Raising Virtuous Children: The Core Virtues of Spiritual Athletes

In my last post, I talked about the importance of virtues and how they enable us to love fully and freely. The foundational virtue, the one that sets the stage for the development of all others, is obedience.

In addition to obedience, we want our children to develop the four cardinal virtues: justice, temperance, prudence, and fortitude. These are called the cardinal virtues because cardo means “hinge” in Latin and all other virtues hinge from these four. For example, honesty and responsibility stem from justice. Chastity stems from temperance. Patience comes from fortitude. 

Virtues are like the muscles in our body. When you exercise one muscle, you also exercise the others around it.  The cardinal virtues are like the core muscles of our body. Athletes need strong core muscles. Spiritual athletes are those who are striving for holiness and the ability to love fully and freely. And they need the cardinal virtues.

Justice

So let’s begin by looking at justice. Since moral relativity is so prevalent nowadays, it is vital to form your children’s consciences well. When children are young, read them fairy tales and stories where there are good guys who win and bad guys who lose. This will help teach them right from wrong. Around the age of eight or nine, children develop a heightened sense of justice. Fairness becomes very important to them. You can observe this in the way children of this age make up  games with their own rules. You can also see it in the way children begin to complain that so-and-so is not being fair. Naturally, this is a time when we can begin to appeal to our children’s sense of fairness, especially when it comes to household chores and sibling quibbling.

You can help your children develop the virtue of justice through obedience. Many times a child’s sense of justice will be outraged when his idea of fairness is pitted against yours. Kids may ask: How come he gets 2 cookies and I only get 1? How come she gets to stay up late and I have to go to bed?  Or, What do you mean I can’t play my drums whenever I want? They’re my drums? Many children at this age are still ego-centric. They can only see what is fair from their own limited perspective. When this happens, don’t engage in a battle of wits. Instead, plainly state your reasons, and then remind your children that they have to obey.  In time they will come to see the fairness of your decisions, assuming you are as fair as possible. The point is that you are teaching your children to see beyond their own point of view and to act justly. 

Another way to develop the virtue of justice is by helping them develop the virtue of responsibility. Again, just as one muscle exercises another, one virtue develops another. When doing this, appeal to your children’s sense of honor and duty. Let your children know that you need them, that the family needs them. Children need to be needed. It gives them a sense of importance and confidence.

So give your children chores, and teach them to be faithful to their duties without having to be reminded. They need to be responsible for the sake of the family. Dad goes to work every day without being reminded. Mom cooks dinner every day without being reminded. Children need to do their fair share of the family chores without being reminded.  Of course, there will be times when you will need to back up your words with consequences when your children fail to act responsibly. However, be sure to appeal to their sense of duty and responsibility first before resorting to punishments or rewards. Give you kids a chance to act on interior motivations before enforcing external compliance.

Temperance

A virtue closely related to responsibility is temperance, which is acting responsibly with one’s body. The pre-teen and teen years are important years for your child to  exercise temperance because this virtue is the forerunner of chastity and self-control. A teenage boy with raging hormones will have a hard time keeping his impulses in check if he has not learned self-control through temperance. 

So teach your children by example and word to do and use all things in moderation. All things. Not only food, but screen time, iPhones, toys, even work. And then, make them practice this virtue. For example, take second servings of dessert only on Sundays, set the timer when your child is playing on the computer, and teach your teens to resist the urge to be constantly checking their phones for texts and emails.

Don’t let your children become slaves to their bodily wants. Make them eat food they don’t like. Make them wait for foods that they do like. Don’t always give them instant gratification. When they get a lollipop at the doctor’s office or the hair dresser, make them wait a bit before letting them eat it. Also, let them endure a little physical discomfort. My boys love to wear comfortable athletic clothes. So we make them wear stiff, scratchy dress pants and suffocating collared shirts to Mass on Sundays mainly out of respect, but also to teach them to bear a little discomfort. Another way is to keep your house a tad cold in the winter and a tad warm in the summer. Your thermostat does not always have to be set to the most comfortable temperature.  Our lives are filled with so many indulgences that if you lean towards the austere side you might actually hit the right balance.

Prudence

As our children  enter their teen-age years, we need to help them develop the virtue of prudence. In all fairness, prudence is a virtue most teens are not intellectually ready for until about 16, which is why teens are not allowed to drive until then. However, prudence is not just about making safe decisions. St. Augustine says that prudence is “the knowledge of what to seek and what to avoid.” It is the virtue that allows us to judge correctly, to know what is right and wrong in any given situation. It is also the virtue that enables us to recognize sound advice.

You can begin to set the foundations for prudence when your children are young by, again, forming their consciences. Also teach them to think critically. Read books or watch movies together and then discuss the characters, their motives, and the consequences of their actions. 

To help your teens develop the virtue of prudence, you will need to have a lot, and I mean a lot, of conversations with them. Talk with them about the decisions they face, helping them to weigh the pros and cons. Help them realize the how their decisions will affect not only themselves but others as well. 

On Freedom

Since teenagers are often hankering for freedom and independence, one on-going conversation you should have with your teens is about freedom. During a visit to Baltimore in 1995, St. Pope John Paul II said that:

Freedom consists not in doing what we like, but in having the right to do what we ought.

Freedom is having the right to do what we ought. In order to have this right, a person needs 1) to know what he ought to do and 2)  have the ability to do it. But knowing what one ought to do takes good judgement. It also requires the humility to accept the advice of one who is more knowledgeable and experienced. Essentially, it takes prudence and virtuous obedience.

