The Family as the Cradle of Education

Dr. Evelyn L. Billings
Printed with Permission

[Paper given at the Australian Family Association Sixth Annual Conference at Melbourne in July 1990.]

I would like to thank the members of the Australian Family Association for the privilege of addressing this distinguished audience about the family being the cradle of education. I feel that, as the result of mothering nine children and grandmothering 28 grandchildren and of being the wife to a father and grandfather of them all, I have learnt something about the topic. In summary it is this-that in the cradle there is great activity-not the sort of description one would ordinarily apply to the term "cradle" which conjures up an image of tranquility. That activity as far as education is concerned is very much a two-way process where parents are educated just as much as are the children.

I asked one of our granddaughters aged 15 what she thought about the title to this paper and she said “You learn a lot from each other - the bigger the family the more you learn". It is an interesting remark because it obviously includes in the learning process not only facts but behavioural adaptations to experiences provided by diverse personal ties, something which she appreciated being one of five. It is lacking in the single-child family. As each new child comes into the family the baby works a great change on the other members, particularly the other children. They immediately realize the importance of the baby, what care it needs, what priorities it takes, what demands it makes and how swiftly they are met. Everyone loves the baby, who is teaching them so much about unselfishness, responsibility and love, of needing to pay attention, listen and communicate at all levels.

The Baby - the Professor of Love

The baby learns fast too, and soon realizes that if she cries when she is put down, then one of her brothers and sisters will pick her up again. I heard a man say once, when asked why he was having so many children, that it was in order that the youngest one would not get spoilt! It is a wonderful thing to see a 15-year-old come in from football training with all its rough and tumble and be transformed into a gentle, softly spoken potential father as he picks up his little sister. So few 15-year-old boys have baby sisters these days. They do not know the feel of little fingers in their own big strong hands, hands that needs must be taught to be gentle if they are going to be good men-in so many professions and so necessary in family life. The baby is the Professor of Love in the family.

Of course the baby must learn from her earliest months that she cannot have everything at all times. That can be carried on into toddlership and if not checked one has the makings of a tyrant on one's hands. Here again, things have a tendency to right themselves within a family and tyrannical behaviour is usually dealt with very smartly by other children. Parents very quickly learn to sit back and let things take their course, refraining from too much interference but sometimes needing to intervene in

the preservation of justice. Responding by fighting, which normally goes on between children in a family and which is always a source of annoyance for parents, does have a positive side, for, during the course of adjudicating, the parents learn patience, consistency and fairness and when to insist on just means of reparation. I do not say punishment and in this I agree with Clayton Barbeau, the quite famous counsellor of teenagers in the United States of America. He maintains that punishment smacks of revenge and only proves that the parent is stronger than the child. Maybe good judges have their best formation in the family cradle. I think good politicians do.

The Learning Process

Teaching begins at the beginning. Nature prepares ahead and makes provision for learning. Nervous reflexes develop very early in intra-uterine life and many are directed towards physical well-being. A baby knows how to suck by practicing on his thumb when he is just a few weeks old following conception. He is being prepared for sucking milk from his mother's breast. He is being taught by nature. And natural reflexes develop to help guide him to the nipple as soon as he is born, so that every new-born baby placed against the breast will open his mouth and root around until he finds the nipple. It is called the rooting reflex and is a response to a touch on the side of the face by the breast. Should anyone be so misguided as to push his face around from the other side, he will simply turn towards the side being pushed, his mouth open expectantly. Soon frustration will be evidenced by his crying. This is a lesson for young parents. Babies will not be pushed around, not then, nor when they are teenagers or old folk near the other end of their lives. The baby sucks and the milk flows due to the let down reflex operating through the mother's posterior pituitary gland which liberates the hormone oxytocin. It is not only the baby's sucking which sets this reflex in motion, but also the sound of the hungry cry, the sight of the baby sucking his fist, even the smell of the baby, will cause the ~let down" phenomenon, so close is the physiological relationship between mother and baby. It is closely interwoven with the bonding of mother and baby, with the intense love a mother develops for her baby together with the fierce protective instinct. The 2-year-old beside her knee as she feeds and tends the baby learns all the physiological facts and will often inform the mother what the baby wants. One 3-year-old of our acquaintance leaned forwards to the pew in front of his family during Mass and informed the mother of a crying baby - "he wants a bosom ".

