Our Children Need Us to Help them Grow in Virtue

When we neglect the formation of our children, we are hurting them and ourselves, and offending God.

Emil Keyser (1846-1923), “Expulsion from the Garden”
Emil Keyser (1846-1923), “Expulsion from the Garden” (photo: Public Domain)

If you have read The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, you will remember Eustace Clarence Scrubb, the ill-tempered cousin of the four children of The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, who makes his first appearance in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. He was the one who deserved the name his parents had given him. C.S. Lewis uses him as an example of how children turn out if their parents do not use discipline and essentially spoil their child.

Yet, Eustace takes a turn for the best when he is accidentally transformed into a dragon on an island in Narnia. Before he can become human again he learns the lesson that it is better to be a giving, thankful, loving person than a self-absorbed, whiney, unkind person. He learns from the example of his shipmates, especially his cousin Lucy, and from trying it out himself. We meet him again in the book The Silver Chair where his classmates are annoyed that he does not join in their bullying antics — antics that the school downright promotes.

Lewis makes it clear in the book that the school children’s vicious behavior is the result of no one taking the trouble to form them in good behavior:

These people had the idea that boys and girls should be allowed to do what they liked. And unfortunately, what ten or fifteen of the biggest boys and girls liked best was bullying the others. All sorts of things, horrid things, went on which at an ordinary school would have been found out and stopped in half a term; but in this school they weren’t. Or even if they were, the people who did them were not expelled or punished. The Head said they were interesting psychological cases and sent for them and talked to them for hours. (The Silver Chair, Ch. 1)

The point is that badly behaved children end up that way because the responsible adults in their lives do not take the trouble to help them become good people. This responsibility lies first of all on the shoulders of parents.

I have noticed a terrible trend in our society when it comes to parents complaining about their children, one that has been accentuated by the closing of in-person schools due to the coronavirus. This trend sees children as annoying, burdensome objects that have to be put up with until they grow up. This trend complains when children are home and wishes for them to be in school. This is a trend of parents not liking their children. This is a trend of parents unwilling to invest time and energy into helping their children become good people.

Every Christmastime I cringe whenever I hear the song from the 1950s, “It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas.” In it is the line, “Mom and Dad can hardly wait for school to start again.” The undertones of the song show a strong aversion that “Mom and Dad” have for their children. The same attitude is reflected every year when summer break begins, and parents post publicly about how they can’t wait for it to end. I saw it again online today in a viral post on Facebook talking about how grateful a parent was to her children’s teachers, but in addition to her gratitude proceeded to call her children and all other children “rotten” and “monsters.” She could not wait to get them off her hands again. And while I hate to admit it, I have similar thoughts in the middle of a hard day of parenting.

This all points to a glaring truth about ourselves. I have always noticed in my children, if they are selfish, whiney, ungrateful, and rude, it is because, a) I am exactly the same way, and b) I have not taken the trouble to form them or myself in virtue. We dislike what we see in our children, because our children reflect our poor parenting and the worst of our habits, which they imitate from toddlerhood.

Children are human persons created in the image of God. They do not deserve to be ridiculed and complained about by us their parents who have all of the same failings. They deserve to be cherished, to have our time and energy poured into forming their souls. They deserve to be loved by the human persons, their parents, that made a choice to act in a way that would bring about their existence.

We their parents are also human persons created in the image of God. We were given the gift of our reason to, with the help of grace, subdue our bad habits and grow in virtue. God has entrusted us with the little human persons that are our children. He gave them to us to feed, clothe, and shelter, but also to form into saints. While we cannot ultimately make any choices toward are children’s eternal salvation, we can help them start on the path to Heaven.

One of the sins I struggle with daily is the sin of negligence. I am negligent in my own work (which is freelance, so it is my loss when I put it off). I am negligent in my housework. I am negligent in my time management. But most often I see my negligence in my formation of my children.

I neglect to follow through on punishments that I have set in place to teach the good behavior. It is easier just to let a child’s talking back slide than to go through the trouble to correct and practice kindness. So, they form habits of talking back and not listening to my directions.

I neglect to model the behavior I want them to live out. It is easier to yell and scold and let my temper have full reign than to exercise self-control and correct calmly. So, we both form habits of reacting in anger to each other’s faults. It is easier to complain about a hard situation than to learn to offer it up and be grateful to God for all the blessings he has given us. So, we form the bad habits of ingratitude and self-absorption. It is easier to get distracted by things that satisfy our curiosity. So, we spend our school and work time slipping off to do something else.

I neglect to give them the attention they need from me. It is easier to send them off to play or send them away with the promise of a treat if they just leave me alone. So, they learn that I do not care about or love them, and then in turn they act in unloving ways toward each other.

The truth of the matter is that when we neglect the formation of our children’s souls, we are hurting them, ourselves, and offending God. It is no wonder that my children have bad, frustrating behavior.

Jesus tells us, “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me; but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened round his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.” (Matthew 18:5) This is a heavy teaching. My negligence and bad example are a millstone around my neck. But my life is not over yet, my children are not grown yet. I have the time before me to change myself and form my children.

Our children are precious in his eyes. We are all precious in his eyes. Let us use this time of being at home together, struggling to teach our children and do our own work, as a time to fight against our fallen inclinations to selfishness and ingratitude. Now is the time to struggle to root negligence out of our families, and to help our children grow in virtue and good habits. If we want our children to be kind, pleasant, loving people, then it starts with us, their parents and primary educators in virtue. Let’s all strive for Heaven. This time is a gift for our families.