Home Training by Rev. A.B Sharpe, M.A.

These words which I command thee shall be in thy heart, and thou shall tell them to thy children.–DEUT. vi.


Of all the responsibilities which life imposes on human beings there is none greater than that of parenthood. It is all the heavier, because it is mainly a responsibility to God, and only in a very minor degree to man. Within very wide limits, parents may bring up their children as they please; all that society requires of them is that they should provide sufficient maintenance for their children, and take some sort of precaution against their growing up in a state of complete illiteracy. But God requires much more of parents, or of those who take their place. The training of children is, from the Christian point of view, nothing less than a branch of what St. Chrysostom calls “the art of arts, the direction of souls.” Of it the same Saint says: “What is a greater task than to guide the souls and mould the character of the young? I hold him a greater artist than any painter or sculptor who knows how to form the youthful mind.” It is to this “art” that parents are called; and on the way in which they respond to this vocation the future, humanly speaking, of their children, and their own eternal welfare in great measure depends. Just as a well-fed and well-cared for child will normally grow up into a strong man or woman, so one that is trained in Christian duty, and nourished by divine grace will grow up into a well-principled and well-conducted Catholic; and on the other hand, just as a moment’s neglect or carelessness on the part of nurse or parent may make of the child a life-long cripple, so a little neglect, even a thoughtless word or action, may cause a moral or spiritual deformity which may never be cured in this life, or even perhaps, in the life to come. The reason is, in the one case as in the other, that childhood and youth are the periods in which body and soul are plastic; as the years pass they harden, and never can wholly lose the impress they received at the beginning of life. It has been said that what is learned before the age of five is of greater importance than all that can be learned afterwards. Whether an age can be so precisely fixed or not may be doubtful; but it is at least certain that generally speaking the bent and character of adult life are determined in very great measure by the experiences of childhood. It is then that the ideas are assimilated and the habits of mind formed on which the child’s whole outlook depends. Such ideas and habits make, as it were, the background on which all subsequently acquired knowledge is projected; they impart shape and color to all after-experience, and provide the terms in which it will be interpreted. In other words, it is the formation of the child’s character that is the special province of parents; and this, it need hardly be said, is by far the most important part of the education it is the parents’ duty to provide. For education, it must be remembered, is not the same thing as instruction, but is the “bringing out” of the latent powers of mind and body in their right proportions and due subordination to each other. Instruction is as a rule best delegated to those whose business it is to give it; but for the training of character the close and intimate contact, from the very beginning, of parents and children is of incomparably greater importance than any influence than can be exerted by the ablest of teachers. It is true that instruction is not without its effect on character, and that some amount of instruction is inseparable from any kind of training. But instruction is addressed primarily, if not solely, to the understanding; whereas character is formed by countless influences, which affect body, mind, will and affections all at once or in turn, and act in all directions, but make their way by obscure channels into the “depths of personality” itself.


The proper object, then, of parental or home training is above and before everything the formation of character–to habituate the child to right ways of thinking, believing and acting, so that they may become like instincts, never to be forgotten and hard to disobey. Such training will be a spring and inspiration of conduct through life, and in every possible situation. But here arises the question of detail; and it is here that serious difficulties really begin. Children are not all alike; they differ not only in sex and age, but in natural disposition and ability; they are naturally inclined to different virtues and different faults–some are forward and some are shy, some are demonstrative and others self-restrained, some are precocious and others are backward–no two are precisely alike in any one respect. Then, too, parents differ as much as children, and in the same ways; a line of conduct that comes natural and easy to one parent is practically impossible for another; moreover, the way in which children are brought up must depend to a considerable extent on their parents’ worldly position and circumstances; and these again vary endlessly. Is it possible to lay down any rule or principle that can be of general application to such a variety of conditions? Certainly no scheme can be framed which will provide for every detail of circumstances and idiosyncrasy. Nevertheless there are certain general rules which if rightly applied will solve all the difficulties to which special circumstances can give rise. The first is that children must be individually studied in regard to their moral qualities, as well as in regard to their physical ones. Every decent mother studies her children’s health; she takes precautions against the development of particular weaknesses and pre-dispositions to disease, and tries by all means to encourage the elements of strength in their constitutions. The same individual care and forethought are needed for their moral health; indeed, since the subject is more complex and more obscure, even greater care and more constant study are required.