A young baby feeds and empties his bowels. This is another reflex operating, the gastrocolic reflex. The baby cries with discomfort and the mother learns to recognize that cry and changes his nappy. The baby learns to anticipate and enjoy the service. The constant repetition of the routine provides the baby with learning mechanisms from an early age. It is not to be wondered at that if these activities between mother and baby are disrupted, there are some very unhappy consequences. It is one of the major crimes enacted in society today, that babies are cared for in creches and mothers are displaced into the workforce by economic persuasion or perceived scholastic advantage, boredom or simply perverse custom. It is a very good example of unnaturalness. It is paid for by a deep frustration on the part of the mother. That is the heavy stone in the centre of the ripples which spread far and wide in terms of self dissatisfaction, irritability and bad humour. For the baby whose cries are unanswered, or answered late by unfamiliar and constantly changing patterns of attention, we can but guess. He cannot understand, he cannot object, but now he reams by default that he is not being loved. He is being pushed around. He cannot resist. But he will suffer.

A recent article in an American newspaper told of a group of adults who volunteered to go to a hospital for AIDS babies who were orphans or abandoned. They were deprived of mothering and were seen to be suffering from this deprivation. It was found that when a woman attached herself to a particular child and when that child died, her suffering and sense of loss were very great. The authorities therefore decided that women should not have care of one child exclusively, but should move from child to child giving their attentions indiscriminately. It seemed to me that adult women, who could give their services and their hearts to the tiny AIDS victims, could also support their grief and extend their compassion to ensuring a one-to-one relationship with a baby whose only joy in life would be associated with the practical routine of love uninterrupted by different associations. I am sure that if they had known the importance of avoiding the suffering of deprivation by the baby by their breaking of the tie, they would have responded. As is commonly the case, it is the not knowing, the unawareness of the situation that is to blame. The babies cannot demonstrate, only suffer silently and yield to the manipulation of others, who may not be lacking in goodwill, whose only crime is mistakenly believing that ~it is all the same to the baby if he gets fed and is kept clean".

So the baby's own home is his rightful place, and his own mother his desirable companion. In this climate of love, and environment of security, preparation is made for all future learning for the child. "As the twig is bent so the tree will grow." I have always maintained that the teenage battle is won at the pre-school stage.

There is more to say about babies and mothers and more to say to fathers by way of encouraging them to play their part in cherishing their babies. These days we do see many more fathers accepting their role of parents very seriously and this augurs well for the future when their children are going to see them later on as trustworthy and loving confidants. It is not possible for the evil of incest to enter into such a family. If they, the fathers, cannot be assured of an adequate wage in order to enable the mother to stay with their infant children, they can at least try to be adequate fathers. This will involve them in some sacrifice but love is an act of the will and a voluntary acceptance of some expenditure of self. Very ingenious programs have been worked out between conscientious parents, so that one or other is with the children for the greater part of their day. There are some enterprising companies around the world who provide for maternal and paternal leave, with a guarantee of their job back when they return, and provision of employment for mothers with suitable hours to accommodate the needs of the children.

Young children learn a great deal by playing with their parents. Young children should be happy. The naughty child is often an unhappy child-a deprived child. There is one deprivation a child will not suffer silently and that is the deprivation of love. His parents are his world. He wants to be with them. He wants their approval. He wants them to occupy him and listen to him. Young children have a habit of talking incessantly and then when puberty comes they stop talking and ominously start thinking.

A little boy, aged 4, had been particularly naughty one day. He had gone into the garage and found a tin of black paint, covered his hands with it, came inside and proceeded to decorate the walls. His mother, who was particularly preoccupied that day because she was preparing a large dinner party, was exasperated. She administered a sound slap and he enjoyed a good howl. Later that night when she was putting him to bed she said ~you have been a very naughty boy today. Whatever must we do to make you a good boy". He looked at her with wide blue eyes and said, "kisses make me good".

