Two Ways News is a weekly collaboration between Tony Payne and Phillip Jensen – a newsletter and podcast on a topic to encourage gospel thinking for today (subscribe at twoways.news).
Teach your Children Well
Tony: What do you think the Bible says about educating children? Whose responsibility is it and what are we to educate children in?
Phillip: Oh, it’s the responsibility of parents. God created us in his image, male and female, and united us as husband and wife, that we may be so united as to have children—but more importantly, have godly children. In Malachi 2, we see that God’s intention in making us one is to live faithfully with each other in order to raise our children in the fear and nurture of the Lord. And so, you don’t just have children and let them go. In the book of Proverbs and Deuteronomy 4-6, there is the emphasis on teaching children in the ways of the Lord, and the responsibility that parents have in teaching their children about the law.
That’s teaching them not so much mathematics and spelling as teaching them who God is and how it shapes their character. It’s teaching them the reason why they live, how to live and treat other people, how to relate to other people. For thousands of years, even until now, people have been able to live without, say, calculus. But we can’t live without love. We can’t live without other people. That is fundamental to our existence.
That’s what we’re to teach our children.
And parents will inevitably teach their children, for better or for worse, whether they want to or not. For example, a parent who abandons their child will teach them how unimportant they are. It is also why the children of families of divorce are more likely to divorce themselves when they get older. Of course, I’m speaking in generalities—there’s always the individual child who grows up in a household of smokers and commits never to smoke, or in a household of alcoholics and never drinks alcohol. But generally, whether they want to or not, whether they’re conscious of doing it or not, inevitably, parents will teach children.
TP: It’s interesting that even in those situations where, for example, a child of a divorced family is determined not to have a divorce, and does everything within their power to keep their marriage together, it’s still because they’ve been taught something by their parents—taught something about how damaging divorce is.
So in terms of educating children for life in this world that’s created by God, is it really possible to undertake that education without teaching them about God?
PJ: No, it’s not really possible to educate a child or young person in life, in the way of the world, without a theological understanding–without an understanding of the world as a created place, a place that has God’s purposes woven into it. If they don’t know God, and they don’t know God’s law, and they don’t know God’s wisdom, you will teach them the folly of the world’s wisdom. It may work to a certain extent: it may well work in terms of becoming a lawyer or a doctor or a dentist. It may well work in terms of teaching them a happy family life, and so on. But it will always be fundamentally flawed and deficient if it does not include God, because it’s not true to the reality of the world that you live in.
So you may be moral, but you won’t have any reason for being moral. So your morality then becomes self-centered in a sense; it simply makes you feel good to be moral.
TP: So if parents have this primary place, both in principle and in fact, in shaping and teaching and educating their children, and why have Christians started schools? Isn’t that kind of taking the educational task away from parents?
PJ: Well, Christians have always been interested in education. Historically the oldest schools in Australia (and in Western culture) were church schools started by Christians. In fact, the idea of universal education came out of the Sunday School movement, and the Ragged School movement, where the goal was to teach children to read and write, particularly so that everyone could read their Bibles. And so we ran schools so that people would be able to read their Bibles, which is why education grew more in Protestant countries than it did in Catholic countries.
And so we had practical reasons why, historically, we were always interested in starting schools and education, so much so that we ended up persuading the community to run government schools. But today, government-run schools are so normal that people have forgotten that it was Christians who started them, and who actually persuaded the community to do it in the first place.
TP: So you’re saying that Christians started schools, because we believe in these theological truths about knowing the world as a God-created place, and we wanted everybody to have access to the tools to understand these truths. And we knew not every family would be able to do that. It was an act of good works, of charity, to make education more available to more people. But now that that’s become an accepted part of our Western culture, that everyone should have access to that kind of basic education about the world, why do Christians still run schools?
PJ: Well, some people don’t think we should, and don’t think we need to. But for most parents, the technological information that now needs to be grasped by an adult in a Western civilization is far greater than what most mums and dads are able to provide. And so we put our children into schools, where specialist educators can provide the information for our children that we ourselves couldn’t provide.
