Q: If you could give all your students one special gift for Christmas to help their education, what would it be?
This is the easiest question ever. A family.
There is no stronger support for education. Like Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “The group consisting of mother, father, and child is the main educational agency of mankind.”
Research bears him out. The National Conference of State Legislatures shares studies showing that “children born into intact married parent families are more likely to thrive economically, socially and psychologically.”
They also point out that these children are the least likely to live in poverty, at 11 percent. For children living in single-father households, the rate is 22 percent. For those with single mothers, it’s 48 percent. That’s important because, as the National Center for Education Statistics noted in a 2016 report, childhood poverty has a strong negative impact on academic performance.
The U.S. Census Bureau reports that children who are a part of intact families are far less likely to be suspended from school or repeat a grade. They are much more likely to be read to by one of their parents as they are growing up.
It is easy to imagine why all this is so.
A family shares values. They share common beliefs and common outlooks on life. We’ve all known “hunting” families, “football” families, and “military” families. My aunt had a sign in her kitchen that said, “The family that prays together, stays together.” This phrase shows how unifying beliefs can create a sense of community for children, which gives them stability and confidence.
You can’t hide in a real family. One obstacle students face today is isolation, and social media is making the problem worse. When kids feel alone, a family takes away that loneliness. You can never be alone in a family, and you can’t get away from the people who care about you. The family is the only place I know of where this is true.
A family motivates us. No one else in society has the right to “tell it like it is” to a child, sometimes with raised voices, sometimes with stern consequences. If a teacher tried to do what a parent can do, she would be fired. But in a family you find the bluntness, directness, and honesty that kids need to stay on the right path.
But children also need love and nurturing. A family provides that, too. To have one without the other is like trying to cut paper with only one blade of a pair of scissors. In many families, when the separation of duties is called for, father plays one role and mother plays the other. When one parent has to play both, it can confuse children and exhaust the parent, who often ends up abandoning one of the roles.
Families give us the essential fuel that we need to sustain our self-motivation, achieve our ambitions, and work our way through obstacles: love. Rarely does anyone tell a child “I love you” in school or anywhere else. Most of us hear those words only in a family. University of Toronto professor John Miller, author of Love and Compassion: Exploring Their Role in Education, says that “to truly make a difference in a student’s life, there needs to be love.” He explains that love brings patience and understanding, which are critical for students to learn.
I understand that things can happen to break up or preclude a family. For a substantial part of my schooling, I was raised by a single parent. It worked, and I was loved, but it was far from ideal. My father was constantly stretched to the limit. I was someone who took others’ burdens on my back, so it depleted me, too.
Students of splintered families talk about how difficult it is to be separated from their parents. It is hard for them to look out in the audience from their concerts and see their parents on opposite sides of the auditorium. It pressures, stresses, and discourages them at a time when they are still growing and incorporating their own experiences into a view of what the ideal world is like.
William Aikman, the 18th century English portrait painter, said that the family reaches its peak when “husband and wife are one in honor, influence, and affection, and where children are a common bond of care and love. This is the idea of a perfect family.”
I know the truly perfect family eludes most of us. But even an imperfect family, if it is built on a foundation of love and loyalty, is strong enough to break the chains of apathy and ignorance.
Of all God’s creations, the family is His masterpiece. And if I could give a gift that would ensure the elevation of children’s educations everywhere, the family would be the one.