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‘We need to be prepared to be really counter-cultural’: How Catholic parents can raise saints

Girls attend a mass in which about 550 children had their first communion at the metropolitan cathedral in Managua (Getty images)

Having been greatly stimulated (and forced to reflect more seriously on what education actually means) by Roy Peachey’s book Out of the Classroom and into the World, about which I blogged on Monday, I caught up with the author to ask him a few questions.

Firstly and most important, what advice would he give to Catholic parents who feel daunted by their responsibility as “primary educators”? Roy corrects me, saying that he doesn’t think this role needs to be seen as “a daunting responsibility.” He expands, explaining that it will only seem so “if we think of education as a way of imparting information.” That, he is adamant, “is not what education is. It is fundamentally about relationships. Our children learn so much by just being with us. They learn what to value in life. We love them more than any educator ever can and that love makes us their best educators.”

Roy’s advice to parents is “to relax and simply enjoy being with your children. In my book I wrote that ‘the truth is that parents know all they need to know – their children – and everything else can be picked up.’”

I point out to Roy that most parents don’t home educate their children. Thus how can they have a positive effect on their child’s school without getting a reputation for being awkward or pushy? His immediate response is, “The best way to get involved is to offer to help in some way. We are more likely to be listened to if we have put ourselves out for the school. However, we also need to remember that the State does not have the primary responsibility for our children; we do, as the Church teaches us.”

This means, he says firmly, that “teachers are obliged to work with parents and willingly listen to them. I admit that this is sometimes a struggle for me as a teacher, but I have to recognise that parents know their children far better than I do and that I have to respect their views and wishes.”

I reflect on the kinds of conversations I had with my children’s teachers at many parents’ evenings with a sigh as Roy goes on: “We have to advocate for our children because we know and love them more than anyone else ever can. If we want our children to become saints – which, as Pope Benedict XVI so beautifully reminded us during his visit to the UK in 2010 is the true purpose of education – then we cannot stand idly by while schools bring up our children without us. And if that means we get a reputation as a pushy parent, so be it.”

He adds laconically, “There are worse difficulties in life. We can take that one on the chin.”

I note that Roy’s book has many reservations about the use of electronic media for educational purposes; what rules should parents impose in this area? He responds earnestly, “Ideally, we should create homes in which face-to-face communication trumps every other sort of communication. That means we need to create time to listen to and talk with our children which may mean we need to restrict our own use of phones, computers, TVs and so on. We also need to create a culture of shared enjoyment at home, and not use the TV or internet as a form of babysitting which is bound to cause problems in the long run.”

He emphasises that “It’s far better to watch films and videos with our children. The consequence of this approach is that children shouldn’t have internet-enabling devices in their bedrooms, phones should be turned off during meals and computers should only be used in shared spaces.”

Roy reflects that this is a “tough area for parents because the pressures are enormous. We need to be prepared to be really counter-cultural if we are not to be swept away on a tide created by the big media companies.” He adds, “Our most pressing problem is likely to be that other families do not share our approach – which highlights the need for Catholic families to support one another. We need to talk to other Catholic families about these issues and help each other out.”

Peachey believes strongly that schools should be small. I suggest that this is unrealistic, given the limited choice of schools that parents have. He quotes EF Schumacher’s dictum to me: “Small is beautiful”, pointing out that “we have blindly accepted an industrial model of education which claims that big is beautiful. If education is all about relationships, then schools have to be small, or at the very least, consciously create a human scale education within a larger structure. It’s hard but it can be done.” He thinks that in this area “We need to push for long-term change. This is a bigger problem than any one family can solve on its own.”

Peachey thinks that this is one reason why “an increasing number of parents are opting for home education. We all want small class sizes but you won’t get a better teacher-student ratio than the one you can create for yourselves at home.”

Lastly, I remind him that in his book he says that we cannot expect to build a Catholic society; rather, a “Catholic counter-culture.” My pressing question here is, what practical steps can parents take to help build this counter-culture?

He suggests that the first step, quoting Pope Benedict again, in his address to pupils during his visit to Britain, is “not to be content with second-best. Our Faith is really good news and we need to hang on to that fact when the going gets tough.” He has three main suggestions: “First, we need to deepen our own relationship with God. Parents are busy and it is so easy to allow God to be crowded out of our lives. We can begin or end our day listening to God in the Scriptures because we all need reminding that he is in control not us.”

“Secondly, we should spend time whenever we can with people who know and live the joy of the Gospel so we can live it better ourselves.” He recalls that “When the Franciscan Sisters of the Renewal visited the school where I work they made a massive impression in just one day.”

“Thirdly, Catholic families need to support one another. We may want to set up home groups in our own parish for mutual encouragement and practical help. We may join national events. We may even (and I can’t quite believe I’m saying this) support one another online, with the Catholic Mothers group being a particularly good example.”

Peachey is certain that “Whatever we do, we know we cannot go it alone, so the sooner we start building strong, supportive and faithful communities the better.”