Our children also need to go into the world and we need to educate them how to live in the world, not just how to live in our home. And school can provide a safe place for children to have their first experiences of the world.
TP: Couldn’t anyone provide this sort of technological, specialized knowledge, regardless of whether they’re Christian or non-Christian?
PJ: We need to remember that the fundamental aspect of education is not the technology or the information. It is about growing our character, our minds, our inquisitive nature, our ability to think and reason and have morals and ethics. Now that comes from the context of our belief system–from Christianity or secularism or Hinduism or Buddhism or something else.
There isn’t a moral, ethical, intellectual vacuum in which you can place information. It always comes in that wider background. Now, people aren’t necessarily aware of it because they’re concentrating on things like “how do I conjugate this verb?”—instead of thinking about the nature of language and its role within culture, and the immorality of the culture of which this little verb is part. They’re not thinking about the importance of communication and the capacity for humans to be able to communicate and why we are able to communicate in different languages. The cows can’t do it, the dogs can’t do it. Why can humans do it? What are we trying to do in learning the skills of communication? Unless you place your education in a wider context, it’s a very superficial education. You can get that superficial education anywhere, but it’s the beliefs and values that lie behind it that really matter.
TP: In other words, an understanding of the world that’s shaped by our knowledge of God through Jesus Christ is going to shape almost every aspect of that education. It’s going to shape what we think a man is, or what a woman is, or what we think the purpose of life is. It will shape how we think about the world—for example, whether we think the world is a neutral thing separate from us or whether it’s God’s creation, for which we humans have a stewardship and responsibility. It strikes me that my own children (and now grandchildren) are taught an ideology of environmentalism at school that is heavily value-laden and very ideologically driven. And which doesn’t really connect with a Christian view of creation.
PJ: And if you ask, what is the end point of education? Well, part of our problem in a multicultural, pluralist kind of society like ours is that there isn’t any one agreed outcome to education. The education system today says, “We want them to explore and do their own thing”—but that’s nonsense, because we’ve got a massive and detailed curriculum, and we follow this curriculum and teach them the things that we think are going to be helpful to them. And what we mostly think is going to be helpful to them is teaching them how to get a career.
Meanwhile, we have fairly serious problems on issues like masculinity, and how we train young boys and girls to act and live and for the future they are going to have.
TP: On all the many school speech nights I’ve sat through, I don’t think I have ever once heard the headmaster/headmistress or head girl/boy say that one of the great dreams and values and purposes of this education is to raise a great family, or to be a great father or great mother who raises children who know and love God.
PJ: Yes, it’s a narrow view of life as work and career, which is also why they have careers days, and careers guidance. Well, if you’re a Christian, that’s a problem, because we don’t believe in careers. We want to help people get jobs, not train people for careers. And it’s an educational problem because you’re not teaching truth for truth’s sake, you’re teaching information for personal self-aggrandizement and status (in a career). And on career’s day, there is never the option to be a homemaker—when in fact a large percentage of women are going to be homemakers, and potentially that will be their lifetime’s work and their most important work.
We also know that children thrive and flourish better when they are in the home of their parents, in a stable context with mum and dad. Faithfulness in marriage, therefore, is an important thing to be teaching the next generation. And meanwhile, we’re teaching children to build a career for themselves, which takes more than 10 years, and by the way, you may bump into someone somewhere along the line and have babies, but you don’t need to worry about that. And so we’re not actually giving the model that family life is important.
It’s the same with the boys. You’ve got this ‘toxic masculinity’, which is now a tautology (since all that is toxic seems in some way to be masculine, and all that is masculine seems to be toxic). And so when young men leave school or university, they still have not been taught what it means to be a man—unless it’s the feminist answer, which is to be more like a woman. But giving boys a real role model of male leadership that is self-sacrificial, caring, and lovingly serving people, especially those weaker than yourself—that kind of Christ-like model is not actually provided for boys within the school curriculum.