As much as teenagers want to be free to make their own decisions, it’s important for them to realize they need to recognize and follow sound advice. Even the President of the United States has his advisors because there is no way for him to know everything about everything. In fact, a mark of a great leader is his ability to recognize and follow great advice. A young adult should be free to make his own decisions. But if he wants to make wise decisions, he should accept the advice of those who hold authentic authority.

Fortitude

Knowing what one ought to do, a person then needs the ability to do it, if he wants to be truly free.  Here is where the virtue of fortitude comes in. Many smokers know that they ought to quit smoking, and yet they don’t seem to have the ability to do so. Having the ability to do what you ought requires fortitude. It requires the strength of will to do what is right even if your body and emotions are vehemently protesting.

Here are three ways to help your children develop the virtue of fortitude:

First, make them do hard things. If you have taught your children to obey, you have a good start, because obedience is hard and requires children to go against their inclinations. Also, teach your kids to persevere through difficulties, whether it be through challenging homework or strenuous chores. Playing sports is an effective way to build fortitude. My boys enjoy running cross country because it pushes their endurance to the limits. Last summer my husband took the big kids on an all-day portaging trip. The kids had to paddle under the sweltering sun and carry canoes over unmarked terrain for miles. I seriously doubted whether they would make it all the way to their goal, but they did. When they returned, they were elated at having gone on such a challenging adventure. Fortitude is a virtue much easier learned during the pre-teen and teen years because young people like to test the limits of their strength. So make your kids persevere through hard things, even if you sometimes have to persevere through their whining and complaining.

Second, educate their wills. Inspire them to love the good. It’s one thing to know what’s right but an entirely different matter to want it. We need to nurture in our children a desire to be good even when it’s hard. That desire is so important. Wanting to do what’s right is a child’s first step away from ego-centricity and towards maturity.   So nurture a desire for goodness: first by your own example, second by upholding models of saints and heroes as people to be admired and imitated, and most importantly by inspiring a deep love for God.

Supposedly an abbess once gave St. Thomas Aquinas a large, beautiful book that was blank inside. She asked him to write instructions for her nuns on how to become a saint. St. Thomas took the book and wrote only two words: Will it. Just two words, but they speak volumes. How is it that people find the strength to do incredibly difficult things such as competing in a triathalon or climbing Machu Pichu? Essentially, they will it. They want it so much that they do what it takes to  achieve  their goals. 

Sanctity is not much different. Fueled by a deep love for God, holiness is something that can be achieved as long as you want it enough. This is especially true because God is ever ready and willing to give us the graces we need.

In a talk about Home Education, Fr. Harndon quoted Mother Teresa, who said:

You must train the wills of your children. They must be resolute, determined, stubborn in their insistence on choosing to do what God wants… You must train your children to become “willing slaves to the will of God.”

A resolute, determined, stubborn insistence on choosing to do God’s will  — How else do you think Mother Teresa persevered in her vocation to serve the poor?  With such a stubborn insistence on choosing to do God’s will, your children will develop the fortitude they need to persevere in a life of virtue and holiness. Have your children read about the lives of saints to know what that looks like.

The most powerful interior motivation for doing what is right is a deep love for God and, subsequently, the steadfast commitment to doing His will. In the busyness and messiness of child rearing, let’s not forget that. Let’s not forget that the interior lives of our children and the desires of their hearts are so much more important than their external behaviors. So educate their wills and turn their hearts towards God so they will want to do the right thing with the tenacity of the saints.

Finally, get your children into the habit of making sacrifices for the love of God and others. This is  how the virtue of fortitude exercises the virtue of generosity. Your children are capable of this!  Lent, of course is a great time for making sacrifices as a family. Some years we make a baked crown of thorns out of salty dough and toothpicks. Every time the kids make a sacrifice, they pull one thorn out of the crown, imagining that they are easing the sufferings of Christ. During Advent, my kids have an empty manger. Every time they make a sacrifice, they place a cotton ball into the manger. The goal is to make the manger soft and comfy for baby Jesus when he arrives. 

In family life, there are plenty of opportunities for your children to make sacrifices. When our youngest was born, he had four holes in his heart and suffered from pulmonary hypertension.  He had to stay in the NICU for almost a month. My husband and I were able to board at the hospital with him on the condition that I not leave, so I didn’t get to go home. The kids came and visited us, instead. When we finally did come home, the kids showed me the Christmas manger once again overflowing with cotton balls and flowers. Next to it was a sign they had written: Sacrifices for baby Christopher

You don’t need to wait for extraordinary events for your children to make sacrifices. Your kids can make sacrifices for the unborn, for the poor and homeless, for a friend or family member who needs prayers. These are active sacrifices; sacrifices we choose to make. But even more pleasing to Our Lord are the passive sacrifices, the ones He chooses for us and asks us to offer up. For example, a scraped knee, an annoying sibling, homework that is difficult. We should encourage our children to offer up these little sufferings as gifts of love to Our Lord, and to offer them up cheerfully. For God loves a cheerful giver. (2 Cor 9:7)

Children are capable of sacrificial love, they really are. But you need to educate their wills and make them used to denying themselves for a noble cause.

So obedience, justice, temperance, prudence, and fortitude. These are the core virtues your children need in order to become spiritual athletes. The more a person practices these virtues, the greater his capacity for freedom, and thus the greater his capacity to fully love. 


Stay tuned for the final part of this talk: Raising Virtuous Children: Four Things You Must Absolutely Do

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