July 25, 2014

Faith and Family / Sean Gallagher

Parents and children can learn virtues together

Sean GallagherMy 12-year-old son, Michael, has spent some time recently this summer learning some virtues in a way that’s new for him but very much like the way my father learned them when he was young.

Michael has been doing work at the home of some friends of ours who keep a good-sized garden and care for a decent amount of livestock. They’re not farmers, at least not in the traditional sense. But they live off a lot of the fruits, vegetables, milk, eggs and meat they produce. The boys who help them out get to take home some of their produce.

Much of what Michael has done is similar to the work that my father did on the farm he grew up on in the 1940s and 1950s. He’s done some harvesting, moved parts for pig pens into place and helped slaughter some chickens.

If Michael keeps up this work, he will create for himself memories that will last a lifetime. I can say that with confidence because the relatively few memories of farm work that I have from my childhood are still vibrant today, and I like to share them with my boys.

Michael is learning in this work such virtues as hard work and cooperation. Learning these habits alongside other boys his own age is a strong way to build a foundation of virtue for the rest of his life.

But it doesn’t guarantee that he’ll be virtuous when he’s my age.

When I was Michael’s age, I learned virtues like these alongside my father. I worked with him a bit on my grandfather’s farm and helped him cut, split and stack firewood for our home’s wood burning stove. And then there was yard work around the house.

But as hard as my father worked to plant the seeds of virtue in my heart some 30 years ago, I still struggle today to make them a solid part of my daily life.

And that’s understandable, given that building up virtues is a lifelong task. It’s not like learning multiplication tables—memorize them and you’re done. If we don’t hone virtues in the ever-changing circumstances of our lives, then they will gradually cease to have the good effect on our lives and on the world around us that God intends them to have.

Thankfully, God helps parents continue to improve virtues in their lives by giving them the task of passing these habits onto their children.

Earlier this year, I reflected in this column on how I’m teaching Michael to mow our lawn much like my father taught me the same task some 30 years ago. I’ve also done landscaping work in our yard with my other sons this summer.

Hopefully, in these and various other tasks and chores around our home, my wife, Cindy, and I are instilling virtues in our boys from a young age. Even 5-year-old Philip has done simple after-meal and bedtime chores for a year or two.

But as my hands got into the dirt when three of my sons and I recently planted some hostas, I appreciated anew that we parents are renewed most effectively in the virtues when we get down to work hard alongside them.

And what is true of helping children grow in the human virtues is also true of the theological ones—faith, hope and love.

The habits of the life of faith are built up best in our children when parents pray with them, help them learn the good news of our faith and join them in serving people in need.

As parents and children learn virtues together, they’ll grow in true happiness in this life and come that much closer to eternal happiness in the next. †

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