into the prayer life of the school community through efforts like encouraging them to attend school liturgies and even joining as a parent community to pray together for one another, their children, and the school.

Pope Francis, in his apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia recognized the “importance of Catholic schools,” noting that they “play a vital role in assisting parents in their duty to raise their children” (no. 279). Schools do well to recognize how the object of this assistance is not merely the children, but also their parents. By listening to parents and families, cultivating communities of care, supporting them with distinctively Catholic educational opportunities, initiating intentional communities for growth, and remembering the importance of prayer, schools can strengthen both their school and all those (parents and children) associated with it.

Clare Kilbane, PhD, is a faculty member affiliated with the McGrath Institute for Church Life at the University of Notre Dame, IN. She is an experienced Catholic school educator and a mother.

Notes


[1] Second Vatican Council, Lumen Gentium, no. 11.

[2] Second Vatican Council, Gaudium et Spes, no. 61.

[3] “How Much Is a Mom Really Worth? The Amount May Surprise You,” Salary.com, https://www.salary.com/articles/how-much-is-a-mom-really-worth-the-amount-may-surprise-you/.

[4] Kiley Hurst, “More Than Half of Americans Live within an Hour of Extended Family,” Pew Research Center, May 2022, https://www.pewresearch.org/short-reads/2022/05/18/more-than-half-of-americans-live-within-an-hour-of-extended-family/.

[5] Kelly Burch, “Staying Social as a Parent Can Be Tricky. Here's How Moms and Dads Pull It Off,” Business Insider, July 2021.

[6] Thomas O’Rourke, “The Decline of Trust and Neighborliness,” Institute for Family Studies, October 2023.

[7] Stephanie Kramer, “U.S. Has World’s Highest Rate of Children Living in Single-Parent Households,” Pew Research Center, December 2019, https://www.pewresearch.org/short-reads/2019/12/12/u-s-children-more-likely-than-children-in-other-countries-to-live-with-just-one-parent/.

[8] Richard Weissbourd, et al., “Caring for the Caregivers: The Critical Link between Parent and Teen Mental Health,” Harvard Graduate School of Education, Making Caring Common Project, June 2023, https://mcc.gse.harvard.edu/reports/caring-for-the-caregivers.

[9] Hannah Richardson, “Pupils Ask Search Engine Ahead of Parents, Survey Says,” BBC, March 2012.

This article originally appeared on pages 30-32 in the printed edition.

Art Credit: Adobe Stock


This article is from The Catechetical Review (Online Edition ISSN 2379-6324) and may be copied for catechetical purposes only. It may not be reprinted in another published work without the permission of The Catechetical Review by contacting [email protected]

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