Raising Virtuous Children

Last month, I had the privilege of speaking at a family conference near State College, PA. My topic was Raising Virtuous Children – a topic so broad one could write a whole book about it. I think I over-loaded the audience with too much info, so I promised one mom that I would post the talk on this blog. I’ll post it as a three-part series. Here is Part I of the talk on Raising Virtuous Children:

Love and Virtue

Some of you may wonder what the topic of Raising Virtuous Children has to do with the theme of this conference, Love in an Age of Loneliness. Well, most of us know that a virtue is a good habit. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, it is a habitual and firm disposition to do the good. (CCC1803). However, as Edward Sri points out, Virtues need to be understood relationally. The virtues are not important merely for one’s own life; they are …. the skills we need to love God and the people God has placed in our lives. (Virtue and the Art of Living)

So it’s not enough to say, “I am patient. I am kind.” The question is, are you patient with others? Are you kind towards others? Real virtues manifest themselves in the way we treat the people around us, especially those in our family. Virtues are important because they increase our ability to love and to be loved.  Conversely, our lack of virtue, whether it be selfishness, irresponsibility, pride, or laziness,  causes the people around us to suffer, and it limits our capacity to love.

Obviously we want our children to grow up with the ability to love fully and freely. So we need to help our children practice all the virtues — humility, generosity, industriousness, patience, and so on. However, in the interest of time,  I’m only going to focus on what I think are the most important human virtues for children and teens: obedience, and the four cardinal virtues — justice, temperance, prudence, and fortitude. 

Authority and Obedience

Before the age of seven the number one virtue you want to focus on is obedience. If you can teach your children to obey habitually and cheerfully, your job as a parent will be much more pleasant. More importantly, by teaching your children to obey, you are training their wills to do what is right even when they don’t feel like it. This training of the will is foundational in the development of all the other virtues. For in order to acquire any virtue, we need to exercise will power, to say no to ourselves and yes to what is right.

Now, many of us know, only too well, that obedience can be very difficult children — or anyone. But, you can make obedience easier for them in two ways: 

First, establish and use your authority well. Recognize that you have God-given authority over your kids. Young children intuitively sense this authority but they will still challenge it, and more so during the teenage years if you have not taught them to respect your authority. So make it clear that Mom and Dad are the decision makers in the family. Especially when there is a major decision to be made, such as where the kids will go to school, it’s Mom and Dad who have the final say. Children and teens just don’t have the foresight to make wise decisions. That’s why they have parents. We have a few kids who like to take charge, and sometimes I have to remind them that they are not Mom or Dad. So establish your authority.  In addition, avoid undermining your authority. How?  By being unrealistic in your demands, inconsistent with your consequences, by pitting yourself against your spouse, or by being unavailable when your children need you. If you establish your authority and use it well, you make it easier for your children to obey.

Second, work on your relationships with your children so that your authority will not be a burden, but will have a sweetness to it. Cultivate friendship with your children so they will be open and trusting with you. The best way to do this is by spending quality time with them. Family dinners are a must. On the weekends my husband takes one of the kids out for a date. On Sunday nights, we have a family conversation night, where we all sit around and just converse — no phones, no screens, no multi-tasking. Just good conversation and lots of laughter.  These are great opportunities to learn what is really going on in our children’s hearts and minds, and to build that trust and respect which makes our authority easier to accept. Essentially, find the right balance between love and authority. 

The Three Degrees of Obedience

In his book, Character Building, David Isaacs describes three degrees of obedience. The first degree he describes as simple external complianceWith this type of obedience, a child obeys because he is forced to. For children between the age of one to seven, this type of external obedience is as much as we should reasonably expect. Sometimes these little ones obey because they want to please their parents. However, often we will need to make them obey. So when  young children show resistance, don’t negotiate. Don’t argue. Simply tell them that they have to obey, and see to it that they do. Don’t forget that you can control what they eat, where they sleep, what toys they have, whether or not they go out, and so on. So you really can enforce obedience from your children.

