Catholic Culture Dedication
Catholic Culture Dedication

Educating in Virtue

by James Stenson


Children growing up today are headed toward some formidable challenges. They must have character as well as catechetical instruction. They must be savvy as well as pious. They must be brought up to be responsible, tough-minded, compassionate, and courageous. James Stenson here provides some basic principles for educating in the virtues.

Publisher & Date

Catholic Educator's Resource Center, May 1996

I come to speak to you today as a teacher and school administrator, on who has had 20 years' experience in rendering professional service to hundreds of families.

During that time, I was blessed to work in two excellent educational institutions -- The Heights School in Washington, D.C., and Northridge Preparatory School in suburban Chicago. Because both these schools were small, and because both were dedicated to the personal character-formation of young people, I came to know many outstanding families intimately. Because I was honored with the friendship of many successful parents, I came to know much about the inside workings of these families' lives -- their strengths and shortcomings, their struggles and successes, their remarkable varied approaches to raising children well.

In the course of this discussion, I would like to share with you what I have learned from this professional experience. I certainly hope that my observations and convictions will help you form some insights and practical approaches for your formation of your own young children and your efforts to help other young families. No task in society today -- none whatever -- is more important than this.

Children growing up today are headed toward some formidable challenges in the coming years, the opening decades of the 21st century. Therefore, they must be raised to be strong. So they must have character as well as catechetical instruction. They must be savvy as well as pious. They must be brought up to be responsible, tough-minded, compassionate, and courageous. They must be humanly stalwart men and women, serious of purpose, whose confidence gives humor to their lives and light to their loved ones. These are the valiant men and women whom the Church and society will need in the next century “to renew the face of the Earth.”

Finally, those of us committed to helping young couples should bear in mind their ongoing need for encouragement.

As Pope John Paul II has said, responsibility is a call for us to surpass ourselves. Every vocation implies this challenge, and every vocation means commitment to some great passionate love. Love can overcome anything. As the eminent psychologist Victor Frankl put it, “When we have a why to live, we can find a how to live.”

Young parents need to be taught that love -- any love -- means more than sweet sentiments. Real love means the willingness and the ability to endure hardship, difficulty, sacrificial struggle for the sake of someone else's welfare and happiness. Love is sacrifice. A life lived in this way, giving one's whole self to others, is mankind's most noble achievement, and a sure road to real happiness.


When we speak about the upbringing of children, the principal order of business in family life, we need to say something about character.

To say that parents should raise their children right is to say that the children need to be formed in character. The children need to grow in what the ancients called the “virtues.” In today's terms these are called “strengths of character.” We know them when we see them in others. They are the habitual deeply rooted powers of mind and will that direct the course of a life nobly lived.

Over the years, I have found the following framework helpful in explaining to parents what their tasks of upbringing are all about. I have told young couples that their whole struggle in family life should be to form the seven great virtues of Christian maturity inside the lives of their children.

Life in today's society poses obstacles to this character-formation and I shall consider these in a moment. But first we need to consider what these seven great virtues consist of:

First, faith. This is belief in God and in all that He has revealed about Himself and mankind. It includes a deep understanding of who we are (beloved children of God), where we are ultimately headed (heaven or hell), and what we are called to carry out here on Earth (service to Him by service to others, starting with our family and friends). In a real sense, faith is a matter of seeing every aspect of our life as God sees it, to be conscious of always living in His presence. It is a sense of priorities in life, seeing that faithfulness to God's will comes first, ahead of everything else whatsoever.

Second is hope. This is the confidence that God will give us the means for our salvation, and that He watches over all our affairs with loving Providence. It is the confidence in God's all-knowing, all-loving, and all-powerful protection. For a person with supernatural strength of hope, no hardship or setback or calamity is totally overwhelming -- because, for a son or daughter of God, all things work together for the good. The Christian symbol of hope is the anchor, the tie that holds us securely through the storms of life.

Third, charity. This is the love for God, sincerely beloved as a Father and all-forgiving Friend. Here the question is one of priority and intimacy. The love for God comes absolutely first, ahead even of one's own life -- as it was with the Christian martyrs, who surrendered everything good in life rather than offend God, their first love. This love for God is deepened, made internal in mind and heart, through prayer and personal sacrifice. In everyday terms, it means shunning any and all allurements that could lead to sin, the cutting off of God's friendship. The great moral choices in life come down to the fundamental choice: self or God, and sometimes self or others for the sake of God.

Your children will grow up not when they can take care of themselves, but rather when they can take care of others -- and want to.

