In the last post, I talked about ways to develop the four cardinal virtues: 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. In this post, I’ll share with you my favorite part of this talk: Four things you absolutely must do to raise virtuous children:
- Feed your children’s hearts and minds with the best food.
Now professional athletes don’t eat junk food. They eat omega-3 rich foods, lean meats, low fat organic dairy, vegetables, and high protein whole grains. If you want to raise virtuous children, feed their hearts and minds with the best food. Be very, very diligent and selective when it comes to media consumption. You know that most of what’s out there on T.V., the internet, and modern books and music is emotional and spiritual junk food, if not poison. It’s stuff that promotes promiscuity, violence, materialism, and narcissism and is diametrically opposed to what we are trying to teach our children. Instead of an iPad, give your children high quality books and board games. Send them outside to play. If they say they’re bored, make them clean your house. Just as I was preparing this talk, my 7 year old, out of boredom, was reading the lives of the saints. Just think what she could have been consuming if we had a TV.
2. Cultivate faith-based friendships
One thing I have noticed about saints is that they often come in pairs or groups. They don’t get to heaven alone. Think of St. Francis of Assisi and St. Claire, St. Ignatius Loyola and the early Jesuits, St. Don Bosco and St. Dominic Savio. If you want to raise virtuous children, surround them with virtuous people.
In January, my 16 year old daughter said to me, “Mom, have you heard of Exodus 90?”
“No. What is it?” I asked.
“Well, it’s going to mass every day, saying the rosary every day, fasting from sweets, snacks, and unnecessary screen time for 90 days. You also take cold showers and exercise vigorously every day for 90 days.”
“Wow!” I said, “That sounds pretty intense.”
“It’s for the renewal of the church,” she said. “It starts next week and ends on Easter. My friend Maura is going to do it with her youth group.”
“That’s impressive,” I said. “I could maybe do Exodus 9.”
The next day, my daughter came to me and said, “Mom, I’m going to do Exodus 90, too.” And then she went and convinced her younger brother to do the same, who then called one of his best friends to join, who then persuaded his Dad to do the same.
Now, if I had suggested to my kids that they do Exodus 90, there probably would have been an outright revolt. But since their friends were doing it, my kids were all in. And amazingly, they stuck to it. For 90 days, they prayed, fasted, and exercised. They held each other accountable, they prayed for each other to persevere… and they did! I was so impressed.
We often think of peer pressure as being a negative thing, but positive peer pressure can work wonders. So do whatever you can to help your children find friends who share their faith and who will have a good influence on them. Create a community of good Catholic families that get together on a regular basis, and cultivate faith-based friendships. If you need help creating such a community, check out Youth in Christ. A dear friend of mine has started a beautiful ministry for families for this very purpose.
3. Give Your Kids Spiritual “Steroids”.
Now I know all this is probably overwhelming. At times, raising virtuous children will seem impossible. Human virtues can be acquired through human effort, but only through tremendous effort, repetition, and perseverance. Think of the amount of practice that ball players do in order to master pitching and hitting. Sometimes they practice so hard that they throw out their shoulders.
But you’ve heard of steroids. Sometimes professional athletes use them. They’re illegal, of course, but they dramatically enhance performance. Well, we Catholics have spiritual steroids, and not only are they legal, they are actually necessary. They’re called grace.
The catechism tells us that Virtues are purified and elevated by divine grace. (CCC 1810). Through the sacraments and prayer, Our Lord gives us the grace to grow in virtue in a way that far surpasses human effort alone. This is why there are so many young saints and martyrs in the Catholic Church. And I truly believe your kids can be counted among them. But you need to bring your children to Mass as frequently as possible. There they can receive the Body of Christ, which is the ultimate super-food for the soul. You need to bring your children to confession on a frequent and regular basis. There their souls are purified and strengthened.
4. Rely on the Holy Spirit for guidance and wisdom.
Finally, pray, pray, pray for your children. Beg the Holy Spirit for his guidance and wisdom. I have given you many ideas on how you can help your children grow in virtue. But I would like to leave you with this thought: A few days before this conference, I was feeling quite discouraged. My boys were brawling over a basketball, and the nine-year old was being sassy. I wondered, “How on earth can I give a talk on raising virtuous children? I am so not qualified!” And then, I remembered a passage from a book by Jacques Phillipe:
There is a widespread but mistaken idea that holiness is the work of human beings: that what we need is to have a clear program of perfection, set to work with courage and pateince, and achieve it little by little. And that’s all there is to it. Unfortunately (or fortunately!) there is much more to it than that… We do not have to become saints by our own power; we have to learn how to let God make us into saints. – In the School of the Holy Spirit
We do not make ourselves holy, nor do we make our children holy. Rather, the Catechism tells us that, “The Holy Spirit is the source and giver of all holiness” (CCC 749).
Here’s a story to illustrate what I mean: Every year, our family goes on a week long vacation with all the extended family and cousins. That means swimming, canoeing, fishing, and of course, bonfires. My brother-in-law Jim is a real outdoors man, having grown up in the woods. One year, he set out to build a bonfire, as he always does for the kids. Expertly, he arranged the sticks and branches. But when he tried to light the wood, all he got was some smoke and a few small flames that quickly fizzled out. Jim rearranged the wood, added paper, and tried again. He got a small, smouldering fire — not good enough for roasting marshmellows. Along came my brother, the city-slicker, who probably couldn’t survive a day in the woods. He glanced at the dying embers and exclaimed, “I know what you need!”
He ran to the garage and came back with a can of fuel. All the adults began protesting, but he simply told the kids to stand back. He poured the fuel all over the sticks, lit a match, and threw it into the mound of wood. KA-BOOM! Huge flames came leaping up, and we had a roaring, snapping, crackling fire. The kids screamed and cheered. My brother winked at Jim and said, “All you need is the magic ingredient!”
You can think of the work we do as parents as laying down the sticks of wood. Any good boy scout will tell you there is a proper way to lay the sticks in order to build a good fire. There are things you do, such as arrange the sticks in a pyramid, and there are things you avoid, such as using wet branches. In the same way, there is a proper way to raise your children. There are things we need to purposely do, and things we need to purposely avoid.
The best parenting alone may yield some good results. But for those of us who want to raise holy and virtuous children, good parenting alone is not enough. Even expert parenting is not enough. Our kids need the “magic fuel” poured all over them. They need to be drenched in grace. They need the spiritual steroids of the sacraments.
And then they need the divine spark of the Holy Spirit. With faith and hope, we wait for Our Lord to throw in the match that sets our children’s souls on fire with His love. That fire may rise up in a dramatic boom, or it may slowly build and build.
So never forget that it is the Holy Spirit who sanctifies our children, in His own time and in His own manner. In raising holy and virtuous children, we parents are called to co-operate with Him in this divine task. But it is the Holy Spirit who leads and guides. Our main job is to be attentive His inspirations and to follow His promptings. But to do this, we must spend time in prayer, and our hearts must be trusting and docile to His will.
When things don’t go well, when your kids are difficult and your efforts seem futile, entrust your children to the care of the Holy Spirit. Be ever more attentive and faithful to Him. He will instruct you on how to raise your kids, how to motivate them, how to lead them towards the heights of holiness. So again, pray, pray, pray for your children. Ask the Holy Spirit for his guidance. Beg for His Divine Spark.
Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful. Enkindle in them the fire of your love!
Our Heavenly Father, who sees the sacrifices you make for your children and who desires your children’s holiness even more than you do, will surely answer your prayers. He will pour out on them the graces they need to live a life of virtue and to love fully and freely. He will enkindle their souls with the fire of His love so your children can be light and warmth to the world.