Years ago, I decided I wanted to learn how to play the guitar. The idea of sitting down and strumming some tunes while sitting on the porch sounded so attractive. I am not at all musically inclined, and I grossly underestimated how difficult picking up a new skill would be. After a few painstaking hours of trying to learn some chords and some very sore fingers, I decided that maybe this was not for me. As wonderful as the idea sounded, the process to get there seemed impossible. The time required to acquire the necessary skill set was more than I was willing to commit to. Much to my embarrassment, after one solitary day of “practice,” I quit my dream of guitar playing.
To develop the skills to do something well requires time, hard work, and prolonged commitment. Choosing whether or not to perfect my guitar skills is a choice I can easily make with little to no effect on my holiness, the well-being of those around me, or my relationship with God. However, there are habits of the soul that I must choose to practice if I want to grow in a life of holiness. These good habits of the soul, virtues, will affect the well-being of those around me and my relationship with God. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) says, “A virtue is an habitual and firm disposition to do the good. It allows the person not only to perform good acts, but to give the best of himself. The virtuous person tends toward the good with all his sensory and spiritual powers; he pursues the good and chooses it in concrete actions” (1803).
To become virtuous, one must practice choosing the good in everyday life circumstances. According to Aristotle, moral virtues are acquired through habituation, and performing virtuous actions should start from an early age.
“The virtues we get by first exercising them, as also happens in the case of the arts as well. For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them, e.g. men become builders by building and lyreplayers by playing the lyre; so too we become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts.”
Nicomachean Ethics, Book II Section I
Establishing your home as a school of virtue is an everyday, persistent, and intensive operation, but you can do it! God has given you the gift of your children, which means he will also give you the grace necessary to cultivate an environment in your home that promotes a life of virtue.
There are four cardinal virtues: prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance. In Back to Virtue, Peter Kreeft writes, “These are not the only virtues, but they are the cardes, the ‘hinges,’ on which all the other virtues turn. They are the necessary foundation and precondition for all others. If a person is not courageous, for instance, he will not overcome the difficulties inherent in the practice of any virtue. If he is not wise, he will not understand what he is doing, and his virtue will sink to the level of blind animal instinct.” Virtues perfect our God-given powers. Let’s explore each of the cardinal virtues and ways the family can cultivate them in the home.
“Prudence is the virtue that disposes practical reason to discern our true good in every circumstance and to choose the right means of achieving it” (CCC 1806). Prudence perfects our intellect, which is given to us by God. Prudence enables one to know what is right according to God’s law and how to properly map out a plan of action of when and how to do what is right.
Here are some practices to help your children grow in the virtue of prudence:
- Teach them the standards God has already revealed through His word and His Church: the Ten Commandments, Beatitudes, and the precepts of the Church.
- Give your child opportunities to make decisions (based on parameters you have established). If they choose to eat their soup with a fork they will quickly learn that it is not really efficient. They may want to try out for a sports team but you know that athleticism is not their gift. Allow them to try out anyway. Taking a step back and allowing your child to experience disappointment or failure is difficult but tremendous learning does occur, and they do learn.
- Teach them to pray when making decisions. It is good for them to have adults to consult but let us not leave Our heavenly Father out of that conversation.
- With bigger more important decisions, teach them the importance of seeking counsel, weighing their different options, and taking reasonable time to discern what is best.
- Learn from the example of others or past personal events. Have discussions about real life events involving negative and positive consequences.
“Justice is the moral virtue that consists in the constant and firm will to give their due to God and neighbor. Justice toward God is called the ‘virtue of religion.’ Justice toward men disposes one to respect the rights of each and to establish in human relationships the harmony that promotes equity with regard to persons and to the common good” (CCC 1807). Justice enables one to give to God what belongs to God and giving to neighbor what belongs to neighbor. To what do we owe God? Obedience to his will, prayer, fidelity, and gratitude to name a few. To what do we owe others? A few examples would be honesty, Christ-like love, and respect for the dignity of every person.
Here are some practices to help your children grow in the virtue of justice:
- Practice proper worship of God and placing Him first. Fulfill your Sunday obligation every week. Discuss and practice behaviors you want them to exhibit at Mass – dressing your best; silence; saying/singing the responses, and stand, sit, and kneel along with the congregation.
- Pray daily with your children. Help them establish good prayer habits.
- Have each member write a list of blessings they have received from God and say a prayer of gratitude. (You can even put your lists somewhere visible as a daily reminder.)
- Recall the words of Jesus, “Whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me” (Matt 25:40). Practice respecting human dignity by how we treat others.
- Talk about injustices they see and how they can help. Participate in a family service project multiple times a year.
“Fortitude is the moral virtue that ensures firmness in difficulties and constancy in the pursuit of the good. It strengthens the resolve to resist temptations and to overcome obstacles in the moral life. It enables one to choose what is right and good especially when it is difficult” (CCC 1808). Fortitude is moral courage.
Here are some practices to help your children grow in the virtue of fortitude:
- Listen and be empathetic if your child suffers ridicule, isolation or cisticims for doing what is right. Encourage them to speak up when they see something that is wrong.
- Help your children make two lists: a list of things that scare them, and a list of obstacles they have already overcome. The first list provides insight into your child’s fears so you can help guide them, and the second list will boost confidence by showing them they can overcome hardships.
- Study the lives of the saints with them. There are many resources and books on saints for children. Find them, bring them into your home, and use them!
- Challenge them to do something hard or try something new.
- Allow them to feel uncomfortable or to fail. If parents are too hasty to rescue their children from things that are difficult or unpleasant, they will be slow to learn perseverance.
“Temperance is the moral virtue that moderates the attraction of pleasures and provides balance in the use of created goods. It ensures the will’s mastery over instincts and keeps desires within the limits of what is honorable” (CCC 1809). Temperance enables one to moderate and control the intake of pleasures. Many parents are all too familiar with temper tantrums. These are to be expected with younger children because they are having to learn how to control their desires and emotions. As children grow, they should be learning proper emotion regulation and healthy coping skills, eventually outgrow these tantrums. Our desires and emotions can be very strong and they need to be coached how to navigate their appetites and emotions.
Here are some practices to help your children grow in the virtue of temperance:
- Establish family fasting days. As a family commit to a communal sacrifice like abstaining from meat every Friday or giving up technology for one weekend a month.
- Set up a family chart together that evaluates how much time you spend on certain things. Is there a good balance between prayer, work, school, play and rest? Make a family plan that addresses those things which need more of your attention and energy, and what needs to be reduced in order to accomplish that plan.
- Limit tech time. Setting clear time constraints on electronics helps moderate time spent in front of a screen or phone.
- Create a chore chart. Giving children chores and responsibilities helps them become more self-disciplined and they learn to work under certain guidelines and schedules.
As a parent you are responsible for shaping the hearts and habits of your children. The goal of a virtuous life is to become like God. Failure to build up virtue and correct vice in the life of your children hinders their ultimate goal of being more like God, which can set them up for a life of self-absorption, impulsiveness, imprudence, and cowardice. The ardent desire to have virtuous children must be equally matched with an unshakable resolve to invest the time and energy necessary for the formation of virtue. I am confident you are committed to your God-given mission of raising saints. Stay the course, put in the work, and your family will be a school of virtue and a community of saints.