Is fear or love the better motivator?

posted in: Homeschool & Parenting | 5
Niccolo Machiavelli wrote that it is better for a ruler to be feared than loved. Some homeschool experts agree. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons).

Last week’s post on the Final Judgment (and Mr. Darcy and St. Therese) reminded me of two opposing views I’ve read in books about homeschooling. Some authors say that loving your students is the best way to motivate them to learn. Others say a healthy fear of the teacher is more effective. Here’s my take on the love versus fear debate.

The Machiavellian argument

Niccolo Machiavelli famously wrote in The Prince:

“Here a question arises: whether it is better to be loved than feared, or the reverse. The answer is, of course, that it would be best to be both loved and feared. But since the two rarely come together, anyone compelled to choose will find greater security in being feared than in being loved.”

Focus on a child’s fear of his parent(s)–whether it is called fear, respect, or discipline–seems to me to be particularly Protestant. I mean no disrespect to my non-Catholic fellow homeschoolers, but many conservative Protestants have a somber view of humanity. Calvin taught that man was totally depraved. Fundamentalist Christians generally believe that man’s nature is bad since the Fall. Thus a child has a naturally rebellious spirit that must be tamed.

Ruth Beechick was one of the early homeschooling experts among “Bible Christians.” I gleaned much from her book Heart & Mind:What the Bible Says About Learning.  However, her works have the typical Fundamentalist shortcomings, most based on an overly literal interpretation of Scripture.  Since “[t]he fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 3:12), she believes that education must start with discipline.  Without a healthy fear (she says), children won’t be motivated to learn anything.

Catholics sometimes follow Machiavelli’s advice as well. This was particularly true before the second half of the 20th century. One of the commenters on my last post noted how nuns had taught her to fear Judgment Day. Fear God, avoid sin, go to Heaven. As I told her, this view is not wrong, just incomplete.

Children are naturally curious. Discipline orients this curiosity towards truth, keeping little hands away from outlets and filling them with blocks, for example. But children love to learn. God created their minds to soak up learning. A toddler doesn’t need discipline to learn to talk, although gentle correction is eventually necessary to perfect his speech. He desires to communicate his needs and wants and to copy those around him.

Likewise, adults want to choose what is good. Sometimes we choose evil out of ignorance, or a misplaced idea of what is really good for us. Or we make thoughtless choices, not considering long-term, especially eternal, consequences. We choose what is immediately pleasurable, because it appears more real than the joys of eternity with God.

An awe of God can prevent us from falling into mortal sin, but it is unlikely to make us saints.

All they need is love?Real Learning: Education in the Heart of Home

The opposite camp believes that if parents are loving, their children will embrace learning and discipline problems will disappear. I have not read any books about homeschooling that go this far. Even though some, in my opinion, have an unrealistically positive view of the choices children will make given the right circumstances, they still insist that the parents must work hard to motivate their children.

This is the position of Elizabeth Foss in Real Learning: Education in the Heart of the Home. Unlike Beechick, Foss is Catholic. She believes parents need to practice self-discipline as an example to their children, then spend ample time with them and shower them with unconditional love. This will help children learn obedience and diligence.

Oliver DeMille of the Leadership Education method of homeschooling takes a more radical view. He suggests that the parents be models of studying and mission, and their children will naturally follow suit. He goes so far as to say that we should inspire our children, but not require them to study.

Unfortunately, such teaching could lead us to blame the parents of children who do not love learning or show a lack of initiative. In reality, children can and sometimes do make bad choices even in the best environments. A parent can only do so much.

Our culture equates “God is love” with “God is permissive”. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that parenting over the last few decades has morphed into being your child’s buddy.

Sin breeds fear, forgiveness breeds love

The penitent woman in the Gospels did not fear Jesus. She loved Him, because He had forgiven her many sins. She was not embarrassed by the low opinion Simon the Pharisee or his dinner guests had of her.  She is our model for the General Judgment.

If you have unrepentant sin in your life, you should fear God’s judgment. If you have been forgiven, you can open your heart to His love and mercy.

Romans 8:15-17 shows the proper balance between fear and love, and it’s especially appropriate for this week when we celebrated Trinity Sunday:  “For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the spirit of sonship. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.”

And that brings us back to spiritual childhood, and St. Therese.

Connie Rossini

Share with us: What is your position of the fear vs. love debate? Who or what has influenced your view?

5 Responses

  1. genericmum

    It has to be love – the love that gives birth, hugs, feeds, teaches and disciplines. The love that seeks always to forgive. Perhaps only love can go ‘where angels fear to tread.’

    • Connie Rossini

      Thanks for commenting, “genericmum.” I think fear can motivate people from the outside for a time, but only love can help them open their hearts so that they embrace what we are teaching.

  2. sue werner

    Connie, I was schooled by very domineering Benedictine nuns and priests who put the fear of God in us and the fear did not resemble love. When I was confirmed I was fearful the Bishop would ask me a question and my response would somehow embarrass my teachers who were schooling us in our faith. It has taken me a very long time to relax and allow the love and mercy of God to heal me. I love how St. Teresa of Avila recognized Jesus to be the true friend of her soul. What better friend is there? Love is definitely the best motivator as I am learning in my Senior years.

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