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Mothers or Preschools?

Marian T. Horvat, Ph.D.

A Swan swimming with its babies

This charming picture of a swan's leisurely afternoon "stroll" with her family speaks of maternal serenity and goodness. Her cygnets follow her, frolicking a bit, but they have a security and lack of agitation that reflects their mother's serene sense of well being.

A closer look reveals two little heads that peep out from her wing. Weary from their play or just in need of a bit more security, they reign supreme and content from their throne in an instinctive knowledge that protection and maternal goodness is there for them.

If these fortunate little cygnets were human, I would say that they would be very secure, serene and psychologically balanced children, who would have a firm grounding in certain first principles that books and classrooms do not teach.

The mother’s crucial role in the formation of the child

There is really a lesson for us in this simple picture. In the chapter titled "First Perception of Things" in his Treatise on Common Sense, Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange notes the importance of firmly establishing the first premises of a child so that later he will be able to reason correctly. He shows that a Catholic education does not begin with a teacher in a classroom, but with the mother in the home.

This earliest formation provides the conditions for a person to form ordered impressions. The first impressions must be ordered, pious and temperate formed in a secure and serene environment. Otherwise, the whole spiritual, intellectual and moral development of the child will be distorted or twisted from the very beginning.

Thus the essential role of the mother, with her maternal affection and willingness to sacrifice for her offspring, is irreplaceable in the development of a child. She offers protection under her wings in a child's little trials and frustrations of the day. This normal tenderness is obviously balanced by a firm correction should it be necessary. This kind of maternal goodness transcends the notion of "quality" or "quantity" time for children and understands the vocation of motherhood in a much more profound sense.

Unfortunately, this kind of maternal goodness and serenity is lacking in our days. This is reflected in the agitation and insecurity of the great majority of modern children, so different from the happy cygnets of our picture. It is reflected in an unbalanced, violent and insecure youth who habitually seek counsel in countless psychiatrists' offices or are capable of committing some of the most horrendous and amoral crimes of adults.

A “maternal school” that is not really maternal

A little girl by a French sign for maternal school

This serene first picture clashes with particular force with a photo published in the Los Angeles Times. The poor little cygnet in the picture, sans mother or siblings, reaches to open the door of her "maternal school" in Caen, France.

The article reported that California is studying the French system of virtually universal state-subsidized education for children as young as 2-years-old. These state-run, tax-financed institutions for children ages 2-6 are called "maternal schools" (écoles maternelles), even though there is nothing maternal about what we would call "pre-schools" or "day-care centers," where paid professionals vs. mothers assume the formation of young children.

The "maternal school," the French Ministry of National Education boasts, has become the basis of the school system. Although attendance is purely voluntary, nearly 100% of children ages 3-6 now attend, as well as almost 35% of 2-year-olds. How far are we from adopting the French model?

Two states, Georgia (in 1993) and New York (in 1995), have implemented voluntary universal preschool programs. Now the California Department of Education wants the legislature to establish a commission to point the way to universal preschool for its babies.

They will hear the testimony of mothers like Clemence, the wife of a French government prosecutor: "Young children need to see something beside their mother. They need to be opened to other things, to learn they are not alone in the world."

This is simply not the case. Who could deny that the little tyke in the second picture seems much more alone and abandoned in the big world than the more fortunate ducklings of our first picture?

Posted December 26, 2002

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