Parents who both work and put small children into creches are often those who get a baby-sitter for the weekends to ~get away from it all". They do not get to know their children who have spent most of their waking hours away from their parents. If they were prepared to answer the natural human needs of their children even up to school age, I believe much good would be accomplished. They would know and be captivated by their children, interested in them as human beings and come to value their contribution to the family.

The Handicapped Child

When into a family a baby comes with special needs, we often see coming out of great disappointment and anguish a special effort and a special love from the parents, particularly from the mother. This child is often seen to be the most beautifully dressed and cared for of all the children, perhaps in a subconscious urge to try and make up for the child's misfortune. The child has a profound effect on the family. Each one is called upon to take part in the suffering, to learn patience, selflessness and endure thoughtless comments from friends or acquaintances or even a rebuke for allowing such a child to be born. Although often the parents accept most of the burden in an effort to spare their other children, inevitably the children will be drawn into fulfilling some of the daily demands. Often it will be required to love this child and seem to receive nothing in return. This is a hard lesson, but a most valuable one and when learned it will have transformed the other children and the parents into wonderful people who know through compassion a Christ-like love. This is the gift of such a child-a child incapable of wilful evil, an angel.

Although every case is different and some handicapped children cannot be looked after at home perhaps because of hyperactive or destructive behaviour, one should think twice before persuading the family to institutionalize the handicapped child. They should be helped to cope. The joy of seeing even slight improvement in such a child is not to be denied the family. Whatever his limitations, the child experiences the love lavished on him and learns by it, and reaches the best of which he is capable and which he will never learn in an institution. Removal of the burden of that child may prove to be a costly deprivation for the parents as well as for the child. This procedure ignores the loving efforts of which they may be capable, and removes the enrichment that often comes when suffering is accepted out of love. It is in physical and human nature to extract the most and the best that is possible. In so doing the giver is not only the family but the special child within the family.

Society has come to be self-indulgent and to exclude the imperfect. This is extended even to people, where special demands do not fit in with special personal plans. The old, the deficient particularly, but also now the baby himself, the one too many, or that which should have been a different sex, are all being looked upon as expendable. People are being persuaded that they should not have to put up with inconvenience or misfortune, and that old people should quietly remove themselves. The message is being clearly picked up by the young, so we see self-indulgence devoid of responsibility resulting in abortion or despair, and suicide, and euthanasia for redundant parents. We might sing with Oliver in the musical of that name, "Where, O where is love"?

In the media there is more and more talk of sterilizing the mentally handicapped. The hidden reason is convenience for the keeper (I could not say carer), not compassion for the afflicted. It is argued that the ~minor" procedure of hysterectomy is not to be compared with the mental trauma of the periodic sight of blood to be born by the retarded girl. This really means that there should be less trouble for the keeper. The added benefit is the removal of the worry about pregnancy. This totally disregards the possibility of abuse and disease when supervision is relaxed for the sterilized handicapped person. Depo-Provera is widely used for deficient girls for the same reason. People who are involved in their care report that the drug has a profound effect on the personalities of these girls suffering this unbelievable assault and they often become cranky and much more difficult to manage. They have neither understanding nor choice. It is only the intact loving family who can accept and deal with this problem. Families should be encouraged and helped, not told that they are incapable of solving the problem, or simply that they have no obligation to suffer the inconvenience.

Irreplaceable Role of Parents

How does one learn? One modern educator's opinion suggests that the best way of teaching anything is to engage the attention of the student to draw them towards knowledge and skills which will satisfy their needs, that is, towards what is attractive to them. As the children grow older they learn quickly and naturally are attracted to things which involve themselves. Their appetites are insatiable and parents should be there to provide what is needed. We all know and deplore much that is available in the way of television, videos, magazines, etc. and we know it is impossible to prevent altogether these influences from invading the minds of the young. We cannot stand back and hope that this material will be censored out of our society in due course. If parents take the trouble to read their children's school books, especially the novels, the history and social studies books and discuss them, they will get a fair idea of what the children are assimilating from their teachers. Some of this may need to be challenged. This poses difficulties because no child likes to be put into such a position with the teacher by a parent. However, if something is seriously wrong it must be corrected no matter with what consequence. More damage is done by doing nothing and ultimately the lesson learned painfully will be a source of strength to the child in later life when faced with a serious decision of his own. How often does one hark back to the question "How would my father have handled this"? or ~What would my mother have said"? Happy are those whose fathers and mothers have acted, spoken and upheld the right and have left an impeccable example to follow. Nor does this good example cease after the children have left home.

