As a psychologist, I’ve worked with people from all walks of life and with a number of different problems. People who have difficulty in their marriages, people who have anxiety, people who are depressed, you name it. One of my favorite professional tasks is working with good parents who want good ideas on parenting. This is most rewarding because it’s not so much about helping someone correct problems as it is teaching parents to utilize the raw material of childhood to build good human beings. Parenting is the most difficult endeavor individual’s will be tasked with but it can be the most rewarding as well.
One of the first things I’ve learned as a parent and professional is there are very few “absolutes” about raising children. What seems like good advice for one child is often quite the opposite for another. To try and come up with a one size fits all approach to parenting doesn’t work very well. After all, that is not how God made human beings; we are all unique creations which express the goodness of God. Good parenting means listening to the research and applying it appropriately as your situation needs. I believe that one of the most important things parents can teach children is virtue. It is a universal part of being human, and in fact many ancient philosophers such as Aristotle and Confucius have demonstrated that being human is living a virtuous life. They reflect a universal truth that the Christian religion sees fully realized in Christ and which needs to become a way of life for his followers. In more recent times we’ve seen numerous books about virtue for our children, but how does one teach it to them?
I am going to develop some simple ideas from Aristotle’s work because I believe it is most applicable. He approaches the idea of virtue in a very practical way. So let’s start by identify what virtue is. Traditionally, there have been four “cardinal” virtues most great thinkers have said all other virtues derive from. These cardinal virtues as described in the Christian faith are prudence, justice, courage, and temperance (Christians also recognize faith, hope, and love as virtues however these are gifts from God in which we participate, not so much something we acquire by effort). From these four it is believed that other virtues follow such as generosity, patience, etc. It’s all well and good to know these and they’re indeed a good starting point, but virtue extends in many directions. To act virtuously is to act in an appropriate manner, at an appropriate time, in an appropriate situation. How does a parent teach this and recognize a virtuous approach to a given situation?
To acquire virtue, one does not need to be a great scholar or saint. You simply start by acting virtuously. Virtue is like any other skill, it is acquired through habit. Whatever behavior one practices they then assimilate into who they are. We do this in most all areas of our life. How do we become readers if not by taking up words and learning how they go together and read? Reading is acquired through practice. If you think about a professional, how did they become an accountant, a computer programmer, or a manager? They acquired the skill by practicing the trade. That’s how we become virtuous, by practicing virtue. If you want your child to learn how to be temperate, to not overindulge in a particular activity, you help them practice the virtue of temperance. My son loves computer games but all parents know when a child spends most of his day in front of a video game it’s a fairly harmful practice. It’s also a vice known as overindulgence. By limiting his time, telling him he can play for one hour and then having him engage in more productive activities, he learns temperance. Will he scream and fight about it? Maybe, but as he develops he will learn to be temperate in other matters. So as a parent it’s my job to teach my children to practice virtue. Children learn in a number of ways. One important way of learning is imitating what another person is doing to assimilate the behavior. So, as a parent, children need to see you working out virtuous approaches to life as well to grow in virtue. Psychologists call this method of learning social learning theory, and it is an effective way to teach children morality and values. If my child observes me take the extra change I was given boasting how the teller was an idiot and how I got one over on her, that’s not presenting a very just model for him to imitate. How about if I continue to over eat, what is that teaching my son about a balanced temperate way to enjoy food? If I practice virtue and help him learn to do so, then the acquired virtues will become a natural part of who he is.
What do you do when it’s difficult to identify the most virtuous behavior? Aristotle helps us here as well. He indicates that virtuous acts tend to be the mean between the extreme vices. For example, to be courageous one has to keep from being too rash and impulsive and too timid and frightened. Overzealous impulsive lack of concern for danger is a vice and harmful to an individual and others. Over timid fearful anxiety is also a vice that limits a person’s ability to participate in life. Between these two is the virtue of courage. Teaching our children to develop a sense of the middle way, the virtue between two activities is the way to instill in them what I call a “sense” of virtue. Let me give you another example. My daughter acquires a fairly good amount of money because of a birthday party and she wants to buy something with it. She finds an electronic MP3 player that can do more than any 11 year old would ever want to do with it. She also wants to save money and likes to have money in her account (she’s a lot like her mother). If she leans too much toward spending extravagantly, she will become a spender and lack the prudent understanding of how to use money. If she leans toward saving at a rate where she falls in love with just having money, she could fall into the vice of greed. As a parent I have a chance to make this a teaching moment. By helping her see the importance of saving money but also to use it to enjoy life, she can be happy. Perhaps she can find an MP3 player that she will enjoy while keeping some of her money to use later. The mean becomes the virtue.
I know this sounds overly simplistic, but it really isn’t. First, you need to think about your own life, what you value, and how you communicate those values to your children. They will learn to assimilate or reject those values based on how you live. If they see a parent living a happy life embracing values reflective of virtue, they will find the hard work required in becoming virtuous worth the effort. If they see a parent finding no joy in life, even if it is virtuous, they will reject those values. So the first thing you need to do is think about what you value and how you live a virtuous life. Happiness is not just a passing state of emotions, it is a well lived life and I agree with Aristotle, this life comes from living virtuously. The second thing needing understood is teaching the habit of virtue will be met with resistance. Temperance for example, often means self restraint, therefore pleasure is limited. No child likes that!!! It’s an important lesson though, one needing learned. Justice requires sharing, not having everything you want, and not getting what you want any way you can to get it. Again, that causes pain, and will be met with resistance. If the parent doesn’t set the boundaries, when children leave the nest, the world will teach them the hard lessons in a less forgiving way.
Virtue is taught in a very simple but challenging way. You identify how you model virtue for your children. In all activity, virtue is identified by finding the mean between the two negative features of excess and deficiency. Overeating and starving yourself are vices; the virtue is proper temperate eating. Lastly, set the consequences and rewards for virtuous living. If you don’t, a child who never learns temperance will be an overindulgent, overweight adult suffering from diabetes and heart conditions. There is a good life to be enjoyed for your child through virtuous living. Challenges and problems will be overcome with Christian dignity when we teach them to embrace what is most human and desired by God, a life of virtue.