Parenting for Character 5 by Charles Debelak


Parenting for Character 5 Teaching Virtue

Teaching virtue through stories at Birchwood School of Hawken

Before continuing our discussion about the seven moral virtues, I would like to reemphasize the importance of teaching children about virtue, especially through story. Teaching virtue through stories, including fables, myths or cultural maxims, is a powerful tool for cultivating virtue and character. This is because the capacity for virtue is latent in the heart of every child. There is an inborn aspiration to be a good and noble person, someone of courage, self-control, wisdom, compassion, gratitude, and humility. Stories and lessons about virtue stimulate these latent tendencies and spontaneously incite action. Teaching virtue ignites patterns of behavior that a child longs to follow.

The teaching of virtue is also effective because it educates a child’s conscience. In childhood, a healthy conscience is essential because conscience is a child’s moral compass. A good conscience helps to regulate behavior in childhood and is the foundation for navigating complex moral and ethical challenges in adolescence and adulthood. It functions by creating a sense of peace and well-being when children attend to good behavior or by creating a sense of guilt and shame when he or she behaves poorly.

The conscience will deem behavior good or bad depending upon what the conscience holds to be good or bad. This implies the conscience needs to be educated. It needs knowledge. In fact, it is interesting to note that the word “conscience” in both its Latin and Greek roots means “with knowledge.” When and how a child’s conscience will function depends upon the knowledge embedded in the conscience.

This is why we teach virtue. We educate a child’s conscience (while spontaneously inspiring the heart) about those qualities that describe a beautiful life, well-lived. The more deeply we imbed the lessons of virtue the more they affect the heart and conscience and create within the child an internal mechanism for aspiring toward, and living out, the good. Certainly, children will still misbehave. They will still get in trouble. They will often deliberately choose to go against their conscience and behave poorly. That is just childhood. That is just being human. Nevertheless, with an educated conscience, children are keenly aware of what is right and wrong; this awareness in their conscience creates a pathway back to what is virtuous even if children drift far away.

Finally, the teaching of virtue is effective because it re-awakens truth in children no matter how many times they have heard the lesson or story. Behaving well, behaving according to the Aristotelian virtues as I have been describing them, persists in its truthfulness because it is universally human and universally true. What also persists is the human tendency to drift away from fundamental precepts of good behavior. We do bad things. We do things we should not do. That is just a fact and no one, and certainly no child, is immune. Teaching virtue reawakens what is true and draws children back to what he or she intuitively knows is true. It offers opportunities to begin anew, to start fresh.

When making this point, I am reminded of good books or movies that play off themes of redemption, compassion, kindness, justice, or courage. Even when we know what the writer is doing while manipulating some timeless theme of virtue, we love the story. We love the call to what is good and noble. Our heart is re-awakened to what is true.

The same thing happens to our children when we teach virtue.

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