In the next place, it must be remembered that the object of training is to make men and women. Children will not be children all their lives; and to aim simply at making them model children is to neglect the true purpose of education altogether. It has often been remarked that model children seldom turn out well in after life. The reason is that they have been taught how to be good children, but not how to be good men and women. If training is to be efficient, it must be adapted to the gradual growth of the child to maturity; it must provide opportunities and incentives for initiative, for self-reliance and enterprise, for perseverance and self-restraint, for courage and resolution in the face of difficulty and failure; and these things are as a rule learned only by making mistakes and correcting them. Children must be helped to learn gradually, as their age advances, to stand alone morally as well as physically, to solve their own difficulties, to make rules of conduct for themselves. They are like plants that must be “hardened off” before they are set in open ground; if they have to go straight from the hot-house of home to the garden-bed of the world, they will in all probability wither and die in the keener air.

Thirdly, it need scarcely be said that religion must hold the chief place as an influence in moral training. Children should learn, as soon as they can learn anything, to regard prayer and the Sacraments as the channels of grace and blessing; and the familiar and untechnical instruction in the elements of religion, which parents are evidently better able to give than anyone else, is the foundation on which all later knowledge of whatever kind will be most securely based. A child that has learned to know and love God is already prepared, as otherwise he cannot be, to understand rightly the teaching of life; and the earlier this knowledge and love can be implanted in him, the more thoroughly will they be absorbed and assimilated, and the less danger will there be of their eradication by the temptations, intellectual and moral, which must sooner or later be encountered. Children have as a rule a remarkable aptitude for religion, due no doubt to the absence of the corrupting influences of the world; and parents should take the earliest and fullest advantage possible of their receptivity in this respect. It is the greatest of all the privileges of parents that they have an opportunity which no one else has of leading their children at the earliest possible moment into the presence of God.


Lastly, a word must be said as to the methods to be adopted. These must of course vary indefinitely, according to the various temperaments and circumstances of children and parents. But there are some general considerations which should be carefully remembered. First, there must be authority; and consequently rules, which must be enforced if they are not to be worse than useless. Parental authority is of divine institution, and upon its recognition depends the recognition of all the other forms of authority which are more or less directly related to it. There is little prospect that an undutiful child will ever make a good Catholic or a good citizen. But, in the second place, parental authority must be evidently grounded on love. Home should not be like a school or an Institution; it is not impersonal law that should create the atmosphere of home, but personal affection. Parents have, as a rule (though not invariably), a natural affection for their offspring which they share with the lower animals. But in Catholic parents there must be also the supernatural love which alone is proof against domestic worry and anxiety, and is alone able to devote itself unselfishly to the child’s welfare. Again, example is at least as important as precept. Children are exceedingly observant, and quick to draw practical conclusions. It is utterly useless for parents to teach their children a religion that they themselves neglect to practice, or to exhort them to kindness and forbearance if they are witnesses of constant bickerings between father and mother. “It is quite time for you to go to bed,” said a mother to a reluctant child, “all the little chickens are gone to bed.” “Yes, mother,” said the child, “but the old hen has gone to bed too.” In few things is it more important to be scrupulously careful than in the matter of truthfulness. Children should never be told lies, even on those subjects about which parents may feel unable to tell them the whole truth. An American mother once told her growing daughter that there was really no such person as Santa Klaus. “O mother,” the child replied, “and is there no God either?” A child that can no longer believe its parents is like a ship that has lost its compass. Confidence is essential between parents and children; but it must not be forgotten that confidence cannot be forced, and is quite incompatible with fear. And in the difficult task that parents undertake God’s help and direction are above all things needed, and must be specially sought by frequent and earnest prayer.

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