One of the ways of countering these adverse aspects of education is to make attractive to the children what will prevent or displace these harmful influences. This is not easy. In order to achieve this end the parents must become educated themselves by considerable self-discipline. They must be vigilant, not just hope for the best. Parents must be like nature and prepare ahead. They must be available and prepared to listen to family talk as well as to individual confidences and requests. Time is one of the most precious commodities of the modern age, and certainly of city living. The parents must be consistent and must not alter rules to accommodate situations. Principles need to be clearly understood, explained and insisted upon. Discipline should be constructive and not repressive or unreasonable. Availability and consistency provide children with security and a sense of belonging and of acceptance. Children under these circumstances attract other children to the home. These children are not so inclined to want to frequent other homes. If they do it is as well to find out what is the attraction there. It may not always be good. Reasons for objection must be given plenty of time and patience. If children know that what they are doing is not what they clearly understand to be acceptable to their parents, and if they care about what their parents want for them, they will be acutely unhappy when they come to think about it after the event. Parents must learn to recognize the cri de cocur -the cry for help. It may be manifested in abominable behaviour-just like the toddler, the naughty child is an unhappy child. The source must be tracked down and if this involves another person, it can be very difficult. So parents learn to be a psychologist and a detective and a very good one because he or she is motivated by love for the unhappy miscreant. If the foundations have been properly laid when the child is young, the task of finding a solution and establishing a restoration is not so great, involving as it does a forgiveness which is easy when they know they are loved.

Parents, like God, are prepared to wait. Sometimes it is the last chapter which counts the most. Two well-known sayings evolved in our family and were enunciated by an exasperated father from time to time: "You are never licked until you give up" and "There is no room for complacency this side of the grave"!

Natural Roles of Parents

If, however, a good foundation has not been laid and children have always been regarded as second-rate members of the household, where they have been pushed aside, bad behaviour will inevitably become more and more evident as the individual comes more and more to gratify his or her own desires, having been given no truly loving example. These are the children who leave home as adolescents or are turned out by their parents who cannot cope with storms, having never properly learned the secret of the cradle that loving means expenditure of self, hard work and time spent. The penalty is dire. The children have a poor appreciation of self-worth, having never been praised, only criticized and silenced. They have few, if any, loyalties only to self or maybe have changing loyalties as they change friendships, damaging trusts each time. These are the street kids and we are all anguished for them. The problem that is created is numerically immense, the mass solution is outside our reach. In Brazil, we heard of some wealthy groups engaging death squads to shoot and kill the gangs of homeless young who had turned to crime for survival, and who threatened the peace.

As ever, we must go back in our search for a solution, to preparation for prevention. There is one simple way. Allow mothers to fulfil their natural roles as mothers and dignify the role of fathers to provide, protect and teach. Rather than depicting the role of a woman at home as a dead-end job, dull, uninteresting and monotonous, it should be realized and proclaimed, on the contrary, that it is one full of interest. It is true that there is much repetition in the tasks performed but it is always in an ever-changing environment. As demands change crises are met and resolved. The home can be very much more exciting than outside employment which itself can be very monotonous. The great difference is in the value of the effort made and the reward-on the one hand in assisting the growth and development of your children whom you love and want the best for, or on the other hand very often in merely obtaining money. What has been neglected for money can never be purchased for many times that sum of money. The time will never come again.

Importance Or Trust

There are so many lessons that children can only learn slowly by continuous exposure. Independence and generosity are two such acquisitions. Over-indulgence to make up for the lack of parental availability does not teach generosity, only selfishness. Children know they are being bought off. Generosity is not readily taught to small children by example only. It is necessary to make demands on children and then let them also experience appreciation for their offerings. The sort of independence a child learns in the excessive absence of parents is inclined to be self-centered and wilful and ill-considered. The balance between trust and freedom is not easy to achieve and needs constant monitoring. It is only by constant association with children that trust can be developed which allows independence. A child must be taught the great importance of trust. It is based on love. By example, children will know that you have never broken your word to them. They have first learned to trust you. They will then know how deeply distressing it would be to lose the trust that you have in them.

