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(Latin parere, to beget)

Duties of parents towards their children

In the old pagan world, with due allowance for the operation of the natural law, love and reverence were replaced by authority and fear. The Roman jurisprudence during a time at least exaggerated the paternal power to the point of ownership, but it did not emphasize any duties that he had to perform. His dominion over his children was not less complete than that over his slaves. He possessed an undisputed right of life and death; he might sell them into slavery and dispose of any property they had acquired. Compatible with this general idea, abortion, infanticide, and exposition were widespread. The laws seemed to contemplate these crimes as venial offences and to have been largely inoperative in such cases.

In consequence the filial observance implied in the ancient pietas could not always be translated as affection. This earlier condition was modified by decrees of the later emperors. Alexander Severus distinguished the right of a father to put an adult child to death, whilst Diocletian made it illegal for fathers to sell their children.

Under Christianity parents were not merely the repositories of rights and duties whose affirmation nature demanded, but they were to be regarded as the representatives of God Himself, from whom "all paternity is named", and found in this capacity the way to mingle love and reverence, as well as the strongest motive for a cheerful obedience on the part of the children.

The first duty of parents towards their children is to love them. Nature inculcates this clearly, and it is customary to describe parents who lack this affection as unnatural. Here the offence is against a distinct virtue which the theologians call pietas, concerned with the demeanour reciprocally of parents and children. Hence the circumstance of this close relationship must be made known in confession when there is question of sins of this sort. In the case of serious damage done by parents to their children, besides the sin against justice there is contracted the quite different malice derived from this propinquity. This virtue, interpreting the precept of the natural law, also requires parents diligently to care for the proper rearing of their children, that is, to provide for their bodily, mental, and spiritual well-being. This is so even in the supposition that the children are illegitimate. Parents are guilty of grievous sin who treat their children with such cruelty as to indicate that their conduct is inspired by hatred, or who, with full intent, curse them or exhibit a notable and unreasonable preference for one child rather than another. Parents are bound to support their children in a manner commensurate with their social condition until these latter can support themselves. The mother is bound to do nothing to prejudice the life or proper development of her unborn infant, and after birth she must under pain of venial sin nurse it herself unless there is some adequate excuse.

A father who is idle or unthrifty so that his family is left without fitting maintenance is guilty of grievous sin. Parents must see that their children obtain at least an elementary education. They are bound with special emphasis to watch over the spiritual welfare of their children, to afford them good example, and to correct the erring. The teaching of the Church is that the right and duty to educate their own offspring abides natively and primarily with the parents. It is their most important task; indeed understood in its full sense it is ranked by no obligation. In so far as it means instruction in the more elementary branches of human knowledge it is in most cases identical with the obligation of bestowing care in the selection of a school for the children.

Hence, in general, parents may not with a safe conscience send their children to non-Catholic schools, whether these be sectarian or secularist. This statement admits of exception in the instance where there are grave reasons for permitting Catholic children to frequent these schools, and where such dangers as may exist for their faith or morals are by fitting means either neutralized or rendered remote. The judge in such cases, both of the sufficiency of the reasons alleged as well as of the kind of measure to be employed to encounter successfully whatever risks there are, is, in the United States the bishop of each diocese. The attendance at non-Catholic schools by Catholic children is something which, for weighty motives and with due safeguards, can be tolerated, not approved. In any case parents must carefully provide for the child's religious instruction.

As to higher education, parents have a clear duty to see that the faith of their children is not imperilled by their going to non-Catholic universities and colleges. In the lack of positive legislation before parents can assent to their children attending non-Catholic universities or colleges there must be a commensurately grave cause, and such dangers as may threaten faith or morals are to be rendered remote by suitable remedies. The last-named requirement is obviously the more important. Failure to fall in with the first, provided that means had been taken faithfully to comply with the second, would not oblige the confessor to refuse absolution to such parents. There is an undoubted and under ordinary circumstances inalienable authority to be exercised by parents. The extent of this is a matter to be determined by positive law. In the instances in which it becomes necessary to decide upon one of the parents rather than the other as custodian of the children, the rule of legal preference in the United States is that the children are confided to the charge of the father. There is, however, a growing disposition to favour the mother. Parents have the right to administer chastisement to delinquent children. Their omission to punish suitably may be a serious offense before God.

