Parents must be involved in their children’s education. In this article, I first address the fundamental reason why they should be involved. This fundamental reason does not lie in the need for developing a strong emotional bond between parents and children (although that, too, is important), not in the good feelings it gives (although it often may), not in biological logic (although that, too, makes sense), and not in the nation’s need for a well-trained and competitive workforce to maintain a strong economy (although that, too, would be nice to have), but in the covenant relationship in which God mercifully placed us and our children. The other reasons cited fit in the category of what man decides to pursue as valid in its own right, rather than receiving it as a blessing from the Lord, of serving created things, rather than the Creator (Romans 1:25). It reminds one of Solomon’s downfall from the wisdom and splendour God gave him when he began to pursue the benefits of God’s gifts, rather than the Giver (1 Kings 11:9). We do well to be wary of Solomon’s fall, even as we draw on some of the findings of secular literature on the benefits of parental involvement.
We have an abundance of reasons to express gratitude to God for bringing us the gospel of salvation in Jesus Christ, especially because there is no merit of our own that would warrant this. The apostle Paul does not hide his wonder at God’s mercy by which He gave us faith in Christ through which to be justified, hope in his glory despite sufferings and persecutions, and the love of the Holy Spirit. His utter surprise at God’s mercy is summarized in that one line: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8). Of course, he was primarily speaking to the Church at Rome when he wrote this, but the Scriptures speak to us today as they then did to the Romans:
All ... who are loved by God and called to be saints: Grace and peace to you from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ.Romans 1:7
He is speaking to the people of the covenant, in which God establishes a relationship of love with people He chose, and to their children.
Parental Responsibility, Covenant Context
When parents have their baby baptized in the church, they recognize that this child belongs to God, and so to God’s covenant people. They affirm and vow to accept that they have a central and significant teaching responsibility with regard to this child. When they read Scripture carefully, they will find few (if any) examples that this task can be delegated away completely, even though there are in fact several instances where part of the teaching responsibility is delegated to others (think of Samuel under the tutelage of Eli, for instance, or Jesus’ early encounter with the teachers of the law). Rather, it is the parents, and particularly the fathers, who are exhorted in Deuteronomy 4:9-13 and 6:6-7, and again in Ephesians 6:4 to diligently teach their children. On the other hand, Deuteronomy, as well as Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, are directed in context to the whole congregation, and it will not do to completely sever the parents’ responsibility from the responsibility of the community. The community is witness to these exhortations, and will be responsible to at least remind parents of and assist them in their calling. Even the early Dutch Reformed Synods of the sixteenth century recognized that baptism was to take place in the church, and not at home, stressing that it was an affair of the whole covenant community and not of the family only. It is inevitable that the community is involved in the education of the next generation as well.
Although some have suggested that there could be such a thing as a “home church,” consisting of just one family, this clearly is not God’s intent. Rather, He urges his people in Hebrews 10:25 to gather with all the brothers and sisters at their place, just as He gathers his congregation (Matthew 16:18). We understand this also as part of the communion of saints, in which we all use our gifts for the benefit and wellbeing of the other members, rather than keeping them to ourselves. We positively and thankfully receive the gifts and benefits Christ has poured out on his people through this very communion of saints.
What we read in 1 Corinthians 12 is also not to be hoarded by individual families, but to be shared with the whole church: the church is the body, and individual members are its parts.
Although not directly mandated by Scriptures, our schools are one significant way in which this communion of saints receives expression, as it is often through the schools that parents organize, seek, and can receive help in their central task of educating their children. At the same time, especially because these institutions in part even define our Canadian Reformed identity, we need to remember that our salvation and that of our children does not depend on attending those schools, but on Christ Himself.
It cannot be denied that real people, which we are, are susceptible to social pressures. Our Form for Baptism therefore rightly urges parents not to use the sacrament “out of custom or superstition,” but rather for the right reasons. We can gloss over that “custom or superstition” phrase, but do well to realize that our answers to the questions at baptism are not truthful but in fact perjury, if, in fact and at bottom, it is “custom” or “superstition” for which we seek baptism. With “superstition” we may think of the belief that baptism itself is a vehicle by which God’s saving grace is poured onto the child, and that without baptism the child could never find favour in God’s eyes. That would be a Roman Catholic train of thought. With “custom” we may think of doing it “because everyone else does it” or “because of what others might say if we did not present the child to be baptized.” Here, it would be social control or peer pressure, and not the right reason or purpose. God does not want our outward behaviour, but our heart (Psalm 40:6ff).