It should be demonstrated that the children's happiness is of paramount importance to parents and that control is exercised not because there is no trust but simply in order to help them to assess dangers and avoid disasters. It is not to be dictatorial or to tie them up so that they will keep out of trouble and thus avoid problems for the parents. Co-operation is more likely to be enjoyed if time is taken to listen lovingly to real or fancied injustices in order to correct and resolve problems. Occasions must be chosen so that discussions can take place quietly. If parents are seldom there, inevitably unresolved issues will come up every time they appear so that it will seem that there is always conflict. And very often the situation will arise when either the adult or the child will shout ~Every time I see you, you always want to fight". No advance is made in this climate.

Religious Education of Children

There are two special areas of education that must be addressed in this cradle and they are (1) religious education and (2) sexual education. As with all other aspects of learning they are imbibed at an early age ideally and go hand in hand. Both these areas make special demands on parents. They call for personal dedication as children will not tolerate double standards and hypocrisy. They will respond to example and free and loving communication.

The general practice in the home of religious matters means much to the growing child. The development of routines of religious observance opens doors for him which enable fruitful and happy explorations in later life. This is particularly so if the experiences in early life are presented as a happy obligation and religion comes down from an awesome domineering pinnacle and pervades every-day living with the awareness of a loving Creator made plain in all the gifts of so many good things and the desire to love Him in return, by keeping the rules he has made for our happiness. This implies a discipline which fulfils the will of God which we, as Catholics, have spelled out for us in the magisterial teachings of the Church. The presentation to the children is by loving dedication of parents principally.

In the matter of religion, as in everything else, love is an act of the will. Apart from an innate understanding of the difference between right and wrong, variously expressed as the Golden Rule of 'do unto others as you would that they should do unto you" or as the Second Commandment "to love your neighbour as yourself", there is a human need to seek and find the God who made us for His delight and who loves and cherishes every single human individual. It is in a loving family that this search is most richly satisfied, for the realization that each one is loved by God provides spiritual security for each member. If parents can demonstrate to the children how much they love them and assure them that the love that God has for them surpasses their own love for them, this security is great indeed.

This achievement essentially involves teaching the children to know and become familiar with God through prayer. Children learn to pray best by praying with their parents from the earliest days. Knowing how to pray and being assured that prayers are answered is one of the most valuable and enduring of all lessons that the family teaches, because no matter what befalls that child this, like love, is an ever available resource.

Sexual Education of Children

In the matter of sexual education, the problem can be extremely difficult or very simple in solution. As with religious education early sexual learning is most desirable and, in a committed family, the principles are imbibed effortlessly. Of yore and unfortunately often enough today parents were lacking in knowledge and vocabulary and so were inclined to avoid discussions on the subject, or to side-track the questions with some mystifying suggestions, for example, that babies come out of cabbages. Many parents today are very knowledgeable, as users of natural family planning. They are well-equipped to teach their children who, when they grow up and approach marriage, need very little extra in specialized teaching to ensure a trouble-free approach to fertility regulation. Answering questions as they come along is an easy way to satisfy the curiosity of children about themselves and about reproduction and reproductive processes, and is a gradual, painless procedure. One of our fathers recently ventured on an enthusiastic response to his 7-year-old son who asked "Dad, what is sex"? Somewhat startled, but manfully facing up to fatherly duty, he enlightened the boy at some length, who in fact did not seem very impressed. Rather puzzled, his father asked him, "Why do you want to know"? "Today", he said, "my teacher, before he went out of the room, said 'I'll be back in a couple of secs'!" This is a true story.

