A few months ago, I gathered all my six children around me and tried to have a positive discussion about the concept of honoring one’s parents.
‘So, what do you all think it means to honor your parents?’, I asked.
‘It means we have to do what you say, O holy one,’ the first teenager sullenly remarked.
‘It means we have no rights,’ murmured the second teenager.
The discussion more or less went downhill from there, as I tried to repackage the concept which my teenagers had so negatively, but nevertheless – to my mind – correctly, expressed. In essence, I tried to explain very sweetly, but firmly (think smiling whilst talking through clenched teeth), that yes, at this stage in my children’s lives, honoring us as parents does mean doing what we say. It means understanding that the parents are in charge, not the children.
The teenagers weren’t very happy after that discussion. Although as a mother I am instinctually anxious when any of my children are unhappy, I found refuge from their unhappiness in Aristotle’s belief that childhood is an absolutely crucial time for the development of a person’s virtue. According to Aristotle, children will not grow up to be good people if they are left to their own devices when they are young. They must be guided by an ‘external reason’ – that is, by people whose reason is fully matured – while their own reason develops. Thus, the importance of honoring one’s parents.
Aristotle on the Development of Virtue
Recall that for Aristotle, the virtuous person is the one who can identify what is truly good, and who also desires what is truly good. The rational and irrational parts of his soul are integrated, because he wants to do what he knows is right.
Now, it’s fairly easy to explain what virtue is; what is hard is actually becoming virtuous – that is, getting to the point where reason and passion are aligned. Developing into a virtuous person is a process, and that process includes learning to understand what is good, and learning to love what is good. However, Aristotle thinks that these two aspects of developing virtue happen at different times. We must first be taught to love what is good, and the ideal time for this teaching is childhood. Our understanding of why something is good will then come later, when we are more mature.
So, how do we teach our children to love what is good? It is a matter of ‘training’ a child’s desires and passions to be directed toward the right things. Aristotle sees a close connection between our passions and our actions. Our passions affect our actions, to be sure. For instance, if we feel anger, we may shout, say hurtful things, maybe even become violent; if we feel fearful, we may run away, etc. But there is also a way in which our actions can affect our passions. If we repeatedly act in a certain way, our passions will eventually become ‘trained’ such that we want to act in that way.
Practice Makes Perfect
In this way, Aristotle thinks that developing into a virtuous person is one of those things that requires practice. That is, we have to practice being virtuous before we become virtuous. He often compares developing the virtues to a skill, like playing an instrument or building. These are things that ‘we have to learn before we can do them,’ but the only way that we can learn them is by doing them. So, for instance, he says that we become ‘just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts’, and so forth. As we act in good ways, our passions will become habituated toward these good actions, and this is an essential step in learning how to love doing what is good.
Although I don’t agree with Aristotle on everything, I have to say that, based on my own parenting experiences, this idea about how to develop good character traits makes sense. As human beings, we do develop characteristics from acting in a certain way, over and over again, whether for good or for bad. For instance, from the time my first child was very young, she has always been energetic, fun loving, extremely demanding, and naughty. Although I could barely cope with these traits when she was a toddler, the older she got, the more difficult it was for me to not lose my temper when she behaved badly. Whenever I lost my temper, I found that the next time she was naughty, it was harder for me to control my temper. I soon found that I had developed a habit of responding in anger whenever she misbehaved.
Of course, that’s an example of me as an adult developing a vice, and I want to discuss here how children develop virtues, but Aristotle’s principle of practice and repetition is exactly the same in both cases. He says that ‘it is from the same causes and by the same means that every virtue is both produced and destroyed’, which means that practice can both produce and destroy virtue: practicing good behavior creates virtue, practicing bad behavior creates vice.
So, if we want our children to develop the virtue of responsibility – manifested by understanding that housework is part of contributing to the common good of the family – then they must practice doing housework by doing daily chores, etc. If we want them to develop the vices of irresponsibility and selfishness, then they must practice shirking work and running away whenever you hand them a broom or a sponge (on reflection, this happens rather frequently in our house). For Aristotle, our actions determine what kind of person we will become.
So, says Aristotle, our little developing human beings have need of a teacher, who can help them practice how to act in the right way. In my view, this is our role as parents. Of course, other adults in schools, clubs, sports teams, churches etc. can help, but I think that as parents we are the ones primarily responsible for ensuring that our children ‘practice’ being good.
The Development of Virtue: Aristotle’s Theory, and Reality
Now, again, it’s one thing to say that parents have the responsibility to help their children practice good behavior, but putting that into action is a completely different thing. As I’ve talked about in several entries in this blog, my experience is that children often are not the willing recipients of parental direction. They do not necessarily act in the way that a parent shows them how to act. I find that they usually run circles around me, responding in a whiny and belligerent way whenever I encourage them to do something that will help them develop virtuous habits. So, how on earth do you train children to become virtuous?
I can’t turn to Aristotle here, because we have explored the essence of what he says we must do to raise virtuous human beings. He tells us that we must have them do just acts to become just, but that doesn’t really tell us how we get our willful children to actually do a just act.
However, consider this example. Several years ago, my two oldest children started studying violin with a teacher who employed the approach of the Japanese musician and teacher, Shinichi Suzuki. At the time I had four children and was pregnant with my fifth. I was always exhausted, always overwhelmed, always feeling like all I could do was cope from day to day. My children were children, which means they were loud, restless, difficult, and only reluctantly obedient at the best of times. I tried my best to teach them to do the right thing, but that often involved bribing, and sometimes shouting.
When I walked into that first Suzuki lesson, I came out a different person, and a better parent. I had never seen someone deal so positively, yet so effectively with my children. The teacher seemed to ‘love’ my children into doing what she asked. During each lesson, she would teach them a new skill or technique, and then praise them for trying to copy her. When she listened to them play, she always praised them over and over for what they did well. She always looked for the good in what they did, and built on that, rather than criticize them for what they were doing wrong. It was as if by ignoring the wrong things they were doing, and praising the right things, she was getting them to focus on and repeat good actions. They wanted to repeat the things for which she was praising them. That repetition allowed them to form good habits.
I loved going to those lessons. I loved learning from someone else how to help my children develop good habits by handling them with love, at a time when I really wasn’t sure how to do it anymore.
So, back to the question of how we train our children’s characters so that they become virtuous: I don’t have a lot of answers, but my hunch is that it has to be done with love. Remember that a virtuous person loves the good, and the whole purpose of training a child’s passions is to enable them to get to the point where they love to do the right thing. But we can’t teach our children to love the good if they do not feel love from us as we try to show them what is good. Our children have to see that we love both the good, and them, in order for them to respond to our attempts to help them act in virtuous ways.