Fourth, prudence. Today we call this “sound judgment.” This means many things. It is the acquired ability to accurately assess people, events, issues, ideas. It is the ability to evaluate human affairs in terms of causes and implications. In a broad sense, it is a commitment to truth, the ability to recognize propaganda and lies when we see them. To look at this strength another way, it is the power of discrimination, the ability to make the important distinctions in life -- truth from falsehood, good from evil, fact from opinion, heroes from “celebrities,” reality from “television,” love from eroticism, the important from the squalid. A well-formed conscience belongs here. Conscience is not a bundle of intuitive, shapeless sentiments; it is an intellectual framework for discerning right from wrong. And this, like all intellectual achievements, means long-term reflective study.

Fifth is justice. Today we would call this “responsibility.” This means giving others what is due to them as a matter of right, starting with God. (The word duty comes from the word “due.”) It is the habitual understanding that the existence of others' rights imposes obligations on us. It is what children call “fairness,” one of the strongest and earliest developed moral senses in children. Combined with the virtue of sound judgment, and specially sound conscience, it is a habitual understanding of the interplay between rights and duties -- between authority and responsibility -- in our dealings with family and society, and especially in our dealings with God. It therefore implies respect for others' dignity, freedom, and feelings. It also entails exercise of fortitude and self-control (see below) in acting to carry out one's duties for the sake of others' happiness and welfare -- which is, as we have said, the hallmark of real love. In adult life (which is what we are really trying to teach the children), responsibility really means sacrificial love.

Sixth is fortitude. Today this character-strength goes by other names: courage, perseverance, personal toughness, “guts.” It is the ability to either endure or overcome pain, inconvenience, disappointment, setbacks, tedium for the sake of some higher good -- for example, one's duties to God and others, starting with our family. Simply speaking, it is the habitual power to either solve problems or put up with them, to override one's fears and ignore one's self-centered feelings. Courage, of course, is perfectly compatible with personal fearfulness; a courageous person does what is right despite his or her anxieties. All children must learn this, especially by example and practice.

Finally, temperance. This is what our society calls “self-control,” “self- discipline,” “self-mastery.” Closely related to personal toughness, this is the ability to dominate one's passions, appetites, and “feelings” for the sake of some higher good. It is a mastery over our lower inclinations, including the ever-present temptations toward laziness. It is also the ability to enjoy the good delights of life in moderation. To look at it another way, it is “being on top of life,” in control of events, living as a self-reliant “self-starter.” Clearly it is one of the indispensable qualities of leadership, one of the character-strengths we admire most in people. What we think of as “class” in people seems directly related to their habitual power of self-restraint, self-mastery. Temperance is the foundation (along with charity) of courtesy, habitual good manners.

These, then, are the seven great strengths that parents need to form within the lives of their children over many years.

How are they formed? The experience of mankind shows that virtues take shape in young people in three ways. First, by example: by what the children witness in the lives of parents and other adults whom they admire. (We all tend to imitate people whom we admire, even unconsciously.) Secondly, by repeated practice: by what the children are led to do, or made to do, over and over again -- to the point where the children know they can do the right thing because they have repeatedly done it. Finally, by word: by what the children hear from parents and others -- but principally as explanation, grounded reasons, for what they see and are led to do.

All three of these approaches are necessary. Lectures and talks, scoldings and corrections -- these are without lasting effect if they are not grounded in the parents' own example and in the children's ongoing performance of what is right.

This is the great task of parents today: to teach these habits of mind, will, and heart to their children, and to do so through hard work and sacrifice each day, setting an example for the children of a life well lived. Children who deeply respect their parents will imitate them. But remember that all respect comes from some perception of strength; your own struggle to grow in faith, hope, charity, judgment, responsibility, courage, and self-mastery -- this is what will direct your children to greatness. If you want to be a great parent, then struggle to be a great man or woman. And never forget that, for all your children's lives, the voice of conscience will be the voice of you, their parents.


Over the years, I have observed many successful parents at work. And I have learned much from them about how children in today's challenging times can, despite everything, be brought up to become great men and women. I would like to share with you what I have observed about these parents and their approaches of family life. I would urge you to think deeply about these matters and pass them on to your friends.

Let me say, first of all, something hopeful about these parents and their family-life practices. In my experience, there is no such thing as a typical personality trait among successful parents. They come in all forms and temperaments. Some are confident and charismatic; others are quiet, relaxed, and easy-going. Some seem to know immediately and intuitively what to do in tight situations; others constantly fret and worry. Some are strict, and others are pacific, even frequently lenient. But, somehow, all succeed with their children. Over two decades or so, their children grow to become competent, responsible, considerate, and generous men and women, committed to live by Christian principles. This is the only success that really counts.

Nor are there any pat formulas or clear-cut scenarios on how to deal with children in set situations. This is not surprising, after all, for no two families are exactly alike, and indeed the children in any family can vary enormously, mysteriously, in temperament.