Many parents, however, who have become involved in contraception, sterilization or even abortion find they have an instinctive aversion to the subject and will not talk to their children. If they try and advocate a better course than the one they themselves have taken the children will soon realize that they are being hypocritical. Children always know a good deal more about the parents than the parents think. They will be quick to realize that a double standard is operating. Many parents, like their children, have been influenced by the persuasive attitude to easy physical sex with the provision of contraception and abortion. The propaganda untruthfully warns of overpopulation and falsely speaks of the menace and worthlessness and expendability of the embryo. The children learn only what is bad and nothing that is good in their own families with this philosophy concerning the baby. If as well there has been no awe of the Creator implanted in their young minds and if they have no realization that they themselves were born of Divine will, they will be inclined, following popular opinion, to regard babies as undesirable nuisances, obstacles to be avoided, equated often enough with pollutants, creatures who will one day chop down more trees, hunt more whales, and put more holes in the ozone layer. In other words they will be directed into a course of self-indulgence and selfishness at the expense of their fellow human beings.

Shun False Prophets

We need to counter this opinion with the truth and engender love for the baby. The book written by Professor Derek Llewellyn Jones called "Every Woman" is a prescribed text in some of our Catholic schools here in Melbourne. This teaches that sexual intercourse is good, is to be enjoyed as a recreation separated from reproduction by contraception, which is represented as mostly harmless, that abortion is available and that the young embryo is merely an egg. The woman is to be allowed abortion "with dignity and safety". Condoms are advocated in the belief that they may prevent AIDS. The Pill is advocated to prevent pregnancy. Orgasm is presented as the primary goal of sexual activity, engaged in alone or with partners male or female. Therefore it maintains that masturbation is good. It proclaims that the Church is outmoded. Llewellyn Jones must be gratified to see that some of our Church schools are striving to up-date themselves according to this dangerous philosophy.

Parents act out of fear and ignorance sometimes and may be rough in dealing with their children over things they do not understand themselves. For instance, the very idea that a child is masturbating may send parents off into abuse or silent despair. Parents must face up to this common problem and learn how to talk about it positively as well as negatively. The pleasurable aspect of the reproductive act is learned by many children at an early age. There is a natural response by the child to conceal the practice when it is deliberate and frequent. Very soon a feeling that this behaviour is not quite correct develops, and often anxiety and fears. Parents can explain in a simple way that the sensation is part of an act of love which engenders new life and it is for husbands and wives only, for a mother and a father. A young child cannot assimilate all the depths of theological and spiritual teaching concerning intercourse but the foundations can be laid so that the child can learn the truth and importance of sexual control in all its aspects. Anxieties can be alleviated, while helping the child to see the importance of keeping intact the act of love until the time of marriage and having children arrives. If the child is very young and incapable of the simplest explanations then it is best to distract and lead the child to another and more interesting activity, and away from an addictive and miserable pursuit.

If parents cannot or will not teach sexual morality and the requirements for marital happiness and stable family life, then those of us who know and love the morally deprived children of our world must do it, or avoid this duty at our peril. We must prepare the next generation. Already the untaught and unloved youth of this world are having children of their own. They will be the teachers of their children. They must be taught, if not by the example of their own parents, the difference between accepting personal responsibility in regulating fertility and transferring the responsibility to a pill, device or perverted act. This philosophy leads to rejection of the baby, even as far as destruction of the baby. To be taught to trust themselves and to rely on themselves in order to regulate fertility naturally and to accept and learn to love the baby enables them to acquire a heightened self-esteem which is essential for the development of a close loving bond between mother and father, husband and wife. The family needs help to become educated itself because it is ultimately within the family that the best sex education is going to take place. It is all part of learning that there is a natural order and there is a Divine plan. It is a gradual process of helping children come to realize who they are and for what purpose. In the words of Pope John Paul 11:

"We cannot define our notion of man without defining an Absolute, a fullness of truth, of beauty and of goodness by which we allow our lives to be guided."

And so this cradle of education, buffeted as it is by so many tempests, gives parents and children the unique opportunity to enjoy a stronghold, a place of security, to mature and reach for that perfection which Christ taught us that we must find and of which we have been created capable. The irresistible force of love displaces all other influences in our lives. Parents make many mistakes, but if the child knows he is loved, that love covers a multitude of sins and there are many chances given to start again.

We, in our families, may put our trust in the well-known words of St Augustine:

"Once for all then, a short precept is given thee. Love and do what thou wilt; whether thou hold thy peace, of love hold thy peace, whether thou cry out, of love cry out, whether thou correct, of love correct, whether thou spare, of love do thou spare."

Let the root of love be within; of this root can nothing spring but what is good.