This article presents to the broader Heights community a 2016 letter written by our headmaster, Alvaro de Vicente, to Heights parents.
Former Heights Headmaster, Dr. Robert Jackson, used to say that education is about the passing on of a culture. Our culture both represents and shapes who we are. Although inescapably exposed to the general culture in our society, while they are living at home, your sons’ most influential cultural experiences should be dictated by home and school. To this effect, we at The Heights seek to collaborate with you in providing a culture for your sons that will shape them according to your expectations and hopes. The most important agent for surrounding your sons with the culture you desire is the home environment you create. Given how much children learn from the environment around them, you parents have a special power to form and deform.
Of course, you could not hold the former without also risking the latter. Your values and example have an impact. Whether you view money as an instrument of service, or a tool for power, or a guarantee of comfort, that view will influence how your sons think of it themselves. If you put away your own phones when you sit at the dinner table, then you form your children into believing that phones should not interrupt the sacredness of dinnertime. If you keep your phone with you and check it, even furtively, while at the table, your sons will learn that constant access to their phones is accepted (you do it) and desirable (that is what men do).
So, here are some ideas for creating a healthy formative culture at home. There are innumerable such ideas and you all will have many that you already practice. This is by no means an exhaustive list, or a final list. Read it, rather, as a sample of what a list of family cultural traits could be like, in no particular order of importance.
- Have a Library at home. If you want your sons to develop into readers, then you need to present a culture of reading at home. It may occasionally be more convenient to read a book on an iPad, or to listen to audiobooks, but there is no substitute for having physical books at home that stare your sons daily in the face. Your sons benefit from seeing you, on a regular basis, grab a book from a shelf or from a side table and sit down to read. That image conveys to them that reading is for adults, and that through hard work and habit, they are making themselves capable of sharing that activity with the civilized, educated world. If they never see you reading, no matter how much you counsel them to do so, they will invariably believe that reading is for kids in school but not something grown men do.
- Establish and protect order in common areas of your home. This way you can teach your sons that you have the expectation of order in all areas of the home, including his bedroom. After all, the bedroom is not really his room but rather the room in which he sleeps. The same principle applies to the car that he drives. Those cars need to be kept clean rather than becoming lockers on wheels. Order is a way for man to make the space he inhabits available to others. Order is not only an act of self-discipline; it is also an act of charity.
- Aim to have dinner together everyday. An occasional failure to this plan will still ensure that you have family dinner most of the time. There is just no better way to teach your sons about the importance of making time for family. Only by adamantly protecting this time, will you teach them that being together for dinner is the best use of time no matter how busy you are. Only the fulfillment of a duty to others that cannot be changed or demands of charity should trump it. Because deciding when these obligations or demands weigh more than family time is a hard balance to strike, parents need to be the wise arbiters. Factors like whether the conflicting task could be done some other time, or differentiating between a true duty or demand of charity and what we want to do, should be considered. Parents need to lead by example themselves by respecting that family time as much as possible. Husbands and wives can keep each other honest in this regard.
- Engineer one common conversation during dinner. I would discourage you from using this time to preach to your children – you want to make dinner fun so kids actually want to be there. The dinner conversation is potentially a very formative time when each family member (even you parents) talks about what happened during the day. This naturally helps your sons become, in a healthy way, more involved in the lives of other family members: your sons hear about what everyone else did that day and by listening and commenting they have a chance to both learn and teach. More importantly, this conversation gives you a chance to shape your children’s understanding of reality through quick, natural comments that you may make as part of the conversation, as well as by letting your children form each other. The dinner conversation has the added benefit of making good storytellers out of your sons.
- Dedicate a nightly time to family prayer. It does not have to be long, as a matter of fact, it is better if it is rather short. Maybe not even five minutes. But there is something powerful about a family gathering at the end of the day – just before the youngest goes to bed – and praying together. Everyone has an opportunity to mention one or several intentions for which he would like the family to pray. This teaches your sons both that men pray for what they care about most, and also what it is that you most care about.
- Spend time with the elderly and lonely. Some of you are very fortunate to have parents or other relatives with whom your sons can spend time. An impatient, energetic young man has much to learn from old age, not the least of which is to learn to appreciate old age. If you are not fortunate to have living parents in the area, I would encourage you to visit the elderly at your parish or local retirement home. It is a good way to engage and develop your sons’ empathy, and to teach them the importance of respecting every person regardless of his age, appearance, or state in life.
- Give to charity. We live in a culture that worships money. Because you want your sons to learn the proper use of money from you, your own choices need to be clear. They will learn when to spend, when to save, and when to give not so much from what you tell them, but from your habits of doing each one of those activities. You cannot buy your sons’ happiness with money, but you can teach them to be happy by becoming men who are givers — happy givers.
Your sons will learn much from your family culture. That is the good news insofar as that allows you to shape what kind of a person they will be. The sometimes-intimidating news is that as parents you are irreplaceable in this task of passing on the culture. But to conclude this letter with more good news, you are not alone in fulfilling your responsibility. The Heights is here to help you, and what is far more important, God’s grace will always be available to you. All you have to do is ask, and then listen.