As I am writing this, very sad scenes on the media night by night reveal the chaos in Washington and other US cities where looting seems virtually unchecked.
Why is this happening?
It is not sufficient to say that it is a response to police brutality. There is something far deeper amiss. Teenage years and young adult life should be times of idealism and the joy of seeing one’s life all ahead.
These are tough times for parents. We want to hand on to children the best of worlds and instead we see anger and hatred, substance abuse, self harm, unrealistic wealth aspirations, broken relationships, absorption in social media, and an allergy to commitments as real parenting obstacles to be avoided. Parents want to pass on their ideals, their beliefs, and their religious faith too, to their children but many don’t succeed.
I have never met a parent who wished to raise a selfish child, but many will succeed in doing just that even though selfishness can never lead to happiness.
What can we do?
Since Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, a period of almost two and a half thousand years, there has been an unbroken tradition of agreement, about what children need if they are to be able to approach adult life confidently, free from negative media and peer pressure and free from the impulses that can so easily get their way in the lives of each one of us. For two millennia the development of virtues has been seen as the path to human maturity and personality development. We can be too embarrassed to even use the word as if virtue were no longer relevant.
Yet an understanding of virtues has become part of the common heritage of mankind. It would be the height of either ignorance or arrogance, for anyone to suggest growth through virtue development to be just one more opinion about the way a human being ought to mature.
If you want to raise your children to cope magnificently in life, raise them to be virtuous. Raise them with the four cardinal virtues. Aquinas insisted that the four domains of human action all need their respective good habits: our impulses to seek pleasure and avoid difficulty, our default self-centredness, and our readiness to justify anything to ourselves – these are remedied by the four cardinal virtues of self control, fortitude, justice, and sound judgement.
Virtues are good habits motivated by love for others. They are acquired by repetition, by consistency of expectations and most of all by good example. They are the key to be self-directing in life, to be truly free. Aristotle, who articulated better than anyone the doctrine of virtue, wrote, It makes no small difference, whether we form habits of one kind or of another from our very youth; it makes a very great difference, or rather, all the difference. Good habits free us from external manipulation by peers or media, and from the internal laziness or negativity that can so easily dog a young, and not so young, person.
Let us raise children to be good children. For a child to do something good is to do what is in their best interests. We are happiest when we truly know how to love and to give. Goodness and morality are defensible on rational grounds. Often this extremely important point is misunderstood. Based on the mistaken impression that good is a religious measure, many parents and educators avoid using it, or aiming for it. Consequently, in a society that is becoming increasingly secularised, the rationally defensible ultimate goal of parenting, to learn to live a good life, has been lost, and we are raising generations of self-serving young adults. And we may not be far behind ourselves.
We must not forget what brings happiness. Aristotle may well have written around 350BC that Happiness is the reward of virtue, but we can think we know better. We look for happiness in pleasure, power or possessions. The link between virtue and happiness has broken. In our modern societies most parents have come to recognise the false happiness paths… escapism into drugs, into selfish greed and materialism, or to indulgent hedonism at the expense of lasting relationships, etc, but they do not know the track to true happiness. Parenting has lost its way. This is more than a parenting skills problem. There is a dire need to put terms like virtue, morality, character, back into the vocabulary, into the parenting books, and into the school curricula before the track is overgrown for good.
Parenting for Character is a practical manual for fostering in your child the four cardinal virtues. It has a number of editions in other languages, and now I am very grateful to Parousia Media for the second edition with new material focussing on the vital importance of your emotional example to your children. At Charbel’s encouragement I am now working on a workbook to accompany Parenting for Character, and I expect that that will be ready later this year. I hope you are able to obtain Parenting for Character, and that it helps you, your children, and your friends.
This article was written by Dr Andrew Mullins. He is the author of Parenting for Character: Equipping Your Child for Life, with editions in several languages. His doctoral studies focused on virtue development and neuroscience.