My son Christopher and daughter Adrienne are in their early 20s. Between the two of them, that’s more than four decades parenting experience. I’ve been teaching for about 25 years. Assume 60 students a year. That’s several centuries of time spent with other people’s children. Here are three of the more important insights I’ve gleaned about educating children.
1. Homework Is Second
A fundamental piece of the mission and philosophy of Sacred Heart schools is the idea that the one who leads the best is the one who serves the best. The saints, best exemplified by the Virgin Mary, demonstrate that leadership of others and service to others are linked. Of course, the paragon of the “servant leader model” is Jesus Christ, who “did not come to be served, but to serve” (Matthew 22:28). Homework, so the story goes, serves to benefit the student by giving him extra practice with important concepts. The beneficiary of homework is the student, not someone other than the student. After a long day at school, a student who returns home with homework should not give top priority to that homework. To be sure, it’s more than reasonable for him to rest a bit, put on some more comfortable clothes, have a snack, et cetera.
But then the things that must be done must get done, and first things have priority. Service to others takes priority over service to oneself.
So, before homework gets done, a student should train his leadership skills by doing something around the house that benefits someone other than himself. He could, for example, do the dishes. He could walk the dog. He could take out the trash, or mow the lawn, or help a younger sibling with his or her homework. This training in leadership works best when the student identifies what acts of service need doing, and then he chooses which one to do. The initiative ought to be his. When the student’s initiative falters, his parents — those primarily responsible for his education — ought to step in and at least offer a few choices.
As my 8th graders learned reading The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, the difference between work and play is not the activity. Rather, the difference is found in the choosing. As Mark Twain explained, “Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and that Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do.” When I choose to do the dishes, I enjoy doing the dishes. When I end up doing the dishes, the exact same activity irritates me. Young men — who are all leaders in training — deserve the opportunity to discover the distinction between Work and Play.
2. Devices Are Second, Too
Technology can overwhelm. Tools that are meant to make work easier end up making it easier for others to pile more work on us. Those same tools present numerous distractions that make work harder to get done. Add in technology specifically designed to facilitate play, and work diminishes further. Add to this a strange trick of the mind. Everyone has experienced being so immersed in an activity that one loses track of time. What seems to have occupied only minutes of my time ends up consuming hours. Soon, the time that I had to complete X, Y, and Z is gone, and I haven’t gotten beyond W.
Just as homework takes second place to service within the home, so to do devices that distract from work take second place to homework. The research about the destructive habits and negative psychological effects of too much exposure to the Internet and other forms of electronic entertainment, especially many social media sites, is enormous and pretty well established. Many of these entertainments thrive by presenting us with Pavlovian stimulus-response loops. After I’m done writing and posting this little essay to my site, I’ll post the link on social media. Then, since I’ve been trained to salivate when the bells rings, I’ll be drawn to check over and over again to see who has liked my social media post. Did I get an up thumb? If so, from whom? How many interactions have there been? If someone leaves a comment, I must respond to that comment. And so my electronically reinforced distractibility keeps me focused on something other than what I’m supposed to be focused on.
Time spent using devices, especially devices that grant access to the Internet, must be prioritized and limited. My children ten years ago did not have to deal with the level of distraction that today’s children face. If my son Christopher were in middle school now, I’d impose clear limits. It might look something like this:
* First, relax for a bit after a hard day of school.
* Second, pick which form of service you’ll perform and then perform it.
* Third, do your homework.
* Fourth, after all of the above is done, you can watch TV or play a video game or whatever.
And step four would include time limits. No more than an hour, for example, and it certainly would be the case that the various weapons of mass distraction would not be kept in Christopher’s room. They’d be in the shared spaces of the home, and, at night, even his phone would end up somewhere other than in his room. Bed time is bed time, and lights out means no electricity. The only activity that might delay lights out would be reading a book.
3. Personal Grooming Is Not Optional
Here I must speak directly to young men. Read and consider carefully these words of wisdom.
Like it or not, people judge you by your appearance. People judge not only you by your appearance, they also judge your parents — especially your mother — by your appearance. This isn’t fair. It’s not right. But it is the truth, and you can shut doors that ought to have been kept open by the way you present yourself in public. So, you must do these five things:
* Bathe daily with soap. That includes washing and combing (or brushing) your hair.
* If you wash your hair at night, you need to wash and comb (or brush) it again in the morning, unless your hair is as about as short as mine usually is.
* Wear deodorant everyday. If you sweat a lot during the day, bring deodorant with you to school. (I keep deodorant in my desk at school, but it’s mine; get your own.)
* Put on clean clothes everyday. This includes your shoes and the clothes that people can’t see because they’re worn under other clothes.
* Get a haircut at least every three weeks. The longer your hair, the more often it needs cutting.
There is one important rule for haircuts: If your bangs hide your forehead and eyebrows, your hair is wrong. It either needs to be combed away from your face or cut shorter. Fortunately, there are numerous options available for you no matter what kind of hair you have. Here are a few excellent links:
Best Haircuts for Black Men
How to Grow Your Hair Out Long (for Dudes)
A Man’s Guide to Brushes and Combs
Men’s Hairstyles: What’s the Difference Between a Taper and a Fade?
The Knights of the Mightier Pen gather in the hallowed halls of the Regis School in Houston, Texas, to share their tales and poems.