But though there are no formulas as such in successful family life, there are certain approaches and values that turn up again and again among these widely varying families. Let me set out these traits for you here, the features I have found in common among successful parents. And please let me put them directly in the form of advice. When young parents have asked me what they should do in family life to raise their children, well, I have advised them as follows:

1.) Bear in mind: you are raising adults, not children.

Do not make the common mistakes of many parents today: (a) seeing discipline mostly as punishment, and (b) seeing its end as mere cooperative behavior, effectively “child domestication” for the sake of peace and quiet at home. Discipline is actually the process of leading children -- by example, directed practice, and word (in that order) -- toward their becoming competent, responsible, considerate men and women who live by Christian principles. Keep this aim constantly before you: what kind of adults your children should grow to become.

By their late teens, they should have lifetime practice in living the seven great virtues: faith, hope, charity, sound judgment, responsibility, persevering courage, and self-control. The tactics of discipline -- rules, regulations, corrective punishments, etc. -- are far less important than this determined strategic vision. What effective young parents have in common is this ideal: their children's future lives as responsible adults. When parents strive to form character in their children, they find that they can afford to make mistakes along the way. In a sense, mistakes do not really matter to parents who see family life as a sporting adventure.

2.) Work as a unified team: put your spouse first.

Putting the welfare and happiness of your spouse first does more than anything else to put children firmly on the right track toward responsible adulthood. Bear in mind: the children's honor toward each parent will mirror the attitudes of the other parent. When a husband honors his wife, the children honor their mother. When a wife esteems her husband, the children quietly come to see him as a hero. Any differences in opinion (e.g. approaches to punishment) must be resolve somehow for the children's sake. Each child has only one mind and one conscience, and therefore must receive one and the same direction coming from both parents. Well-raised children see each parent as “the boss.”

One practical tactic here: When any of your children approaches one of you to ask permission for something fairly important, tell the child you will put off a decision until you have checked with your spouse. Only after the two of you have talked about the matter will a decision be made, and it will always be a consensus. It is good, generally speaking, for children to wait for things anyway. And this practice shows your children that you value each other's judgment and you are determined to think and act in unity.

3.) Practice “affectionate assertiveness” with your children.

Be neither weakly sentimental nor harshly aggressive. Give steady affection in abundance, combined with clear and confident assertion what is right according to your responsible judgment. “Hate the sin, love the sinner.” Correct the fault, not the person. Show your children that you love them too much to let them grow up with their faults uncorrected.

Be conscious that “no” is also a loving word, and that “yes” is sometimes an escape device for cowards. Your children must experience loving denial from time to time, or they can never form the concept or the strength of self-denial. Kids cannot say “no” to themselves as adolescents and young adults unless they have learned the meaning of the word in childhood. Self-control starts from the outside, as it were, and works its way in. Without the word “no” in their lives, children can grow to become slaves of their appetites and impulses -- and this can lead to later disaster.

Together with this, strive to make praise as specific as blame. Parents tend to make blame very specific, but to give praise infrequently and in a vague way. As an American general once put it, “Everyone needs a pat on the back once in awhile -- sometimes high, and sometimes low.” Make sure you do both.

Direct your children, but do not overmanage them. They need to learn from mistakes, and they need to grow in confidence from pitting their powers up against problems. From time to time, they need to hear from you: “Keep trying. . .You can do it. . . Do not give up. . .You are stronger than you think.” Children who are directed this way in youth grow to respect and trust their parents' judgment, and they turn to their parents later, even in adolescence, for guidance, encouragement, and advice.

4.) Do not permit what you disapprove of.

Your confident judgment of right and wrong is the basis for your children's growth in strength of conscience. You may sometimes doubt the rightness of a given decision, but never doubt your right to make the decision in the first place -- and make it stick. If the children see you habitually back down from what you judge to be right, they may later let their conscience be overwhelmed by “feelings,” peer-group pressures, and the allurements of materialism. They must have the memory of your adherence to principled conviction even when faced with emotional pressures to give in. After all, conscience means doing the right thing even when this involves sacrifice.

Do not surrender in their attempts -- ages 2 to 5 and later at 13 to 17 -- to be “boss.” If you are clearly “boss” when they are young, you will give leadership through their adolescence, but if you capitulate when they are young, you may lose them in their teens. They will have neither your control nor any self-control. And nothing causes more anguish to adolescents than having some part of their lives out of control.

When should you punish severely, even physically? In three fundamental circumstances. First, if they show deliberate disrespect for you personally. Secondly, if they deliberately defy your rightful authority. Third, if they break their word of honor, telling a cold-blooded, deliberate lie. Everything you have to teach them -- everything -- depends on their internalizing respect for you and for their own word of honor. Serious flaws in these matters must never go uncorrected.

5.) Teach them habitual courtesy, good manners toward everyone.

