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Catholic Culture Overview
Catholic Culture Overview

Character Formation

by Laura Berquist


Using Plato, Aristotle and common sense, Laura Berquist explains the importance of character formation in young children, beginning with obedience. She draws from David Isaacs' book, Character Formation, to show a correspondence between the virtues that are appropriate for each age and the intellectual development of the child.

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Sursum Corda!



Publisher & Date

Foundation for Catholic Reform, Fall 1998

I'm very excited about conversion stories. I love Surprised by Truth, a collection of essays edited by Patrick Madrid. When Our Lord tells us about the rejoicing in Heaven over the return of one lost sheep, my heart responds. Nonetheless, I hope that I will never be in the position of rejoicing over the return of one of my children to the true Church of Christ. I hope and pray that none of them will ever leave.

While the final decision in a choice between staying Catholic or leaving the Church is up to the person choosing, the early formation of the person can make a big difference in the choice made. This formation, the early formation of children, is entrusted to us, their parents. The Church has always taught that parents are the primary educators of their own children, This is true for those first years, the pre-school years, but it continues to be true for all of childhood.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, '"The role of parents in education is of such importance that it is almost impossible to provide an adequate substitute,' The right and the duty of parents to educate their children [is] primordial and inalienable... Showing themselves obedient to the will of the Father in Heaven, [parents] educate their children to fulfill God's law."

This teaching of the Church applies both to the content of the Faith, which is the light under which all other knowledge is taught, and to the moral formation of our children.

Our duty as parents, as laid out in Pius XI's encyclical On the Christian Education of Youth, "consists essentially in preparing man for what he must be and for what he must do here below, in order to attain the sublime end for which he was created. It is clear that there can be no true education which is not wholly directed to man's last end, and that in the present order of Providence, since God has revealed Himself to us in the Person of His only Begotten Son, who alone is 'the Way, the Truth and the Life,' there can be no ideally perfect education which is not Christian education."

Our Lord wants us all to be the leaven in the dough of society. But He wants us to do this when we are properly prepared. Our job as parents is to prepare our children to be ready for the service to which God will call them. We need to furnish the children's minds and hearts with the true, the good and the beautiful, so that they may speak "in season and out of season" of the faith they have been given.

To do this we need to give our children both the information and the intellectual formation which will enable them to answer the assaults on their religious practices and understanding that will inevitably occur. Their ability to answer such assaults will strengthen their convictions, and make it possible for them to evangelize the world when the time for that comes.

Usually it is to this intellectual formation that I direct my attention in this column. However, there is a formation which is even more fundamental than, and indeed is essential to, intellectual formation. That is moral, or character, formation.

In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle calls the character, or habitual formation of a man, his 'second nature.' He does so because that formation becomes so closely united to the soul that it is as though it were the nature with which one began life. This formation cannot be separated from the person; it is not a facade intended to deceive or to impress others. It shapes a person in such a way that he either strives to do good, or lives a life dominated by vice. It is worth noting in passing that the phrase, "dominated by vice," is more profound than it might at first appear. Those who think good character formation is simply a restraint of natural propensities, that it involves a series of don'ts, that it is really repression, should reflect on the reality of the situation,

When I first read Plato's Gorgias, I was struck by the argument that when one is a vicious man, that is, a man of bad character, one is led by the passions. Such a person is not in control of his life; he does not determine his actions in the light of the goals he wishes to achieve. "I do whatever I feel like doing" is really the cry of someone who does not rule or direct his life, but rather follows his passing fancy. He is subject to the inclinations of his passions, and is thus a slave.

Such a person is not ultimately happy. He is not a free man, capable of directing his own life or the lives of others. I learned that in college as a theoretical proposition, and I had enough experience even at that point to appreciate its truth; but as an adult watching numerous families with many children, I see very clearly that happy children (of whom I know many), and indeed, happy men and women (of whom I also know many), are those who live by the rule of reason informed by grace. They are not subject to their passions; rather, they control the passions so that their feelings become a help rather than a hindrance to the virtuous life.

These children are not perfect from the beginning of their lives. Even after having achieved a certain modicum of virtue, there are still occasions where they fall, as do we all. But it is true for them as for the rest of us: once one realizes the direction in which happiness lies, and acknowledges that it will take a long time, indeed a lifetime, to reach the goal, then one has a clear vision of the task ahead.

