"Train children in the right way and, when old, they will not stray."
- Proverbs 22:6
The central and most challenging function of the family is the responsibility of parents to raise their children to be good people and good Christians. It is far more important than the goal of so many families in our affluent society – to maximize their income and increase their level of comfort.
The greatest legacy parents can leave their children is not a pile of cash, but a devotion to that which is eternal – the way of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Being a good parent is not an easy task. Parents should provide religious and moral formation to their preschoolers and ensure that their school-age children receive systematic formation in those areas. They need to help children see the true value of material things, use the media appropriately, and with discernment, enrol them in a good school and oversee that schooling, and also provide sexual education.
Good parents will monitor their children's hobbies and friends, and help them resist negative peer pressure. They will encourage their children to develop their personal vocation, one that integrates the child's interests, talents and faith in God.
At the end of the day, the parent will respect the child's freedom. Proverbs 22:6 is an encouragement to parents to raise their children properly. It is not a guarantee from God that if the parents do their job well, the child will follow the right path in life.
Good parenting is a key to a good society. Society benefits when parents raise their children to love God, act morally, and shun consumerism and sexual temptation. But even if all parents do well – and not all do – there will still be crime and immorality. The effects of original sin are not easily overcome.
Grave problems arise for society when the state comes to think it can do a better job of rearing children than parents are doing. The government may have access to the latest research and may be able to set and enforce standards (Don't count on it!), but it can never replace one thing.
The government will never love your child. The government may respect your child and his or her rights. But it will not love the child nor will it pass on the parents' values and wisdom.
That's why the Compendium says, "The family has a completely original and irreplaceable role in raising children" (n. 239).
The family, says the Church's Charter of the Rights of the Family, constitutes "a community of love and solidarity, which is uniquely suited to teach and transmit cultural, ethical, social, spiritual and religious values, essential for the development and well-being of its own members and of society."
In the United States, the debate over the responsibility for child-rearing crystallized last year with the publication of Senator Rick Santorum's book, It Takes a Family. Santorum wrote in response to Senator Hilary Clinton's It Takes a Village (to raise a child).
While Catholic teaching emphasizes the primary role of the family, it does not exclude a secondary role for state-sponsored agencies. "Parents are the first educators, not the only educators, of their children," says the Compendium.
"Parents have the right to choose the formative tools that respond to their convictions and to seek those means that will help them best to fulfill their duty as educators" (n. 240).
The Code of Canon Law suggests that schools are one of the "formative tools" on which parents might choose to rely in the upbringing of their children.
But the Compendium is clear that even schools should be seen as an instrument of the parents, not the state. It quotes a Vatican instruction which says, "Whenever the state lays claim to an educational monopoly, it oversteps its rights and offends justice" (n. 241).
Nevertheless, government has an important role in supporting the nurture of children. It is the vehicle through which the community strives to enrich the intellectual and social background of the disadvantaged.
When governments slash welfare rates and programs for the poor in order to cut taxes, society inevitably pays a heavy cost a few years down the line. Government efforts to eradicate child poverty and its effects are essential to the common good.
Children are a great gift and should be treated with utmost dignity. Too many social policy decisions today reflect the assumption that children can overcome almost any neglect or indignity in their upbringing, while adults must be coddled and have their every desire accommodated. Sometimes, conversely, parents try to meet their children's every desire.
What society really needs are parents who strive to raise children with strong religious and moral character and a "village" which supports parents in that task. It's not easy to be a good parent. But our society would be stronger if the village helped, not hindered, them in their efforts.