Last year, MSNBC host and Tulane University political science professor Melissa Harris-Perry sparked a controversy when she remarked, “We have to break through our kind of private idea that kids belong to their parents, or kids belong to their families, and recognize that kids belong to whole communities.” Clarifying her comments a few days later, she added, “This is about whether we as a society, expressing our collective will through our public institutions, including our government, have a right to impinge on individual freedoms in order to advance a common good. And that is exactly the fight that we have been having for a couple hundred years.”
This long-standing debate over who has the responsibility and authority to raise children rages most frequently and visibly in the realm of education. Who really ought to be in charge of our children’s schooling? Who gets to decide what they should learn and how it should be taught? In other words, whose children are they?
The prevailing assumption in our culture—the one more of us grew up with—is that parents have relatively little to do with their children’s schooling beyond prodding them to finish their homework before watching TV. We expect schools to be funded and run by the government (PTA meetings notwithstanding); we expect teachers to be trained professionals who utilize curricula and teaching techniques developed by experts. That’s why we make plans, when our children turn five years old, to hand them over to somebody else. Then we breathe a sigh of relief that the monumental task of educating them does not have to be our own responsibility. It’s somebody else’s job.
But is this a Christian view of parenting? What does the Bible say?
What is the role of the family?
No scripture addresses formal schooling per se, but God does give us insight about the role He has assigned to parents.
When the Israelites were on their way to the Promised Land to live in fellowship with God, they were told how to be sure that later generations would remain faithful to the Lord who had brought them out of Egypt. God said through Moses:
Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. (Deuteronomy 6:4-9, ESV, emphasis added)
Acknowledging that God is One and loving Him with all we have are fundamental tenets of Scripture. But if these principles are to be passed on, it is the responsibility of parents to do so. This was true of the Israelites, and it is also true of Christians.
In the New Testament, we read a similar instruction:
Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. (Ephesians 6:4, ESV, emphasis added)
We might paraphrase it this way: “If you are a parent, then God has made you responsible for providing your children with the kind of education that God wants them to have.” To first-century Christians reading in Greek, the term paidaia (translated “discipline” here, or “nurture” and ”training” in other translations) would have implied even more than the vital need to enforce godly rules at home and take them to Sunday school. It also included the much broader task of shaping their values, skills, wisdom, and character in order to help them to become a certain type of person.
This is what education is all about. God wants each of our children to become a certain type of person, and He wants parents to provide the opportunities that will help make it happen.
What role should schools play?
What about schools? If education is the responsibility of parents, can there be an appropriate role for schools to play?
Yes, there can. Parents are responsible for feeding their children, but this doesn’t mean they must grow their own food. Being responsible for a task does not require that one perform it in isolation. It simply means that one is accountable for making sure it gets accomplished. Therefore, it is fully appropriate for Christian schools to come alongside parents and assist them in the task of educating their children. Nonetheless, schools (and parents) need to understand that the school is the servant of parents, and it may not assume its own authority over their children.
Cary Christian School was founded upon this principle. Our educational philosophy states, “Cary Christian School strives to operate as a servant of the family under the assumption that the education of young people is the responsibility of parents and the immediate family rather than the responsibility of the State.” Our job as teachers and administrators is to recognize the role of parents as primarily responsible before God for the education of their children and to be prepared to assist them in that task.
As a teacher, when students sit in my classroom, I do not teach and discipline them by my own authority. When a child is sent to the principal’s office for misbehavior, the principal also has no inherent authority over the child. The only authority we have over them is what has been delegated to us by their parents. We are standing in the place of these parents; we are serving, as the Latin expression goes, in loco parentis.
How can parents and schools best work together?
This principle has two very practical implications. First, parents who send their children to a faithful Christian school should, ideally, not have to worry about their authority being usurped. While parents must be in basic agreement with the philosophy and curriculum of a school if they are to work together harmoniously, teachers and administrators who properly understand their roles will not take it upon themselves to override the decisions of parents based on their own purported expertise. The notion that “once your kids pass through our school’s doors, they’re ours to do with as we see fit,” so prevalent in public schools, has absolutely no place in Christian education.
But with freedom comes responsibility, so parents must recognize they are ultimately accountable for educating their children. If a father discovers that his son is attending a lousy school, or if he wakes up one morning to realize that his daughter doesn’t know how to think like a Christian, it is his job to do something about it. If, on the other hand, he is blessed to have a faithful Christian school to which to send his children, he still cannot forget that he is responsible for making sure they are behaving in class, doing their homework and studying for tests, and taking full advantage of their opportunities at school.
Schools are partners, not surrogate parents. Schools exist to supplement the values, skills, and knowledge that parents are already passing on to their children.
Let’s return to Melissa Harris-Perry’s remark. To whom do children belong? To their parents? Or to their communities?
The Biblical answer is simple: “None of the above.” Children do not belong to their communities or to their parents. They belong to their Creator.
This Creator, we learn from Scripture, has a plan for their lives. He created them for fellowship with Him, to live faithfully to the image in which He created them, and to grow to their full spiritual and intellectual capacities. He wants them to learn to see and experience life from His perspective, growing in discipleship, and shining Christ’s light to those around them.
This is at least part of what it means to train up our children in the way God would have them to go (Proverbs 22:6). It is no simple or easy task, but in our day and time parents do not have to do it alone. Christian schools exist to serve parents in this mission. When parents and schools play their proper roles, the results are beautiful.
As it turns out, nothing could more richly bless our communities, and nothing would better serve the common good.
More resources on this topic:
- Voddie Baucham, Jr., Family Driven Faith: Doing What it Takes to Raise Sons and Daughters Who Walk With God (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 2007).
- Louis Berkhof, “The Christian School and Authority,” in Foundations of Christian Education: Addresses to Christian Teachers, ed. Dennis E. Johnson (Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company: Phillipsburg, N.J., 1990).
- Tom Garfield, “The Servant School,” in Repairing the Ruins: The Classical and Christian Challenge to Modern Education, ed. Douglas Wilson (Moscow, Idaho: Canon Press, 1996).
- Tom Spencer, “In Loco Parentis,” in Repairing the Ruins: The Classical and Christian Challenge to Modern Education, ed. Douglas Wilson (Moscow, Idaho: Canon Press, 1996).
- Douglas Wilson, The Paideia of God (Moscow, Idaho: Canon Press, 1999).