“Peace is the tranquillity of order” – St. Augustine of Hippo
Let’s face it: we all want our children to grow up to be intelligent, well-mannered, faithful adults. But as Catholic Christians, there is more to that upbringing than just being nice to people. It’s about growing in virtue, doing the right things for the right reasons and staying faithful out of love for the Lord.
But when we get down to the nitty-gritty of encouraging virtue in our children, it seems complicated, even impossible to know what we’re doing and if we’re succeeding.
So when it comes time to start thinking about it, how can you encourage virtue in your children? What does it look like for them to grow in virtue from a young age and, as they approach adulthood, to actually be growing in Christian maturity?
To encourage virtue in our children, there are a few things we can do intentionally from a very young age. And you actually are probably already doing them!
In learning something new, we can’t expect to be an expert right away. If you have a goal of being a wonderful concert pianist, you need to first learn the disciplines of music: scales, reading notes and getting comfortable with your instrument.
So when it comes to encouraging virtue in our children, the first thing we should do is educate ourselves and then our children about what the virtues are and what they look like practically.
The things that you’re already teaching them likely have a virtue behind them. Identify it and start talking about it!
For example, we want our children to pick up their toys. We practice it with them, picking up with them and showing them where each thing goes. The virtue we’re modeling for them is orderliness.
We should avoid using language that is parent-driven when it comes to our reasoning for picking up, but instead connect our actions to our Lord. For example, instead of saying we’re cleaning up so mommy doesn’t have to do it all by herself (or something similar), we could say that it is good to live in an orderly home because it brings our family peace.
Once we’ve introduced a virtue, we then need to practice. Just like an aspiring concert pianist, this step takes years of going over the disciplines, relearning definitions and making small, gentle corrections.
For our children, this is a great time to begin to recognize the virtues practiced by those around us. Point out virtue when you see it – at the grocery store, at the playground or even in your own home.
For older children, pick a virtue of the week and talk about the instances when you saw that virtue in practice at dinner each night. This type of conversation solidifies the vocabulary and gives them examples of daily life orientated to the Lord.
Remember to use language that points to the spiritual life and to their relationship with the Lord. So often, we hear that the spiritual life is just a set of rules to be followed. But when we intertwine a loving relationship with those guidelines, they’re no longer rules but guardrails to a holy, joyful and fulfilled life. We just have to solidify that connection.
We have an understanding of virtue. We know what it looks like and have communicated that to our children as they’ve grown. And now comes the hard part, for them and for us: perseverance.
Applied to both parents and children, this step is our chance to show our children that the pursuit of virtue is a lifelong goal, that we’re not perfect at it either.
We are in the trenches with them, making slow progress and asking God for the grace to keep growing. We cannot will ourselves into virtue; growth in the moral life comes from the Lord, helped along by grace that flows from prayer and a sacramental life.
Every child will reach this phase with each virtue at a different time. Just like us, they may struggle with a virtue while others come naturally. The key to supporting them is to show them that this isn’t an area where they aren’t living up to expectations. Rather, it’s an opportunity to grow and learn alongside of you as they reach Christian maturity.
Growth in virtue is a lifelong mission. Our role as parents in encouraging virtue in our children changes as they grow, just like anything in parenting.
What matters most in encouraging virtue is our intentionality in communicating the relationship behind the virtues so that they don’t become a set of rules to live by, but rather part of a loving relationship with our Lord.