August 27, 2014

Bringing Up Baby

By Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo, C.S.J. *

By Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo, C.S.J. *

With the opening of another school year, the spotlight shines on the education of America’s children and young adults.  At the same time, the nation grieves in utter shock at the murder of James Foley who worked as a photojournalist for GlobalPost.  He died for being an American and for professing Christianity.

Whether educators teach in schools overtly Catholic or in public schools, they know that children are our most valued treasures.  Or, they should know. The gifts of children await discovery and development.  From the Latin infinitive, educere, education is a journey intended to lead students out from darkness into the light of truth, goodness, and beauty, all crowned with love. There are no apologies for this exalted vision.  James Foley lived it to the last moment of his life.

Bringing Up Baby

Catholic education begins in earnest in the crib and advances to playpen and pre-school, to grade school, high school, college, and beyond. Lifelong learning is the purpose of Catholic education.

Expectant mothers can begin the educational process for the baby in utero by reading poetry aloud, by singing songs or by playing classical music. Glenn Gould’s mother did just that.  He became a great interpreter of Bach’s keyboard music.

In the arms of loving parents and caregivers, infants are affirmed as love-worthy.  Study their eyes, fixed, unwavering, and probing.  They’re sizing up the adults. It’s as if each is saying: ‘Here I am. I’m entrusting myself to you—completely—to help me become a wonderful human person.’ (In Pauline language, this would translate into becoming “God’s work of art created in Christ Jesus” Eph 2:10). 

What virtues do good parents instill as they raise their sons and daughters to become the very best possible human persons?  We see this before our very eyes in the Foley family. 

When in 2011, Jim was released after forty-four days in jail by forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi, he returned to Marquette University, his alma mater, to thank the community for praying for his return.  A touching article in Marquette Magazine reveals that he relied on praying the rosary, his knuckles serving to count out the Hail Mary’s. 

During his infancy some forty years ago, Jim’s parents began in earnest his Catholic education. Yet, they could not have imagined the central role his faith would play this past week.  Yes, bringing up baby requires a long, demanding commitment.  It’s a full-time vocation.  In the face of suffering, Jim’s mother and father spoke words of high praise for the son they brought into the world and raised to build a better world.

Reading to Our Children as a Preparation for Reading

Parents have a responsibility to make time to read to their pre-school children.  It is often the working parent(s) who are most faithful in this regard despite the constraints of time.  These childhood moments can never be retrieved.  These precious hours between mother or father and child are an essential component of parental bonding. This is one place where the child’s vocabulary grows and is enlarged. This is one place where the child’s world grows larger and larger.

Moral Literacy: Even Playtime Is Not Values-Free 

There is no education that is values-free, not even playtime.  From infancy, children learn moral literacy: self-discipline, compassion, courage, friendship, honesty, loyalty, the value of work, perseverance, responsibility, and faith.  Or, they do not.  Children learn from example, good or bad.  And their first teachers are their parents.

The Mystery of How Children Develop: Some Examples

How children grow to adulthood is one of life’s great mysteries. Can we foresee the adult in the child? Can we see the child in the adult? As a child in Lower Bavaria, Adolf Hitler took singing lessons, sang in the choir, and even considered the priesthood. With promising talent for painting with watercolors, he wanted to become a professional artist. Twice failing the entrance exam, he was told that his talent was better suited to architecture.  In fact, a strong architectural streak runs through his many works which were influenced by classicism—Greco-Roman, Italian Renaissance, and Neo-classicism.  When conflicts persisted between him and his father who viewed his artistic gift as frivolous, Hitler rebelled and turned elsewhere for inspiration.  By his own admission, he was an artist and not a politician.

At the age of seven, Maya Angelou was raped by a dubious relative, who was let out of jail and found dead that same night.  Angelou thought that she had caused the man’s death because she had reported his name.  She stopped talking for five years.  But good came out of evil.  In those years, she read every book in the black school library and then from the white school library.  She memorized poems of the black poets, James Weldon Johnson and Langston Hughes.  She memorized whole plays of Shakespeare and fifty sonnets, all the poetry of Edgar Allen Poe, Longfellow, de Maupassant, Balzac, and Kipling.  When she decided to speak, her vocabulary was vast and vastly beautiful.  Maya Angelou rose to become a revered author and poet.

Dr. Ben Carson, Sr., the world-renowned neurosurgeon, grew up without the presence of his father, a Baptist minister who had divorced his wife when his son was ten. The boy got into trouble, almost succumbed to killing with knives, and earned bad grades.  But his mother’s motivation and her insistence on academics, and reading in particular, changed his destructive behavior to a life spent in doing good. He is the first successful surgeon to separate twins who were conjoined at the head.

Why do most Asian children score well in education beginning in pre-school?  Confucian culture places a high value on education because it is viewed as the way of succeeding in life. From infancy, this is drummed into the children.  Today, children from Asian homes excel in virtually every discipline, including the arts.  Some educators observe that the demands are excessive.

The Judeo-Christianity greatly exalts the human person: all human persons are created in the image and likeness of God.  The Psalmist reinforces this truth: “You have made them a little lower than God, with glory and honor you crowned them” (Ps 5:8).  Not just their hearts and souls but their whole persons as well are to be educated, for we are forming tomorrow’s citizens and future saints.

From infancy, children learn discipleship in the Lord, or they do not.  James Foley’s Catholicism was not a minimal, external Christianity, and in observing the Foley family, we sense that Catholic faith unites that family, especially in this hour of sorrow.


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