In my experience the first virtue to try to attain, the central underpinning of all further character formation, is obedience.

I live in a homeschooling community, and I have been homeschooling myself for about fifteen years. I have seen again and again that those who are successful at homeschooling are those whose children are obedient, and who are themselves disciplined. I say this with some trepidation, because I know I am not the best role model in this area myself; but it is nonetheless true that obedience is key in homeschooling.

Obedience is not the only virtue, but it is central—not only to our lives as homeschoolers but also to the teaching of the other virtues.

Aristotle teaches that prudence informs all the cardinal virtues. Prudence is the acquired ability—that is, the habit—of discovering and judging what is right in any given set of circumstances, even where this cannot be deduced from general principles. It is prudence that makes it possible to do the right thing in the right place at the right time. An action that is courageous in one instance may be rash or foolish in another, because the time and place are not right. Prudence puts the actions in the right order.

Children are not capable of prudence. Of the virtues, prudence most of all requires experience. To know that now is the time to speak up, and now is the time to keep silent, is something one learns by doing and observing. To determine that in this case the virtuous action is to stay home and work on a project, but in that case the virtuous action is to leave the project and go to the talk, requires experience and reflection on that experience. Children don't have experience. But their parents do. They may not have prudence, but they have the experience without which there cannot be prudence.

For children, obedience takes the place of prudence; and that is why it is central to their training. By obedience children participate in the prudence of their parents.

It is not too surprising that obedience should be central to the virtuous life. After all, the principal action of all time, Christ's sacrifice on the Cross, was an act of obedience. "Not my will but thine be done," was Christ's prayer in the garden.

Now although in children obedience is necessary to the life of virtue, the goal of character formation is to achieve a certain habit of life, which in an adult does not continue to require obedience to one's parents (though obedience to proper authority remains a gift in our lives; and if we're smart, we will always listen to the wisdom of our parents). The virtue of obedience opens the door to the other virtues, and to the acquisition of prudence, which will allow the child, when he becomes an adult, to perfect the virtuous life begun in our homes.

Character matures somewhere between the ages of 24 and 30, so children complete the process of character formation on their own (that is, without us, though never without God); our part in the process is at the beginning and for some time thereafter, building the foundation on which the structure of the virtuous life will be built.

So what are the virtues, in addition to obedience, that we want to help our children acquire? David Isaacs, in his book Character Building, gives a suggested sequence of virtues to cultivate at each age. He starts with obedience and, interestingly enough, proceeds with a list that contains a kind of analogy between the stages of intellectual development and character development.

In the earliest years (four to seven), Isaacs suggests obedience, sincerity and order. Those seem to me to be like the first tools of learning. Without them you can't get anywhere. In the eight-to-twelve range, Isaacs suggests that character development concentrate on the virtues that in some particular way strengthen the character, calling to mind the intellectual formation of this stage which incorporates remembering and forming images to strengthen the imagination. In fact, it takes these very virtues to memorize and observe closely. If you don't have patience and perseverance you'll never see what there is to see, or retain all those catechism questions. You also have to cultivate responsibility in doing memory work every day, or you won't achieve the goal. In the following section, the thirteen-to fifteen-year-old is encouraged to work on virtues that help him deal rightly with the logical argument in which he is now interested.

For those of you who have children at this age, it will be clear that they develop an interest in arguing, and in what they regard as rational proof for positions. Many parents have found their docile, sweet, compliant young child suddenly develop a challenging mode in his adolescence. What we need to do with this from an intellectual or academical standpoint is to channel the interest, but in terms of the virtues we need to encourage moderation, respect, simplicity and modesty.

Lastly, the child in the rhetorical stage, the tenth-through twelfth-grade student, needs to work on the virtues which help him articulate arguments elegantly and persuasively, in the service of the truly noble.

It is true for our children, as for ourselves, that when we undertake character training in a formal way, we need to analyze the presently existing situation, think about the goals we want to accomplish, both short and long term, and then divide and conquer.

The first step is to analyze the situation. In addition to thinking about the general stage of development of this child, we need to remember that each child is unique, born with a specific temperament, and its accompanying inclinations. Some children are inclined to be generous; they have a natural aptitude for this virtue. However, they may lack an inclination to the virtue of order. Others might tend to be greedy, but find it easy to keep their rooms spic and span.