Promptness is a key factor. Some children say they will obey, but they procrastinate and forget. Since young children don’t like being jolted from an activity, it is nice to give them a five minute warning. Billy, in five minutes you need to put away your puzzle. Once that five minutes is over (I like to use a timer!), make sure your child obeys promptly. If he doesn’t, be prompt about the consequences. Billy, since you didn’t clean up your puzzle when I told you to, I am taking the puzzle away. You will not get to play with it for the rest of the week.

If you train your young children to obey right away, even when they don’t want to,  you pave the way for the second degree of obedience, internal submission of the will. With this type of obedience,  children obey because they understand that your request is sensible. Once a child has reached the age of reason, which is around seven,  he wants to know the reasons for our requests.  And it is right that we should reason with him. For when a child  sees that our requests are fair and reasonable, he is more likely to comply without dispute. Moreover, we want our children to have interior motivations for doing what is right and to move beyond mere external compliance.

But we have to watch that our reasoning does not turn into negotiating or arguing.  Sometimes, I’ll tell my younger kids, “Obey first, then we’ll talk about it.” This is especially effective with children who want to use arguing as a stall tactic.  In any case, when we tell our children to do something, it’s good for them to know our reasons, but they still have to obey, whether or not they agree with us.

At this time, we also need to point out to our children that when we tell them to do something, it is really for their own good or the good of the family. Once, my daughter was begrudging the fact that I wanted her to make revisions on a composition she had written. So I told her:  I could let you get away with leaving the paper as it is. It would make my life simpler for the moment. But I know you’re capable of doing better.  If I let you settle for less than your best, I wouldn’t  be doing my job. Nor would I be doing you a favor. The fact that I’m insisting on this shows how much I care about you and your education.

My daughter revised her paper. More importantly, she understood my point, and later she apologized for her behavior. After that, she rarely complained about having to revise her compositions. When children realize that we have their best interest at heart, they are much more likely to be compliant. 

Obedience is a virtue that our children need to work on all the way into their teens and beyond. In fact, obedience is not truly virtuous until it reaches the third degree, full submission of one’s own judgement. With this type of obedience, one obeys because he recognizes the authority of the person who is making the request. This person might be an expert in a specific field, such as a doctor, or he might have a position of civil authority. In any case, when we freely submit ourselves to a person’s authority, it is because we recognize that this person is more knowledgable or experienced than we are in a specific area. 

This is the type of virtuous obedience that religious give to their superiors, that husband and wife give to each other mutually out of love and respect, and that we give to God in moments of great difficulty when we pray as Christ did, “Lord, not my will be done, but yours.” If you think about it,  virtuous obedience has much to do with the theological virtues — Faith (I believe in God’s plan for my life, so I obey) , Hope (I trust in his loving mercy, so I obey), and Charity (I love God so much that I want to do His will no matter what the cost). 

When we obey because we freely submit to another’s authority, we practice the virtue which crowns all other virtues: humility. It takes humility to accept that another person has a higher authority than we do. It takes humility to acknowledge that someone else’s decision or directive could be right even though we think otherwise. It takes humility to readily admit that our point of view, reasonable as it may seem, could be at odds with God’s will.  

And humility, that queen of all virtues, enables so many other virtues: simplicity, gratitude, trust, serenity, and meekness (which, don’t be mistaken, requires great strength of character, since it is the opposite of anger), and so on. A humble person is exceedingly lovable because he doesn’t not always insist on having his own way, he is ready to apologize and forgive, and he does not take himself too seriously; rather he can laugh at his own follies. And realizing he is not perfect, he is able to excuse the imperfections of others. Who does not love a truly humble person?

So when children enter their teen years, help them strive for virtuous obedience, and through it, humility. As I said earlier, if you have established your authority well in the early years, your teens will find this type of obedience easier to achieve. You also foster this type of obedience in teens by living in such a way that you earn their respect. If you live a life of integrity, if you are bold in the way you live out your faith, if you are kind, considerate, and cheerful, you will earn their respect. This will help your teens respect your authority, even despite your imperfections, even despite your differences of opinion. 


Next week, I’ll post Part 2 of the talk: Raising Virtuous Children: The Core Virtues of Spiritual Athletes

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