The same issue arises when people choose a school for their children. Is it out of “custom or superstition” that people sometimes send their children to the Reformed school? Aside from it being an expensive custom or superstition, it would beg the question of what such parents actually expect from the school. Would it be salvation for their child, or their substitute as parents, or perhaps even merit for their own salvation account? It would be a waste of money from such perspectives, if only because even the best school is hopelessly inadequate for such purposes. If, furthermore, our schools become the vehicles to “keep the elders at bay” (in their keeping with Article 58 CO), or for “doing the right thing in the eyes of the community,” we are in danger of abusing what has been conscientiously built up for a good purpose to the detriment of those who use it for the right reasons. To counter this real danger, Dutch school principal Jetze Baas even suggested that parents be interviewed regarding their real reasons for sending their child to the Reformed school, as an admission requirement and as one way to ascertain that the school’s purposes and the parents’ expectations are properly aligned (De Reformatie, Feb. 26, 2000, pp. 786 ff.).
Delegating and Accountability
Parents can never delegate all their responsibility to the school. They may not begin to treat the school as a “convenient-daytime-babysitter-at-which-the-kids-learn-something-useful-to-boot.” In a Reformed family, the day begins with parental responsibility for bringing up their children, and it ends with that responsibility. This includes, if at all possible, eating breakfast together as a family with prayer and Bible reading, sending the children off to school, welcoming them back home after, discussing the events of the day during supper or other good moments, helping them with school assignments or just showing an interest in what they are doing, reading and sharing good books with them and to them no matter how old they are, giving thanks to the Lord for all his beautiful gifts in providing for every need as we go our way in developing and using our talents in his service before going to sleep (Deuteronomy 6:4-9). If all this is perhaps so overwhelming, we can also give thanks to God for the presence of the communion of saints, in which we can be encouraged to humbly seek help where we need it. But we may not shirk our own responsibilities by making the school responsible for our parental task. We are accountable. To be accountable means to be involved.
The school, at the same time, cannot do whatever it likes. It was established for the purpose of being an extension of the home, and to maintain the principles taught at home. As an institution, it is accountable to the community that established it. Similarly, individual and imperfect teachers need the grace of God as much as the parents who send their children to their classrooms every day. They also need the communion of saints to support them in staying on track. For them to do a good job, and for the school to attain its purposes, we need an involved community that brings the needs of the school before God’s throne of grace every day.
Here are, then, two principle reasons for parents to be involved in the school they choose for their children:
they have a God-given responsibility for bringing up their own offspring; and
for the teachers to do a good job, they need a prayerfully and actively involved communion of saints.
If we as parents accept our responsibility regarding our children as part of our thankfulness to God, as a matter of the heart, and not just as a matter of the hand or the head, we are convinced by the most compelling reasons to be involved. We would be involved as a matter of faith, as a matter of putting our trust in God that He will provide for us in every way, and that this is the right thing to do. It is the right thing to do, not because the neighbour or the consistory says so, and not because we magically expect some eternal benefit for our children from attending a Reformed school, but because it is our faith that compels us. At the same time, we as community must be involved, because we are a witness to the vows parents made.
Having considered the fundamental reasons why parents should be involved in their children’s education, I now turn to some benefits of this involvement, and ways in which involvement can take shape. It is necessary to remember that pursuing the benefits in their own right would lead us on the wrong track, since the fundamental reason for involvement is the task God gives to parents regarding raising their children. In much secular literature, the reasoning does not proceed from the family and its responsibilities either, but from a perspective of school effectiveness.
Secular research has found definite benefits of parental involvement in schools. In many jurisdictions, governments even insist on formal parental involvement through channels like School Councils or Home and School Associations because of these benefits. It has been observed that parental involvement promotes children’s success in school, especially when the school culture and values closely match the home culture and values. In our Canadian Reformed schools, culture and values can generally be expected to closely match those in the homes, and this feature of and by itself sets the stage for good student achievement. Of course, the children will still have to work to achieve and to be successful, and they need to understand what that work is and where it will lead. We do well to impress on them early that high achievement and success are not goals to be pursued or gods to be served in their own rights, but that we have a call from God to develop our talents to the best of our ability in his service: that is our cultural mandate. When parents are involved as they ought to, they may also expect God’s blessings to follow. Here, it no longer matters whether the achievement is high or low, but what matters is that God is served.
It has also been found that public school programs to involve parents in their children’s education are not always successful. In 1997, researchers Hoover-Dempsey and Sandler of Vanderbilt University put it this way, “...even well-designed school programs inviting involvement will meet with only limited success if they do not address issues of parental role construction and parental sense of efficacy for helping children succeed in school.” In other words, people should not expect too much from programs that encourage parents to become involved in their children’s education, unless two criteria are met.
The first criterion is that parents must feel strongly that they should and can be involved in a range of activities that involves them in this education. Thus, parents who do not see the need to be involved, or who see no way of becoming involved, clearly miss out – and so do their children. On the other hand, these programs are more likely to meet with success and improved learning if the parents jump at obvious opportunities offered to get involved.
