“Kindness is not a rule in this classroom. After all, what is kindness? Even adults can’t get that right.”
I was stunned when I recently heard a teacher explain why virtues were not taught in her classroom. And yet, she is right: adults, sadly, have not gotten it right. One scan of the newspaper or the evening news makes it painfully clear that adults could use a crash course in kindness and respect, which is precisely why we should return to teaching virtue in the classroom.
The founders of this country – including Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Benjamin Franklin – wrote about the importance of developing a child’s character in order to bring up an educated and virtuous citizenry.
Aristotle also understood its importance: “Educating the mind without educating the heart is really no education at all,” he wrote.
“Teaching children the virtues isn’t done by designating one week a year as ‘character education’ or ‘kindness’ week,” says Fr. Benedict Armitage, headmaster at Christ the Savior Academy. “It is done through a daily focus on the virtues. In classical education, this message is woven into every subject we teach.”
Fr. Benedict explains that it is important to teach character in the context of virtue. “Character is a skill-set for behavior. Virtue, though, is less about what we do than about who we are in our innermost being. We want our students to be virtuous, even when it is not convenient, even when it goes against the social grain, even when it is a very hard thing to do.”
He offers these simple, straightforward tips to parents trying to instill a sense of virtue in their children: Teach by rules, by habit and through example.
Teaching by Rules
Children need a working definition of the traits you want them to develop. From a very young age, they have a great capacity for (and love of) memorization. Utilize that capacity to teach virtue to your children. For example, at Christ the Savior Academy, students are taught a series of “call out character traits.” Father Benedict calls those traits out while the children are standing in line, and they respond with the definition they have been taught.
“Attentive is,” Fr. Benedict will ask. “Listening with eyes, ears, and heart,” the children respond.
“Diligence is,” Fr. Benedict asks. “Working hard all the way to the end,” the children respond.
“Respect is,”…“Treating other people how I want them to treat me.”
“Self control is,”…“Doing something even when I don’t feel like it.”
“Honesty is,”…“Having the courage to tell the truth.”
“Integrity is,”…“Doing the right thing even when no one is watching.”
“Responsibiliy is,”…“Taking good care of what I have been asked to do.”
Teaching Through Habit
Once children have working definitions of the traits you want to instill in them, hold them to those traits. When you see them exhibited, praise them. When they are lacking in that trait, correct them. Aristotle says “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence is not an act, but a habit.” So, if you want children to learn what responsibility is, you should hold them responsible. If you want them to have integrity, expect it at all times from them.
Teaching by Example
Young children love stories, especially stories of good and evil (such as fairy tales). At Christ the Savior Academy, the literature is selected with this very thing in mind: teaching children right from wrong.
For example, most people would say the original “Pinochio” by Carlo Collodi is about honesty, but it is about so much more. It is an excellent book to use to teach your children the consequences of succumbing to temptation.
“Children must be shown examples of people or characters that can be admired and imitated,” Father Benedict said. “Without such examples, children in our culture become easily jaded. Students in a classical school should have not only their minds expanded, but their souls enriched by witnessing all that is good, true and beautiful in our culture.”
Christ the Savior Academy, located at 13th and Rock Road in Wichita, is a classical, Christian School, with classes from Junior Kindergarten (age 4) to 5th grade. The curriculum combines the wisdom of the Church and the best of secular culture to teach students to read well, write well and think well. It is a time-tested model used since the Ancient Greek, Roman and Medieval times. Oxford, Eton and Cambridge have used the classical method to produce leaders for centuries.