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3 Simple Habits for Raising Virtuous Kids

“Parenting is easy,” said no one. Ever.


From the first moments of their existence, these little humans we co-created rely on us completely—to love them, to care for them, to feed them, to play with them, to teach them … sometimes it feels like their needs are infinite and come all at once.


And if that weren’t intimidating and overwhelming enough, as Catholics we add to this another dimension, arguably the most important one. Here is this immortal soul—or multiple immortal souls—given to us by God, to care for, to guide, to raise up in holiness. Sometimes the magnitude of this task hits us like a ton of bricks and we’d be lying to ourselves if we didn’t admit that it’s scary.


Fortunately, God doesn’t throw us into the deep end of parenting without an ample supply of life lines. He is the perfect Father, and if we were to look to Him alone for parenting advice, we would find it to be sufficient.


If you’ve ever read the Bible cover to cover (or listened to it with Fr. Mike Schmitz), you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about. How many times in salvation history has God shown Himself to be the perfect parent? He’s forgiven His children time and time again, loved them, cared for their physical needs, saved them from disasters of their own making … Needless to say, too many times to count!


But there’s one thing He didn’t do. He never let go of His expectations for them. Nowhere in the Bible is there a passage that says, “And then God decided to give up and just let them be who they were.” He wants us to grow, to strive to be better, to become more like Him.


As parents, imperfect though we are, we ought to want that for our children too.


Different parenting gurus will tell you what they think are the most important habits to form in children, what are the expectations children should grow up with so that they become industrious and well-rounded adults. But us Catholics already know what these are and we call them virtues!


There are 7 “main” ones that the Church encourages each of us to grow in, and though 7 is certainly not a lot, when you’re raising little ones … it can be. But 3 sounds like a much more manageable number, doesn’t it?


Here are 3 concrete habits that we can encourage our children to grow in, each in whatever capacity they are able to for their age. The awesome thing about these 3 habits is that, together, they actually end up laying the foundation for many different virtues.

Fortunately, God doesn’t throw us into the deep end of parenting without an ample supply of life lines. He is the perfect Father, and if we were to look to Him alone for parenting advice, we would find it to be sufficient.

1. Responsibility


There are many ways we can teach responsibility to our kids and you’re likely already doing it in some way, shape, or form. To teach our kids to take care of their things and of our home, we typically give them chores: to clean up their toys, to keep their room clean, to make their bed, maybe later to clean the bathrooms or take out the trash. As they grow, so do their physical responsibilities. Maybe they have a pet they take care of, a paper route (do kids still have those?), their school work, keeping track of their extracurricular activities and equipment … you get the point. There are multiple ways to teach this kind of responsibility and it’s important that we do.


But there’s another dimension to responsibility that we don’t always think to teach, and not only that, but our culture often tells us to do the very opposite of it. While the world tries to make us believe that it’s all about us, that we ought to look out for #1 first and foremost, we must remember that we are relational beings, and as such, we also have a responsibility to care for one another. And since it doesn’t come naturally to most of us, we must learn it, and as parents, we must teach it.


How do we teach this kind of responsibility in the home?


Start small and keep it simple. At dinner time, we have our oldest kids serve their younger siblings first. Ask older children (even if the older child is only 2) to help out with the younger one by giving them “special tasks” that they alone are responsible for, such as making sure the baby’s toys are in their proper place and the baby has one to play with.


Teach your kids to look out for one another’s needs before they see to their own, and they can be taught this no matter their age. Get creative; it’s not about the magnitude of the task but about teaching children that there’s someone else to care for, someone who needs their help.


By nurturing this responsibility at home, we lay the foundations for virtues like charity, humility, and generosity, all of which are rather scarce these days.


2. Diligence/Commitment


This one is a little hard to define in one word, but essentially it’s about teaching our kids to make an effort in whatever they endeavour, to not settle for mediocrity… to strive for excellence and perfection.


