Can Virtue Be Taught?

Tween boy sitting at a library table, smiing
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"Courage," wrote C.S. Lewis in his famous Screwtape Letters, "is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point. ... A chastity or honesty, or mercy, which yields to danger will be chaste or honest or merciful only on conditions."

How then would the young people of today fare if put to such a test? Would their virtue be found wanting? And if virtues and morals are hallmarks of a person's character, what does culture reveal about the condition of today's young people?

One study, conducted by the Barna Group, offers a glimpse into the moral character and attitudes of this burgeoning generation. The study found that 86 percent of teens believe that music piracy — unauthorized downloading of music or burning a copy of a CD for a friend — is acceptable behavior. Even more telling is that music piracy is commonplace among Christian teens, as identified by a Gospel Music Association survey. Christian teens are practically no different from their non-Christian counterparts as it relates to music theft.

Often these patterns of behavior can be attributed to what kids are seeing in the home. For instance, the University of Illinois at Chicago surveyed parents with children ages 10 to 14. While Facebook's minimum user age is 13, the study uncovered that over two-thirds of parents helped their underage children create a profile. Of those parents with underage users, a staggering 96 percent identified situations in which they believe it's acceptable to lie about their child's age and violate the age restriction. Facebook's restriction, by the way, is mandated by federal law.

When kids can't discern the difference between right and wrong as modeled by their parents, those blurred lines don't get any clearer as kids grow into adults. Sociologist Christopher Smith, of the University of Notre Dame, and his colleagues interviewed Americans aged 18 to 23. The research from their book, Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood, gave insight into the moral lives of young adults — or in this case, the appalling lack thereof. The rambling replies of those surveyed reveal that young adults don't even have the vocabulary to engage in moral reflection. As one person replied, "I don't really deal with right and wrong that often."

You see, for those 18- to 23-year-olds, right and wrong is judged by gut feeling. One of them said, "I have no other way of knowing what to do but how I internally feel." Conscience is not feelings; it consists of objective knowledge. And virtue requires a moral ballast. But how can parents help their kids develop such a ballast?

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.

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.

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.

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 can't afford to sit idly by and hope that our children will catch virtue. It won't happen. We must be there for them — emotionally, spiritually, physically. We must be willing to sacrifice to have a real relationship with them. And we must diligently train them to have a Christian worldview by starting with the basics: There is truth, and we can know it. It's not fashionable to talk about moral truth. But 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.

To help your kids think about how to respond when faced with a moral dilemma, check out our "What Will You Do? Scenarios" to get the discussion started.

This article first appeared in the Summer 2012 issue of Thriving Family magazine. If you enjoyed this article, read more like it in Focus on the Family's marriage and parenting magazine. Get it delivered to your home by subscribing to it for a gift of any amount.

Copyright © 2012 by Catherine Larson. Used by permission.

Next in this Series: The Super Power of Real Heroes

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