Teaching Children Moral Excellence
As parents, we want the absolute best for our children. We want our children to possess a certain set of values for their own personal character development and for the good of those around them. Here is a little exercise: look at the following twelve values and pick the three you think are most important.
Now out of those three, pick the one you think is the most important.
These are the exact questions a group of over 3,200 parents were asked in a study conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2014. Only 56 percent of the respondents said that passing on religious faith is important. Of those 56 percent, only 31 percent said religious faith was the most important value children need to be taught.
But what about you? If you could teach your child just one value, which would you choose and why that particular value over the others?
The answer probably only begs another question. Yes, parents want the best for their children, but what is the best? For what ultimate end or purpose are you and your children here? If one can know his final end, it is much easier to know how to get there. If one does not know where he is going, any ounce of hard work, creativity, or persistence will be misdirected if not completely useless.
Here is the good news: as Catholic Christians we know exactly the ultimate end for which God created us. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states:
“God, infinitely perfect and blessed in himself, in a plan of sheer goodness freely created man to make him share in his own blessed life. For this reason, at every time and in every place, God draws close to man. He calls man to seek him, to know him, to love him with all his strength. He calls together all men, scattered and divided by sin, into the unity of his family, the Church. To accomplish this, when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son as Redeemer and Savior. In his Son and through him, he invites men to become, in the Holy Spirit, his adopted children and thus heirs of his blessed life.”(CCC 1)
God calls us to know him, to love him and to serve him in this life so we can enjoy happiness with him in heaven for all of eternity. No greater happiness exists than this. So this means that there is no greater or more important task for parents than teaching our children the truths of our faith and raising them to be saints!
Our society is more advanced than any other time in history in terms of technology, medical advancements, and knowledge. Intellectually, we are learning more and more. We have an entire internet worth of information available at our fingertips. But are we stronger in our knowledge of goodness and our purpose as humans? Are we stronger in our resolve to be saints? Do our children know for Whom and what they were created?
Many studies have shown that anxiety and depression are on the rise in our young people. Our children have never lived in times of such incredible worldly growth, yet at the same time become increasingly more depressed, hopeless and anxiety- ridden. These symptoms point to an illness within the soul, but now is not the time to lose hope! For a healthy body there are basic rules that apply to all, mainly, a balanced diet and exercise. So too there are universal basic rules for a healthy soul: knowledge of God and a life of virtue.
Peter Kreeft in his book, Back to Virtue, writes:
“A man with a violin case under his arm stood in Times Square looking lost. He asked a policeman, ‘How can I get to Carnegie Hall?’ The policeman answered, ‘Practice, man, practice.’ There is no other shortcut to sanctity either. God’s word says that ‘faith without works is dead.’ The works of virtue are the fruit of faith, that is a live faith. Being saintly is our response to being saved. We cannot do either without God, but he will not do either without us.”
Today, make a resolve to commit more strongly than ever to Christ and his plan for you and your family. Scripture says, in Philippians 4:8, “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” A life of virtue refers to a life of moral excellence. And a life of moral excellence is the art of living well in this life and preparing us for the world to come—the purpose for which we were created.
Here are just a few things things to consider first as a follower of Christ and second as someone who is raising other followers of Christ:
- Virtues are by definition an established practice towards the good, a good spiritual habit. Habits are learned through repetition, so practice, practice, practice. For example, if you want to be more prudent, then practice not making hasty decisions. Give yourself time to deliberate and pray before decision time arrives. Also, give your children opportunities to practice virtue. If you want them to be prudent, allow them the freedom to make decisions (with boundaries and limits set by you). Begin with decisions like which book to read before bed or which shoe to put on first, and progress from there.
- Be patient with yourself and your children. Learning a new good habit can be particularly difficult especially if an old bad habit must be broken. Teaching your children temperance can be really difficult especially at times when your children are at the age of temper tantrums. Stay the course, don’t lose hope, and be patient as they learn!
- Model virtue for your children. Your children will pick up a life of virtue (or lack thereof) by observing and absorbing your behaviors. Offering the greatest of lectures on living life as God desires will be of little to no benefit if your children do not see you approach God regularly and live as you preach. There are many virtues which I desperately lack. As much as I would love to tackle them all at once, for me it’s unrealistic. So I have chosen the one that I fail to live out the most and have made that my main area of focus. Start small and move forward from there.
- Pay attention to your and your children’s environment. What are your children watching, reading and listening to? Who are your children’s friends? This may be the most difficult to monitor because it is in our children’s choice of friends and entertainment that we can encounter the most resistance. Remember, our surroundings can hinder or encourage a life of virtue. There is no room in our spiritual growth for things that hinder sanctity. So do your best to develop an environment in which holiness and virtue can flourish.
- Share stories of people who lived a life of virtue. There are many a great witness of heroic virtue in Scripture and the lives of the saints. This can be done around the dinner table, in the car on the way to or from school and extracurricular activities, anywhere. Take advantage of every moment to expose yourself and your children to those who have made it to the heavenly home for which we were created.
Passing on the beauty of the Catholic faith and fostering an environment where love of God and virtuous living take prime importance will establish your home as a school for sanctification. The words of Fr. Jesus Urteaga say it succinctly:
“Be happy, father-apostle and mother-apostle. God has asked you to collaborate with him. Many great things can be done in this life; but there is none so great, so noble, so beautiful as this: to help your child grow up to become a Christian and a saint.”