My colleague Tim attended a community event the other day. The featured speaker was the leader of one of the local public school districts. The school leader was asked what he believed his primary role to be for the community. His answer: in loco parentis.
In loco parentis is one of those Latin terms that has kind of kept its meaning in English, like quid pro quo or per se. It means “in the place of a parent,” and it was a legal doctrine schools used primarily to justify disciplinary decisions. In loco parentis meant the school stood in the place of the parent, and had the legal right to discipline that student in virtually any way it deemed appropriate. In loco parentis fell into disfavor as a concept beginning in the late 60s, when corporal punishment began being phased out of public schools. The concept has experienced a resurgence lately, however, and has been used to justify all sorts of things, from searches and seizures to bathroom bills.
I can understand where this particularly school leader is coming from. I really, really do. If schools find themselves feeding kids two meals a day, and when some parents have largely checked out of the education process, somebody’s got to step in. And, in some cases, schools feel obligated to do so.
The problem with this mindset is that, once you turn it on, it’s really hard to turn off. It’s virtually impossible to build a culture where a school substitutes its judgment or responsibility for some of the parents, without doing so for all of them. And, it’s very difficult for a school to substitute its judgment for that of parents in some areas of life, and not in others. According to Valparaiso law professor Susan Stuart, the problem with the idea of in loco parentis is that, before long, parents can become subconsciously or consciously seen as unnecessary, if not an outright hindrance, to the education process. It doesn’t happen in all state schools, but where it does, it can be a dangerous overreach of state power over what should be one of the most precious of our responsibilities given by God to parents: the education of our kids.
There’s an idea founded in the church and rooted in the Bible that has influenced western democracies for hundreds of years, maybe until recently. That idea is called “sphere sovereignty,” and it’s the concept that God has given different segments of society- whether your home, the state, the church, or a business- different authority structures, and different realms of authority. In the home, parents are the authority; in the state, it’s the governing body; the church has the elders, and the like. The idea is that each entity should operate within its own sphere and authority structure. Great damage can occur to the whole order of things when the power structure of one sphere tries to exert itself upon another sphere, for instance, when the state invades your home, or to be fair, the church invades the state.
Deuteronomy 6:6-9 tells us that God has given parents the authority to raise up and educate their kids. For parents who follow the Lord, there’s a specific way to educate them: And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. In other words, there’s a who, a what, and a when to educating kids: the who is that the primary responsibility to educate them is vested in their parents, the what is that it should be in the ways and Word of the Lord, and the when is that it should be done all the time (when you sit in your house, walk by the way, lie down, and rise).
If that’s true, then, if a parent chooses a school to help them educate their kids, that school has to recognize the primary responsibility for that education still rests with the parents. It has to respect that and treat it as holy, to see itself as a lesser partner to parents, rather than as a substitute for them. If the school is a partner for parents whose God is the Lord, then that school has to partner with those parents to educate their kids with the same what– in the ways and Word of the Lord, and the same when– all the time- as the parents, because that school is under the same command by God.
This is why we exist as a school. This is what teaching Jesus is all about. We live in a fallen world, and it’s always a struggle and a danger to want to try to take someone else’s place, assume someone else’s authority. As one having authority, there’s always the temptation to relinquish it when times get hard. It’s often expedient to do so, and at times there seems no better options. But, we live with the conviction that God has called parents to educate their kids, and God has called us to help them exactly in the way He has called them to do that, and in the way for which He will lovingly, but firmly, hold them accountable. That is why we can never take the place of parents- numquam in loco parentis- but, we will always give our all to help in the good and the bad. There really is no greater calling.
Jay Ferguson writes regularly on his blog, The Head and The Heart.