Jaime Primak Sullivan has taught her three young children to look people in the eye and say “please” and “thank you” because doing so acknowledges their humanity and shows respect. One day when she took them for ice cream cones and they failed to follow that teaching, she expressed her disappointment and then tossed the cones in the garbage. Later she wrote about the incident in her blog, the story went viral, and she received a variety of reactions, some praising her but others accusing her of being a cruel parent.
The fact that she received a number of negative reactions illustrates how much our culture has changed in its approach to parenting over time, particularly concerning the teaching of virtue—so much so, in fact, that we seldom use the term “virtue” any more but speak instead of “values,” a term vague enough to mean anything . . . or nothing.
As a culture, we seem to have forgotten that children are imperfect creatures who need to be taught, again and again, how to be fully human, and that means teaching them how to be virtuous and reinforcing the lessons often enough that they become deeply embedded.
Among the most important virtues are prudence, justice, temperance (moderation), fortitude, frugality, industry, sincerity, humility, fairness, courtesy, and kindness. All are associated with Christianity. In fact, however, although Christianity embraced and promulgated them, it did not originate them (as it did the “theological” virtues of faith, hope, and charity). Instead, it borrowed them from ancient philosophical writings, notably Greek and Roman.
Before those virtues were religious teachings, in other words, they were simple wisdom born of human experience.
For generations young people were taught these virtues in church and synagogue and at home and school. But for roughly the last half-century, many parents have traded traditional wisdom for the popular belief that the teaching of virtue is an anachronism or, worse, a violation of children’s inalienable right to develop their own principles for living.
Today, too, the schools are intimidated or legislated into silence about anything even remotely associated with ethics or morality. Thus it is that today’s children are likely as not to grow up with little or no understanding of virtue and few if any encouragements to practice it. For example, they are never introduced to and urged to ponder ideas like these:
We are gentlemen, that neither in our hearts, nor outward eyes, envy the great, nor do the low despise. William Shakespeare
A gentleman is one who thinks more of other people’s feelings than his own rights; and more of other people’s rights than his own feelings. Matthew Henry Buckham
One of the marks of a gentleman is his refusal to make an issue out of every difference of opinion. Arnold H. Glasgow
It is almost a definition of a gentleman to say he is one who never inflicts pain. John Henry Cardinal Newman
This is the final test of a gentleman: his respect for those who can be of no possible service to him. William Lyons Phelps
To be a gentleman is to be honest, to be gentle, to be generous, to be brave, to be wise and possessing all those qualities, to exercise them in the most graceful outward manner. William Makepeace Thackeray
He has achieved success who has lived well, laughed often and loved much; who has gained the respect of intelligent men and the love of little children; who has filled his niche and accomplished his task; who has left the world a better place than he found it, whether by an improved poppy, a perfect poem, or a redeemed soul; who has never lacked appreciation of earth’s beauty, or failed to express it; who has always looked for the best and given the best he had; whose life was an inspiration; whose memory is a benediction. Bessie A. Stanley
Thoroughly “modern” people will no doubt see these passages as quaint but irrelevant to contemporary living and urge that they remain hidden in the pages of dusty library books and never presented to children. Ironically, some of the same people are most vocal in their expressions of concern over the increasing incivility, intolerance, and violence of our society.
Perhaps at some point those people will come to appreciate the wisdom of the ancient view that virtue is not inborn but learned. Until that happens and the teaching of virtue is restored, America will continue to do a disservice to its children and itself . . . and reap a bitter harvest.
Copyright © 2016 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved