Raising a Virtuous Child
“I’m trying to find myself.” How many of us have ever heard someone say those words? It seems people are always trying to find themselves—in their twenties, thirties, forties—and beyond. Lately, I have been asking myself, what would it take to raise a child who knew who they were (or at least mostly so) by the age of 18? It seems to me that the earlier someone knows who they are, the sooner they are able to impact the world for good.
I started thinking about the idea of raising a virtuous child after listening to a teaching about Benjamin Franklin. The speaker said that as a child Benjamin Franklin carried around a list of virtues in his pocket. He would pull the list out from time to time to remind himself of the virtues he so wanted to embody.
I do not have the time (or space) to list all that Benjamin Franklin accomplished in his life, but the man was amazing. If you have the time to read his “resume,” I know you will agree.
Listening to this teaching got me thinking about children and what our society would be like if we raised them to be mindful of living virtuously. There is an old country song that says, “you’ve got to stand for something or you’ll fall for anything.” So how do you teach kids what to stand for?
Here are three ways to start raising a virtuous child.
1) Identify your virtues. This will vary by age and is something you will go over with your child as such opportunities emerge (see number 2). For younger children some virtues may be, 1) we share with others, or 2) we speak kindly to our friends and family members. For older children it may be, 1) we have integrity (we do what we say we will), or 2) we use our time efficiently. I use the word “we” because you want your child to know that these virtues apply to everyone in the family unit—even moms and dads.
2) Narrate your life. This is where parents really have to be hands on, especially in the early years before children can do it themselves. When your child or someone else exhibits a virtue you admire, let your child know. For example, at the library point out how a middle schooler holds the door open for someone in a wheelchair (the virtues of kindness and helpfulness). Or, for a younger kid, point out when you see him/her sharing.
3) Keep it in perspective. This is the trickier part and it also has an emotional component. Not all virtues should be upheld all of the time. For example, if you teach your child that kindness is a virtue, they may be kind even when they should not. If your 4 year old is playing with another preschooler who is being unkind your child needs to know that it is okay to feel angry and express that anger appropriately. For example, tell your child to approach the other child and say, “I feel angry when you start riding my bike without asking me and then do not give it back.” And of course all children need to know not to be kind to sexual predators. Keeping it in perspective involves talking with your children regularly and finding out whether or not they appropriately expressed their feelings and/or knew when to put their virtues on the back burner, so to speak. It is also helpful to reflect your children’s feelings back to them so that they learn to name their emotions. For example, “Lisa, you are feeling mad right now because mommy said you cannot have another cookie.” Your child’s ability to identify and appropriately express emotions is a valuable skill that will promote assertiveness and help foster authentic relationships from childhood on.
Like most good things in life, raising a virtuous child requires intentionality. It takes large amounts of time, energy and thoughtfulness, but it is the most important of jobs. In fact, helping others is one of the most important virtues of all.