I want to my girls to grow up knowing right from wrong. I want them to understand that virtue is important in life. This is very difficult to teach in a world that has little regard for virtue but it must be done.
4 ways to teach our kids virtue
(from Chuck Colson’s article “Can Virtue Be Taught?” in Focus on the Family’s “Thriving Family” magazine).
1. Be there.
The process of cultivating virtue in our children begins at home — with mothers and fathers loving one another and being active in their children’s lives. Being present often means making sacrifices, whether those sacrifices are as large as giving up a dual income or as small as missing “Monday Night Football.” We make sacrifices in order to be more than a chauffeur and a meal ticket to our kids.
But presence, as important as that is, is not enough. Talking through real-life situations with your kids could help them make wise decisions in their lives. But as anyone who has spent any time with a child knows, a 30-minute didactic lesson on virtue will go in one ear and out the other. Engage your child in a discussion without the lecture.
2. Teach absolute truth.
To cultivate virtue, we must begin with the most basic element: There is truth, and we can know it. This notion of truth may seem obvious to some, but with the rise of relativism today, we can’t afford to assume kids believe in absolutes.
Do a simple exercise with your kids. Explain that there are natural laws in the universe, such as the law of gravity. Drop a pencil. Or, if you’re willing to give your child a laugh at your expense, drop a heavy object on your own foot.
Ask your kids what just happened. Then ask them what would happen if you dropped the object 1,000 times. Explain that the object would fall to the ground every time because there are absolute principles at work. Ask: How many times does it take someone to learn that there are absolute truths? They’ll get it.
3. Model virtue.
With foundations of absolute truth in place, we must then teach a child virtue by modeling it. My own father did exactly that. I learned the value of hard work from him. He dropped out of high school to care for his widowed mother. Later in life, he became an accountant and then a lawyer. It took 12 grueling years of night school as he worked full time to support our family during the Great Depression.
I learned from him that life is not about looking out for No. 1 but instead about sacrifice, hard work and a good that extends farther than our own backyard. I took those lessons to heart by age 12, building and selling model airplanes to support the war effort and writing an article titled “How Americans Can Do Their Part to Win the War” for a Boston newspaper. I share that not to pat myself on the back, but rather to explain how high expectations and a worthy example can draw out the best from a child.
And modeling virtue for our children now will pay dividends later. My father taught me never to lie. It’s a lesson that stuck with me even at the darkest moment of my life — Watergate. The prosecution made me an offer: If I would cooperate with them, they would only charge me with a misdemeanor, not a felony. A felony meant jail time and the loss of my ability to practice law. But the problem was they wanted me to testify to things that weren’t true. I couldn’t do it, no matter the cost. I turned down the deal and went to prison — a decision I have never regretted.
4. Share heroes from history.
While we model virtuous behavior for our children, we can also inspire them with examples from the Bible. Daniel and his compatriots defied Nebuchadnezzar rather than reject God. Paul defended the faith amid persecution. Yet, the Bible also shows us characters whose flaws were never expunged. Abraham left his land in obedience to God but also lied about Sarah being his sister. And Peter, that great rock of faith, denied Christ three times. The Bible points us to our need for a virtuous Savior — a need that Christ fully meets.
You may also point your children to heroes from history who showed great courage to stand for truth: Dietrich Bonhoeffer (who defied Hitler); Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks; Alexander Solzhenitsyn (who bravely spoke against the Soviet regime).
Finally, let your children see modern- day examples of those who exhibit virtue. Get your kids involved at church. There, they will rub shoulders with men and women who, albeit imperfectly, are seeking to live virtuous lives as they care for those in need.
We must exhibit — and teach our kids to have — the courage to do the right thing even if we have to pay a price. That requires what Lewis correctly called the most important virtue.
How are you teaching your kids virtue?