Before I go on, let me clarify what it is I don’t mean by striving for perfection or avoiding mediocrity because both of these words tend to be loaded with many negative connotations today. I don’t mean that we set unrealistic expectations for our kids and make them feel bad for failing to live up to them. I don’t mean that you show great displeasure with your child’s B grades because you want them to get straight A’s. It doesn’t mean that you lead your kids to believe they must be extraordinary to feel like they’ve made you proud.


What I mean is that we teach our children to make an effort in all that they do, and to not just get things done so they’re done, but to take their time and be mindful and care about the task at hand. It may not seem like a big deal, but this habit will transform every aspect of their life. It will teach them to take pride in their work and in their accomplishments, it will help them grow in healthy self-esteem, self-worth, and dignity.


How can we do this on a practical level at home and when they’re young?


When we give our kids chores, we set expectations of what it means for a particular chore to be done, and that will usually entail a certain amount of effort being put in. As they grow, so do the expectations, and therefore, the amount of effort. And we check and tell them if something’s not right so that they can correct it and remember how to do it next time. If I ask my daughter to put away her clean laundry and she just throws it into her closet, I will ask her to try again by putting everything in its proper place. If my 10 year old makes his bed, the expectation is that it looks presentable (not impeccable, necessarily) and not like a mountain range.


Teaching our kids to try harder does not make us mean or high-maintenance parents. This is a habit that will help them not only in their personal, academic, and professional life, but especially in their pursuit of holiness—a journey paved with high expectations, many challenges, and one that requires the best of our efforts. Nurturing this attitude and habit in our children will help them grow in gratitude as well as patience with themselves and with the people they encounter throughout their life.


3. Self-Control


This is probably the hardest habit to teach kids because the idea of delaying anything is so often an abstract concept to them, and not just when they’re little and can’t understand it. Older kids will question it simply by asking “why?” Why is it better to not do, or to eat something now? How does that make me a better person? And the truth is, many of us struggle with this even as adults, and we can clearly see its effects in the world around us. We have grown accustomed to getting what we want and getting it instantly, ideally with minimal effort on our part. But the truth is, when we live like this we become slaves to our desires.


On a practical level, how do we help our children grow in self-control?


When our children are little, we often decide for them when and what they have to wait for. We say that the cookies we just made have to wait until after dinner and then we move them from within their reach as they proceed to show their displeasure; still, we stand our ground because we know it’s good for them.


But the lesson isn’t fully learned and the habit is certainly not formed in them until they are given the power to make that choice to wait and given to understand why it is good to wait sometimes. We don’t want them to grow up and feel like slaves to their impulses, wants, and desires.


The example I gave with serving younger children first at meal times is also a good way to help those with self-control issues work on delaying gratification. Sure it’s only a few extra seconds or minutes that they have to wait, but it’s a concrete and simple way to start. As our kids grow older, we can encourage them to fast in different ways, whether it’s from electronics or snacks between meals, and give them the power to choose what they will fast from and for how long.


Learning self-control will help our children moderate their life in this world of excesses, which in turn will help pave the way for them to grow in temperance, chastity, fortitude, and of course, in resisting temptation and sin.



Though we have little hope of achieving perfection in this world, God nevertheless asks us to strive for it. And we know our children can’t possibly be the best in everything, but we ask them to try because we want them to grow to be the best version of themselves. But when we set these expectations for them and nurture these habits, we must remember that—like God does for us—we never stop showing them patience, mercy, forgiveness, support, and love.


And if at any point along the way you get discouraged or feel hopeless, just turn to your Heavenly Father and He will show you the way.




May the Peace of Christ be with you,


Editor-in-Chief


 

We believe that Salvation begins in the home, which is why MMH Press is dedicated to helping parents discover the foundations of their motherhood and fatherhood as revealed in God's plan for the family. We seek to inspire Catholic parents to transform their home into a sanctuary of love, to raise their children in the Faith, and together lead a joyful and fulfilling family life.

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