Duties of children towards parents

Children have a threefold obligation of love, reverence, and obedience toward their parents. This is enjoined by the virtue which St. Thomas calls pietas, and for which the nearest English equivalent phrase is "dutiful observance". As religion makes it obligatory for us to worship God, so there is a virtue distinct from all the others which inculcates the attitude we ought to hold towards parents, in so far as they in a secondary sense are the principles of our being and of its regulation. The violation of this obligation therefore is reputed a grievous sin unless the smallness of the matter involved make the offence a venial one. Of the obligations referred to, love and reverence are in force during the parents' lifetime. Obedience ceases when the children pass from under the parental authority. The duty of love of parents, strongly intimated to the conscience by the natural law, is expressly emphasized by the positive law of God. The Fourth Commandment, "Honour thy father and thy mother", is universally interpreted to mean not only respect and submission, but also the entertaining and manifestation of affection they deserve at the hands of their children.

Those children are guilty of grievous sin who habitually exhibit towards their parents a heartless demeanour, or who fail to succour them in serious need, either bodily or spiritual, or who neglect to carry out the provisions of their last will and testament in so far as the amount devised will permit. It is not merely the external bearing which has to be governed. The inward sentiment of affection must be deep-seated. The Christian concept of parents as being the delegates of God carries with it the inference that they are to be treated with peculiar respect. Children incur the guilt of grievous sin who strike their parents, or even raise their hands to do so, or who give them well-founded reason for great sorrow. The same is to be said of those who put their parents in a violent rage, who curse them or revile them, or refuse to recognize them.

Besides the parental relationship and dignity account is to be taken of their authority. Children, so long as they remain under its yoke, are bound to obey. This does not mean, according to the teaching of St. Thomas (II-II, Q. civ, a. 2, ad lum), that they must intend to do what is commanded precisely because it is enjoined; it is enough that they be minded to do what is prescribed. This obligation covers all those matters and those only which make for the proper rearing of the offspring. Parents have no power to order their children to do what is sinful, nor can they impose upon them against their will any particular calling in life. Theologians find their criterion for determining the grievousness of the sin of disobedience by scrutinizing the command given as well as the matter with which it is concerned. They say that the offence is then to be rated as mortal when the communication of the parental will takes the form of a real precept given in earnest and not merely a counsel or exhortation. They further require that this behest should have to with something important.

There is no hard and fast rule to gauge the gravity of the matter in which an infraction of the duty of obedience will become a mortal sin. Moralists declare that this valuation must be made by the good sense of thoughtful persons. They add that in general when an act of disobedience is calculated to work serious harm to the parents, or interfere seriously with domestic discipline, or put in jeopardy the temporal or spiritual welfare of the children themselves, it is to be accounted a mortal sin. When the thing for whose performance or omission the parent's command is issued is already binding under pain of grievous sin, either by the natural or positive law, the setting at naught of the parental injunction does not involve a distinct sin of disobedience requiring a separate accusation in confession. The reason is that the motive of the command is assumed to remain the same in both cases. An example in point would be the defiance of an order given by a parent to a child to assist at Mass on Sunday, something which the latter is already bound to do.

Children are released from parental control when they attain their majority, or are legally emancipated. In the United States this latter may be done either by a written instrument or by means of certain facts which the statutes construe as sufficiently manifesting the consent of the parents.


SLATER, Manual of Moral Theology (New York, 1908); LECKY, History of European Morals (New York, 1910); SPIRAGO, The Catechism Explained (New York, 1899); DEVAS, Key to the World's Progress (London, 1906); D'ANNIBALE, Summula Theologiæ Moralis (Rome, 1908); BALLERINI, Opus Theologicum Morale (Prato, 1899); Sr. THOMAS, Summa Theologica.

About this page

APA citation. Delany, J. (1911). Parents. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Delany, Joseph. "Parents." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 11. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Douglas J. Potter. Dedicated to the Immaculate Heart of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. February 1, 1911. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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