TP: So in an explicitly Christian school, these are the kinds of issues that need to be thought through. How are we teaching a view of the world, of men, of women, of character and values that are rooted in the reality that we read about in Scripture?
But coming back to our question about the role of parents in all of this: if education is primarily the responsibility of the parent, we’re really saying that schooling (including explicitly Christian schooling) has the responsibility to educate children not as a replacement of the parents but as a delegated authority that assists in educating.
I think one of the issues for Christian parents is maintaining the energy, interest, diligence and faithfulness to exercise that parental teaching responsibility in the midst of a busy life, rather than entirely outsourcing it to another organization, be it a Christian or secular school.
Which kind of leads us to that age-old debate about whether Christian parents should homeschool their children, or send them to a local public school, or a Christian/church school.
PJ: I have three children, and each of them have children. One of them sends their children to the state schools, one to church schools, and the other goes to Christian schools. And with all due respect to all my children and their choices, it’s not all that different. Because whichever system you’re in, the important part is the parenting.
So when the school reports come home, the first thing they look at is not the marks or the grades; they look at the comments about behavior, and contribution to the welfare of the class and the school, and how the teacher sees them, because that’s the important part of the education. Whether they got an A in English or a B, it doesn’t really matter. But whether they are rude to the teachers, whether they have friends, whether they are making valuable contributions for the welfare of other people—now that is real education. That’s what matters.
TP: It’s also true that what’s required of you as a parent (as you take final responsibility for the education of your children) will vary from school to school. You’ll face different challenges and opportunities, depending what sort of school your kids are at (or whether they are home schooled). So if your kids are in a secular school (as some of mine were at various points), the discussions you’ll be having with them as you help with their homework and so on will be very different from a discussion you might have if they go to a Christian school or a church school. For example, in a church school, to be a Christian is to align yourself with the authority of the school and ‘the establishment’, which as a young person is often a difficult thing to do. If you’re in a more thoroughly ‘Christian’ school, there are all kinds of other issues in terms of being an authentically real Christian, as opposed to just identifying yourself as one because that’s what the convention is.
PJ: Yes, that’s right. And so there are different issues at each one of them. If you go to the big church schools, which tend to be rich schools as much as anything else, chapel is perfunctory and values can be expressed in terms of clothes and sport and overseas holidays and the latest gadgets. Now this may not be as big an issue if your kids are going to a local school where half the children are poor.
TP: As we round this off, Phillip, what would you want to say to encourage parents who are listening to this conversation as they send their kids back to school this year?
PJ: Well, two things.
One, as you send your kids to school, that doesn’t abrogate your responsibility of educating your children. The school is only assisting you in your education of your children; you still need to spend the time with them. Your interest in them and their schoolwork is critically important for their development, and more so at some ages than others. For those of you with junior teenagers, when their peer group becomes seemingly more powerful than the parents, don’t give up. Keep showing interest in them and their peer group, so that when the day comes when they get past that stage and the peer group dissolves, you are still there; you’re still part of their life.
The second thing is: have confidence. You can’t actually beat the impact of parenting. Our government recently said that the chief indicator of educational outcome is family background (which they see as a problem to be overcome). But you can’t actually beat God’s creation of the family. And so have confidence. Society may be hostile to what you believe and the gospel, but have confidence that God will be with you and your children, and will bring about in their life the lessons of life that you give them.
I guess that leads to a third thing: inasmuch as you’re able, make sure you give the right lessons. If you get sucked into the kind of value system of the world around you, you’ll be teaching your children that value system too. Whereas, if you are distinctively Christian, that will help teach your children to be that as well.
TP: If we want your children to be learners, to be disciples, we do them the greatest favour by being disciples of Jesus ourselves—by growing ourselves in our understanding of the world and who we are, and learning from God what it means to live as his people And showing that to our kids as we do.