That is, teach them habitual considerateness for the rights and sensibilities of everyone, without exception. Work to build within them the four great pillars of civilized adulthood: “please,” “thank you,” “I am sorry,” and “I give my word.” These are not just pleasant decorations to our speech; they reflect the inner values of responsible, considerate, self-disciplined adults. The attitudes underlying courtesy lead to chastity in adolescence and a solid, stable Christian marriage. Note, too, their relation to religion: A lifelong loving relationship with God means saying over and over again, “please,” thank you,” “I am sorry,” and “I give my word of honor.”

6.) Do not let the media win as rivals for your children's minds and hearts.

Keep television under your discriminating control. Your control of this powerful medium enhances your children's perception of your own strength. Have as a rule in your house, “We will have nothing in this house that considers or treats other people as mere things -- no pornography (or anything like it), no gratuitous violence, no disrespect or rudeness shown to others.” You show your children that you will not permit any outside influences in your home that offend your conscience and undermine your lessons of right and wrong.

Keeping the media under control leads to enrichment of family life. You find much more time to converse with your children, a fundamental basis for shaping their powers of judgment. There is more time to read and do homework assignments carefully, a basis for their growth in standards of professionalism. You have more family solidarity, and family life becomes a real sporting adventure -- and not, as it is for too many families, an ongoing experience of pleasant sensations contrived to escape boredom.

7.) Cultivate a sense of personal and family honor.

Truth is first, foremost, and always. Realize that nearly all children will spontaneously lie to defend themselves; but what cannot be tolerated is the cold, deliberate falsehood to avoid responsibility. Therefore, for serious matters, have a fallback position by which you put children on their honor -- ”Take a few minutes, think matters over, then tell me the truth on you honor. There is a big difference between telling a lie and being a liar.”

The word “integrity” should appear from time to time in family life. It means unity of intention, word, and action -- that we mean what we say, we say what we mean, and we keep our word.

Also cultivate the children's sense of how they represent the family in the outside world, for good or for ill. Teaching courtesy is a sound way to reinforce this; when children are courteous toward people outside the family, they bring honor to their parents. Tell them this, and show it: give praise to them when they show habitual courtesy. Show them that everyone in the family takes healthy pride in their accomplishments. And, conversely everyone is endangered by disgrace if they do something seriously wrong.

Teach them much about their grandparents and forebears, specially how they struggled to preserve their confidence and Faith through difficult times. After all, all of us are descended from real heroes. Give your children a sense of how they belong to a long line of heroic people, men and women who did great things with their lives in fulfillment of loving duties to God, family, and others.

8.) Finally, bind family life with prayer.

Let your children see that you, as parents, are also children of God. All of us are, all our lives. Teach them -- by example, directed practice, and encouragement -- to love God, to console and revere Him, to ask for His help and forgiveness. Lead them to see Him as friend, consoler, all powerful Father, the object of our loving devotion all our lives.

So, make prayer an intimate and natural part of family life. Pray before meals, at bedtime, and specially in trying circumstances. Ask your children for their prayers. Small children cannot contribute much to family life, but their prayers are all-powerful; let the children see how much you value their prayers. They will remember this all their lives.

Confidence in God's help will give strength to your tasks as parents. When you turn to Him to help you go beyond your limitations, you can count on His loving help. He never leaves the prayers of loving parents unanswered.

With God's help and your own dedicated, sacrificial work, your children will grow up to be great men and women. In the second century B.C., the Chinese philosopher Mencius said: “A great person is one who never loses the heart he had as a child.” This is what we are working toward. Your children must grow to have all the great virtues. They must be learned, sophisticated, tough-minded, determined, thoroughly competent, and no-one's fool. But as adults, they should also have -- like you -- the same great loves that they had in childhood: love for God, love for family, love for life and friends and laughter, and powerful love for the truth.

This is the greatness you should seek, and confidently expect from your grown children: that, all their lives, they have the strengths of adults and the hearts of children. They will become, as Our Lord put it, “as wise as serpents, and as innocent as doves.”

With God's help you will live to see your children become great men and women like this -- and this reality will be your earthly reward. May all of you see this greatness in your children, and may your family life together be a great adventure.


Stenson, James. “Educating in Virtue.” 2nd Pan American Conference on Family and Education Toronto, Ontario May, 1996.

Published with permission.


James Stenson is the author of Upbringing: A Discussion Handbook For Parents of Young Children published by Scepter Publishers in 1991 ISBN 0-932939-52-9, and Lifeline: The Religious Upbringing of Your Children published by Scepter Publishers in 1996 ISBN 0-933932-97-97-9. In addition Mr. Stenson is the author of numerous articles and booklets including the very popular “Preparing for Peer Pressure” and “Successful Fathers”. He was the co-founder of The Heights School in suburban Washington, D.C. and founder and first headmaster of Northridge Preparatory School in suburban Chicago.

Copyright © 1996 James Stenson

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