Look at the list of virtues you are thinking about and compare each of your children to that list. Is George patient, just, and so on? How about Jack? Get a fairly clear picture of where it is you are starting with each particular child. Then realize that character builds on temperament. Temperament is the material out of which character is made.

We want all our children to have all the virtues—but each child's natural inclinations have to be taken into account in determining the plan to follow in accomplishing that goal.

For example, if you have a child who is naturally sensitive and generous, but not industrious or orderly, you will need to focus on specific tasks involving perseverence in a difficult task, and creating and maintaining order. For this child it will be important to insist that his bedroom be picked up regularly, and that he not stop an assigned task until it is completed. You will think about tasks that can be given that require industry and order. On the other hand, because he is already inclined to think about the feelings of others, your job with respect to those virtues will be to notice and praise his good actions, but not necessarily to set up the situation that will require those responses.

Your knowledge of your child's temperament will also give you insight into which virtues to work on now and which to focus on later. For example, character formation for a child who is naturally a night owl and constantly oversleeps in the morning will focus initially on self-discipline (in order to get to bed on time and lessen the likelihood of oversleeping) and in the long run on prudence—understanding the long range consequences of choices made today.

After you have made your assessment, decide which virtues you want to work on now. If obedience is lacking, that will be first. Otherwise, look at the virtues that are appropriate to the age of your child, and that he or she needs to work on. Don't try to concentrate on too many at once; it won't work. Focus on one or at most two.

Then, especially with older children, talk to the child. Look for the appropriate time, when he will be receptive to what you have to say.

Begin by telling him what virtue you'd like to see him grow in. Explain what that particular virtue means and ask him to think of ways to exercise it. For example, the child who knows he needs to work on generosity typically thinks of it in terms of sharing his toys. That's a good place to start, and for younger children that's what should be worked on first. But the older child can be helped to see that generosity extends to time as well and really requires thinking first about others' needs.

Virtue is a habit, and habit is gained and perfected through repeated action. Look for situations that allow the child to exercise the particular virtue you are working on with him. Point out any occasion when he exercises that virtue, and praise him for it. If you notice someone else excelling at that virtue, point that out too, but do it in such a way that you invite your child to rejoice with you at that person's success. Don't say, "Why can't you behave that way?" That path invites rebellion and dissatisfaction.

Don't neglect the immediate consequences approach, either. Say, for example, that your 12-year-old has started saying, "Aw, I don't want to," when you ask him to empty the dishwasher. Tell him that you expect that when he is asked to do something, he will say, "Yes, Mother." Then give him the positive and negative consequences of doing or not doing what you have asked. Think about what matters to him. For instance, does he like to use the computer? Is there only so much time available for such use? Then tell him that each time he answers pleasantly, you will add five minutes to his computer time, and each time he doesn't he will lose five minutes. Then comes the hardest part. You need to keep it in mind all day long for as long as it takes. I have found that if you are consistent about rewarding and punishing the targeted behavior, it won't take long to improve. You will probably have to address the problem again, or similar problems, but it can be remedied.

Remember to be pleasant rather than confrontational when discussing virtue; your results are much more likely to be positive. Show your respect for them and their feelings, without in any way compromising your principles.

We want our children to be formed internally. As a friend of mine said, "Obedience is no good unless you have their hearts, too." The best way I know to gain the hearts of your children is to talk to them. Enjoy being with them, make an effort to spend time with them that is mutually pleasant. But above all talk to them, rather than at them.

In Scripture God tells us that we should train up a child in the way he will go, and when he is old he will not depart from it. We must see the overwhelming importance of our role as educators of our children, both in terms of their intellectual and their moral formation, and give ourselves wholeheartedly to this task. This will not provide us with a life of easy luxury, but it will provide us with a life work deserving of the expenditure of all our gifts.


Virtues to Emphasize by Age
(From David Isaacs' book Character Building)

Four to Seven YearsEncourage them to obey out of love


Eight to Twelve YearsAim for satisfaction in overcoming real obstacles

• justice

Thirteen to Fifteen YearsGive challenging but reasonable targets


Sixteen to Eighteen Years


Laura Berquist is a homeschooling mother of six, author of Designing Your Own Classical Curriculum and director of Mother of Divine Grace Home Study Program. She welcomes your suggestions or comments. You can send them to her at the Mother of Divine Grace School office. Attention: Laura Berquist, P.O. Box 1440, Ojai, CA 93024; (805) 646-5818.

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