A couple of years ago, I saw a documentary showcasing six families in New York City who were pursuing the path of finding the perfect preschool for their toddlers. The basic premise of the film was that there is an unspoken “rule” among New Yorkers that drives competition among parents to strive for their children’s acceptance into the “best” preschools so that, in their belief, they will then get into the “best” kindergartens, primary schools, high schools, and eventually into an Ivy League college. Apparently it is a big “to do” out there (I had no idea), and even parents who may be more laid back find themselves stressing out over preschool applications, interviews, lotteries, and then selection.
This was fascinating to me as I recalled a book I read when I was a new school counselor, fresh out of grad school, The Overachievers by Alexandra Robbins. In the book, Robbins followed several high school students in wealthy parts of the East Coast who attended very well-renowned high schools/prep schools/boarding schools. She journeyed with these students from freshman year into their college years, and it was eye-opening to discover how much pressure these young people experience – mainly from their parents, their culture (meaning their wealthy neighborhoods), and even themselves.
I admit I found my spirits sinking lower and lower as I saw the specialized nannies, developmental therapists, and counselors who were working with these toddlers one-on-one in their homes and day care centers. I thought of how Felicity and Sarah are considered “delayed” in many developmental areas, and this thought gave me much discouragement. I wondered if they would ever be able to learn simple things, such as using scissors or tying their shoes, riding a bicycle or getting dressed, without extreme effort. So far, everything we have taught them has been borne from many hours of teaching and even more hours of prayer.
As the documentary wrapped up, Ben arrived home from his first men’s Bible Study at our parish, and he plopped down on the couch next to me, asking, “What are you watching?” As I explained, he pulled out a piece of paper with typed printing on it and read the following to me: “The interior life is far more profound and necessary than our intellectual life or the cultivation of the sciences, than artistic or literary life, than social or political life. The content of your interior life determines not only the actions of your exterior life but also your destiny” (CCC 2697, 2698, 2742-2743).
My heart nearly leaped from my chest. These words spoke such truth to me and brought me back to the hope I have in our faith and in the true message of Christian parenting. I suppose the philosopher in me began pondering the implications of such a statement, especially in light of what I was just watching. It is so easy for me to be lured by the enticements of the world, even to the point of convincing myself that our family should look like everyone else’s family, that we should be pushing our children to do and learn all the things that society tells them they need to know so that they will be accepted into a prestigious post-secondary institution and then eventually find a lucrative career in the world.
Don’t get me wrong – I am a huge advocate for higher learning. It is the school counselor in me that sees the world as our classroom. Every day I find new ways to introduce concepts to Felicity, ways to incorporate learning her letters, numbers, shapes, and colors. Whether it is on a nature walk, a trip to the grocery store, or a drive in the country, I see the world around us as presenting myriad opportunities for learning experiences every day. It is perhaps the inquisitive side of me that finds the world so fascinating and alluring, and of course I am fond of questions from Felicity when I see her eyes light up as she begins to view the world in an entirely new way. There is nothing more heart-warming to me than seeing the innocence and wonder in a child’s eyes.
But the truth of the matter and the bottom line is this: What matters most in life is not what can be taught in a textbook or viewed in an art museum or even experienced through the senses. What matters most is the soul, the afterlife, eternity. Am I teaching my children the values that will assist them in their sanctification? Am I modeling honesty, integrity, empathy? Are they learning respect, charity, patience? When I consider our two special little girls, I remember that it is not our intelligence that makes us pleasing to God. It is not how much we know or whether or not we have earned a high degree. What matters to God is whether or not we have learned to truly love, and that can only be learned when the conscience is formed.
It is no secret that parenting – in all of its aspects – is a challenge, perhaps the biggest challenge each parent faces in his/her life. But I wonder sometimes if we have gotten it all wrong in our culture, because we have strayed from instilling the values that were once integral and imperative to holding our society together. We now focus solely on academics, the arts, and “higher” learning. While these are invaluable, they are also temporal and finite. But forming the souls of our children – now that takes a lifetime to do. And in the process, aren’t we, as parents, growing in sanctification, as well? If I truly care about my child’s eternal destiny, then I must look inward myself – at my weaknesses, my sins, my faults. I must look in the mirror daily and take inventory of what I am modeling to my children. What are my priorities? How do I treat others? Do I take time to appreciate silence? Do I spend time with God?
You see, as I get older, there is one life lesson I continue to learn: The more I grow in knowledge, the more I realize I know very little at all. I believe this is because knowledge that the world captures is but a glimpse of the mind of God. And the more discoveries that are made through research, the more advances in technology and science, the more questions arise, as well. What the human mind can grasp is merely an iota of the mind of God. And so this truth has both humbled and amazed me, and this is why my goal is to send our children to preschool rather than to a prep school that will (possibly, but not assuredly) lead to an Ivy League education.
Preschool should be about learning, fun, and play. It should be a place in which our children begin to socialize and express their feelings. Rigorous academics will come soon enough, but in my mind and in my heart, I know the real classroom lies in the world around us. And the real challenge for me, as a mom, is not to find the “best” schools for my children, but rather to lead them to know, love, and serve God. It’s great that Felicity knows her colors, shapes, numbers, and letters, but my hope is that every day I am doing something to help form and mold her soul so that she will grow in love and all of the virtues we once esteemed and have now lost.
Copyright 2015 Jeannie Ewing
Image by Skitterphoto on Pixabay; edited in Canva by Jeannie Ewing.