How to Teach Kids Virtue
Tips for Nurturing Good Habits at Home
A universal concern among Catholic parents committed to their faith is communicating the Catholic faith and its morality to their children. They wish to see their offspring embrace the faith and avoid the corrupting influences of the secular culture.
An essential component in the instruction of youth is the practice of virtue, good habits that properly dispose them to receive and benefit from God’s grace. (Or, as 13th-century theologian St. Thomas Aquinas succinctly says, "Grace builds on nature.")
Parents can effectively teach their children to practice virtue, even in modern society, by providing homes that nurture good habits.
Dr. Ray Guarendi (DrRay.com), a psychologist, EWTN host and Register contributor, says that virtue is something that requires development. It begins with teaching children good habits, with virtue being "the accumulation of good habits over time."
As Guarendi remarked, "The average 6-year-old is going to lie, for example. The parent can discipline that child, showing him there are consequences for that lie; and, over time, most children will come to realize that it is not a good thing to lie. Telling the truth for truth’s sake is something that comes later."
Many parents frequently complain that the culture is negatively impacting their children, he said, noting that "they believe the culture is a tsunami, a vortex, with bad influences coming into their homes in an unprecedented way due to technology."
Many parents "wake up to the power of the culture years too late," he continued, and "are shocked at the attitudes, beliefs and character manifested by their 15-year-olds."
That’s why discipline should come in an atmosphere of unconditional love, with parents remaining vigilant in instilling virtue in their children. They must also set a good example, Guarendi says. In order to establish credibility, parents must practice virtue themselves.
The Catholic faith plays a crucial role in properly raising children, he asserts, because "without the faith, there are no absolutes."
When writing his book Back to the Family, Guarendi interviewed many strong families and recognized the importance of religious faith. As he explained, "Some ask, ‘Are you saying you can’t raise good kids without religion?’ You can, but how do you decide right and wrong? Religion gives parents a moral authority that is greater than just their opinions or preferences; it is that of the God of the universe."
Teaching virtue to children begins with integrity, according to James Stenson (ParentLeadership.com), who has spoken to scores of parents and written a series of books related to parenting.
"It is a word used a lot, but many cannot easily define it," he said. "It is related to the word ‘integer,’ which means unity or unity of word and action. You need to tell the truth and keep your word. It is absolutely critical in all we do, and it has ramifications on how we live our faith." For example, when a student turns in a paper at school, integrity means that it is his or her work.
Proper moral formation, he continued, involves the child moving his focus away from himself to others.
As an educator, Stenson believes that only a small part of a child’s moral formation occurs at school: "Ninety percent of what children learn occurs in the home; the school should support parents in that endeavor."
On his website, Stenson offers a variety of free parenting materials, the most popular of which is his "The Power of We," a compilation of rules for successful family life from parents he has spoken with. They include such things as saying please and thank you, worshipping God together and not belittling others. As Stenson remarked, "Parents should live a certain way and then get their children to join them."
Parents must also focus on what sort of men and women their kids will become, he said: "When parents see themselves as raising adults, not children, they will better understand what can stay the same and what needs to change."
Stenson has also written Successful Fathers. In a culture increasingly known for absent dads, Stenson stressed that fathers need to invest time with their children and be loving protectors of their wives and children.
Most of all, children should be encouraged to develop a "lifelong friendship with Jesus Christ."
Stenson gave the example of a priest who was praying his Breviary in church when a 6-year-old boy with a toy car came in. After a clumsy genuflection, the boy held up his car. The priest asked what he was doing, and the boy said, "I just got this car for my birthday, and I’m showing it to the Lord Jesus." The priest smiled and said, "You go right ahead!"
As Stenson said, "The priest knew if that little guy could maintain this friendship with Jesus he could not only be a great man but a great saint."
Children should also understand that being Catholic is part of the family pedigree. "Parents need to tell their children that the faith has been in the family for generations," Stenson encouraged.
Father Rocky Hoffman, executive director of Relevant Radio (RelevantRadio.com) and host of Go Ask Your Father, speaks to parents about five important virtues they ought to teach their children: work, sincerity, piety, poverty and purity. All of this is in addition to love within the family.
Regarding work, Father Hoffman said, "Work is the original vocation of human beings in the second chapter of Genesis. God told Adam and Eve to till the garden and keep it, even before the Original Sin."
Frequent confession can be an invaluable aid in growing in sincerity (or honesty), and piety involves "developing a prayer life and affection for God," the priest explained.
Poverty involves detachment from material goods and "training youth to be generous from an early age," he said, suggesting that when giving allowances to children that parents divide the money into three jars: save, share and spend. Money from the "share" jar could then be placed in the church collection, as a way of instructing the children on the concept of tithing.
Purity is based on the virtue of temperance (or self-control), he said, and it is essential for parents to model chastity to children. He noted, "It is unrealistic to expect children to be chaste if parents use artificial contraceptives; even though it is never talked about, the kids will know."
Father Hoffman also stresses the importance of love: "When Mom and Dad love each other, kids know that they love each other. When Mom and Dad love their kids, kids know that they love them. When Mom and Dad love their faith, then the kids love their faith."
Jim Graves writes from
Newport Beach, California.