Meditations for Layfolk - Duties of Parents

It is a platitude in moral science that rights are founded upon duties; consequently whenever we claim that others have certain obligations to perform towards us, we can feel perfectly certain that we have corresponding obligations to them. My children must obey me, then it is my duty to look after them. Nay, we can go further than that and insist to ourselves that God surely expects from us a deeper consciousness of our responsibility, and a more exact fulfillment of it than He can possibly hope to find in those whose judgement and power of realizing the difference between right and wrong is in so many ways infinitely less developed. We may suppose, indeed it is the frequent claim of parents, that their experience is fuller and their opportunities of better judgement more assured. We must suppose also, in consequence of this, that a more strait account will be exacted from them as to how they have carried out the trust confided to them. Hence it is that I must first (before I venture to discover for myself wherein those duties lie) impress my mind with the seriousness of my position and the extreme responsibilities that these duties of parenthood impose on me. Besides, in my failure or neglect, not only is my own soul at stake and brought to ruin, but precisely because of my parenthood I may drag others with me in my fall. Fathers and mothers have in their hands the plastic matter of young life. They may by clumsy handling or by mere negligence allow this to become hardened in a fashion inimical to itself.

How, briefly, may we note wherein chiefly these duties lie? Perhaps the simplest way is to recall to mind what exactly the parent gives to the child.

(A) Being. The formation of the offspring depends, at least to a considerable extent, upon the parents. It is a fact of experience that the mother sees reflected in her children the temper and the moods that dominated her during the months when the babe was within her breast. So, too, the sins of the father are nearly certain to affect the child. His passions and his frailties pass over to that which is born of his blood; not in the sense that the child is through life fated to sin, but its nature is warped and spoilt because parents do not realize their power.

(B) Nourishment. The physical well-being of the child is also at the mercy of father and mother. Even in the womb the unborn babe may be affected; and through its early years the evil done may be incalculable. Sufficiency and the right kind of food must be studied by both parents, though here probably the instinct of the mother will be most generally right. Anyway, the whole material care of the child must be rigorously and vigorously attended to.

(C) Education. This implies the whole development of that which is immaterial in the child. Its intelligence, its memory, its imagination, the power of will as exercised in the formation of character, its knowledge of God, His revelation through the Church and the story of the Incarnation, are all included as requiring training by the parents either directly or indirectly. Then as age advances they must prepare the child for a profession or life ahead.

All this obviously is a distinct obligation which falls on parents in regard to their children for just so long as these are children. For the measure of duty is right and the measure of right is duty. Hence, if when I have obtained a certain age I have no longer to obey but to act for myself, it follows also that my parents are equally no longer obliged to attend to my wants or engage further in preparing me for life. If I consider myself able to judge for myself, then I have thereby released them from any need to worry themselves further about me. When my children can refuse to acknowledge my authority, I can simultaneously refuse to support their indigence. Obviously no such thing will take place. The child will continue to listen and follow advice long after the time has come for it to claim independence; while the parents will continue to maintain the child long after the time when their obligations have ceased towards it. But always the measure of right is duty, and the measure of duty is right. Moreover, what I have always to bear in mind is that the purpose of my responsibility is to train my children to be independent of me. The mother must forbear to lavish her affection when she sees that it is weakening the child s character; the father must restrain all overpowering of his children s judgement. Train, yes; but crush, no. "In great states," says Ruskin, "children are always trying to remain children, and parents wanting to make men and women of them. In vile states, the children are always wanting to be men and women, and the parents to keep them children." Advice and guidance is mine to give, but dictation (when they have ceased to be children) never.

- text taken from Meditations for Layfolk by Father Bede Jarrett, O.P.