The second criterion is that parents need to believe that their involvement actually will help their children’s learning achievement. Thus, parents who think that their effort makes no difference – for whatever reason – will indeed make no difference: it becomes what social psychologists call a “self-fulfilling prophecy.” Again, they and their children miss out. However, parents who believe that time spent with their children over school work does make a difference, and act accordingly, will find themselves rewarded.
Similarly, in an editorial, the St. Catharines Standard of October 16, 2001, referred to a Fraser Institute study, which draws the conclusion that for children to do better in school, the lesson parents need to learn is “to become more involved in their kids” education: Talk to them about what they are learning, help them if they have any problems and maintain a good rapport with their teachers. The heading for the article summed it up quite well: “Children can’t learn if parents drop out.” As Christian parents, we would give thanks to God for blessing our efforts to do the right thing by being involved. How beautiful it is when a student with limited abilities still gets C’s and B’s or other positive grades and comments on a report card because parents understand and accept their calling!
How to be Involved
Parents often ask teachers what they can do to help their children do well in school. The short answer is that they should get involved. A 1991 study by Epstein and Dauber of Johns Hopkins University shows that this involvement can take place at different levels. It begins with providing a safe, interested, and positive home environment that supports school learning. It proceeds with frequent communication from school to home and from home to school, for which school agendas can be used effectively. Another level of involvement includes volunteering in the classroom or at special events, being an audience, or helping out the teacher. (Perhaps teachers could look for more ways to involve capable parents in classroom activities, which would extend a direct benefit for the students). It gets a little more involved with the next level, which includes helping children with assignments at home. Teachers can help parents here by sending along the necessary instruction to make sure the help is given properly. A next level of involvement is as a member of the PTA, Board, or committee. The latter level may not automatically mean that children will do better, but if there is commitment on the part of the parents to be involved in this way, there also is likely commitment to be involved in one of the other ways. Finally, in some contexts, it can take the form of providing or facilitating connections with community services.
Not all involvement or attempts at involvement are automatically effective. A parent could be spending many hours on the school board, and have zero effect on his child’s performance at school by neglecting the child’s daily experiences, or by becoming a gadfly on the board by constantly harping on pet peeves rather than promoting the wellbeing of the whole community. A parent could be very interested in what goes on at school, and question her child about all the details of the school day, and subsequently destroy any and all positive effects of this involvement by proceeding with a tirade on the stupidities of the teachers and the school’s policies. Other parents may set out to help their children with homework, but proceed to give answers to questions, rather than helping with possible strategies to find the answers. For any involvement to be effective, the parent needs to be in line with the school’s expectations, approaches, and methodologies.
To encourage parent involvement, schools may set up magnificent schemes; however, if it must occur at the wrong times, or if it requires skills or efforts parents can’t (or think they can’t) provide, or if other hidden barriers are set up to keep certain parents from participating, much of the effort goes to naught. Recently, the British Journal of Sociology of Education published an Irish study in which blue-collar parents were excluded from school involvement against their desires simply because they belonged to a class of people that is statistically not very interested in education, and were made to feel uncomfortable when trying to address an issue with a teacher or principal (March 2002, pp. 35-49). A study done in a Hamilton (Ontario) public school underlined the importance of reciprocal communication from home to school and school to home, and of the relevance of informal personal chats for establishing social contact and removing barriers to future communications. Effectiveness takes a mutual and accommodating effort. If, on the other hand, school personnel are not “approachable,” the benefit of any parent involvement in their children’s education may not even come in sight, regardless of whether the school is Reformed, Irish, Public, or Roman Catholic. To be approachable, and to facilitate informal chats, it would probably also help if teachers actually live in the community they serve. For teachers employed in a Reformed school, it is well to expect, to facilitate, and to encourage parental involvement.
Finally, research has also found that supporting communities make a great deal of difference. Such communities are those in which there are a lot of contacts within and between the various families, children, and other adults, and where voluntary networks exist to help each other out, to encourage each other, and to comfort each other – and it does not even have to be about school. Such contacts are called “social capital” in the bestseller of Robert Putnam of Harvard University, Bowling Alone (2000). In the church, the Lord has blessed us with just that kind of social capital: the communion of saints.
It will not do to shrug off the above examples as “foreign” or “public.” Nobody is perfect, and we all stumble, but we also have a high calling which sets the moral standard of what is right. Promoting sincere efforts to be as involved as we can, both as teachers and as parents, is right and should be done properly. Our schools not only thrive on parental involvement, they require it because God requires it. In addition, let us give thanks to God for uniting us in Christ as a communion of saints, by doing it. Even secular researchers point at the blessings that come with doing what is right.