The Secret Life of Virtue

I can only post this photo because the statute of limitations on
posting "irreverent faces made in church"
has long expired for this particular event and child. 

I just finished practicing virtue with my children. I mean that literally. We took an hour to role play and practiced being good. I coached them. They coached me. And sometimes we all just stood there and stared at each other... because what should one do when a sibling not only takes your book and loses your page but also hits you on the ear and flings toothpaste at you? They look to me for the answer as if I actually have one. I did not have siblings close to me in age; and life in the trenches of sibling warfare is a lot more complicated than I have been inclined to think.

It's all very simple for mother. Be NICE, you two. STOP poking him in the shin. How would Blessed Mother act? This all makes perfect sense to the third party adult watching children squabble. Honestly though, I often simply forget to teach them exactly what it means to "be nice." What would I do if someone stole my birthday lollipop and then got it stuck on my Pillow Pet? "Nice" doesn't cut it... they need details! And really, few 5-year olds have a well-defined sense of what Blessed Mother would have done if her brother put ketchup in her milk (which just happened to be the last glass of milk in the house)?

So we practice from time to time. It is not enough to say "pray" (although that is essential). We must give them the tools: action steps, appropriate body language, helpful words to use, and proper and effective means with which to defend themselves.

We practice giving apologies and accepting them. We practice walking away. We practice gentleness and kindness. And it works... and lasts... for a few minutes. Then they forget.

Tonight, we included 4-year old Jellybean in the fun. We explained that Crash was going to take away her toy and that she should respond in a soft way instead of an ugly way. Well, as soon as she heard the terrible scenario, she screwed her face up in frustration, stomped around the room a couple times and steeled herself for the impending theft with a frown and folded arms. "He's not going to take MY toy." No, no, dear... you've missed the point. She eventually got it but it's clear that we need to keep working.

We've whittled our approach down to two points since it must be easy to remember in a pinch and in the inevitable flood of negative emotions...

#1 Get on your knees. 

This means praying immediately. If you have to leave the room and literally hit the floor, do it. When you return to the scene of the crime, stay on your knees interiorly (meaning to stay rooted in prayer and humility) while you try to resolve the conflict.

#2 Be a peacemaker.

Sometimes this means walking away. Sometimes this means turning the other cheek. Sometimes this means apologizing (even when the other person has more to apologize for). Sometimes this means smiling when you don't want to and using gentle speech when angry words are fighting to come out. Sometimes it means standing one's ground firmly. Sometimes it means running to get mom.

Every situation is different and that is why we practice.

This activity usually centers around situations that might arise in family life but occasionally, an incident outside the home will inspire some creative role play. The children will come across a situation with friends or teammates that completely confuses them and they'll bring it to me. I didn't know what to say, Mommy. We have run into this many times even with other home-schooled kids. It's sometimes more difficult dealing with "good" Catholic kids because the behavior can be more secretive; parents aren't generally in-the-know unless they are present or their own children are brave enough to mention it and sensitive enough to care. Our kids know very well what the exterior standard needs to be but true colors can be more guarded.

One fruitful (but unfortunately necessary) role-playing session in our home followed an incident involving Crash and another home-schooled boy his age (9 or 10) from a solid Catholic family. Good parents. The two were hanging out together at an event when the boy pointed at a girl nearby and said, "Hey, Crash... check out that piece of meat." So it came up at home and we had a rousing session of what-do-you-say-to-Catholic-boys-who-disrespect-girls, which evolved into what-do-you-say-to-non-Christian-boys-who-disrespect-girls and several other meaningful tangents. It was good to see what the boys came up with and how they gained a better understanding of what it means to be a man of God.

Because we are physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual beings, it only makes sense that training in a life of virtue must touch each of those levels. I have known kids who belong to daily rosary-praying, Mass-attending, ultra-pious, clean-living families who have ruthlessly bullied my children. While the mother talks about how loving her 8-year old son is, I am watching over her shoulder as he kicks my little girl and pulls her hair. Another young girl wins the admiration and praise of all the adults for her apparent goodness but I overhear her on multiple occasions brutally ridiculing another child as soon as she thinks the adults are gone. Exterior piety is not intended to be a replacement for character formation but an excellent companion to it. Prayer covers us with grace but we need to activate it with our will. And as parents, we do need to enter the trenches with the kids. We will be a little uncomfortable. A lot muddy. It's eternally worth it.

Oddly enough, I am grateful for those among my children who wear their faults like a neon sign. It can be a bit humbling as a mother but it is quite a bit easier to fight a visible enemy than one that lurks beneath pretty veneer. The ones who care about making a good impression are easier on mama's pride in public but are more difficult to reach when they are struggling. Little ones need parents with four sets of eyes and ears and the determination to use them. Teenagers need mothers and fathers who relentlessly combat veneer. They are entering a time in their lives when they can look at the crucifix and understand in earnest what mercy means... because they need it. It is a new season in a mother's life when she looks into a child's eyes and sees that kind of understanding. He went to the Cross for me, mom. Yeah. You and me both, kid.

The real secret of virtuous people is that they put themselves in the way of a tremendous outpouring of grace... and then they do something with it. I wish I could tell you how it feels to be one of those people. I'm not there yet... but I'm practicing.

"Moreover the strongest support is provided not only to protect the young from evil, but also to rouse them and attract them more easily and gently to the performance of good works. Like the twigs of plants, the young are easily influenced, as long as someone works to change their souls. But if they are allowed to grow hard, we know well that the possibility of one day bending them diminishes a great deal and is sometimes utterly lost." ~St. Joseph Calasanz

"If I had to advise parents, I should tell them to take great care about the people with whom their children associate . . . Much harm may result from bad company, and we are inclined by nature to follow what is worse than what is better." 
~St. Elizabeth Ann Seton

Posted on January 18, 2012 .