Summertime allows for more family interaction, and it's possible to make leisurely conversation richer by contemplating virtue. Parents can use creative ways to discuss this critical topic, for it seems that our vocabulary-challenged society has lost sight of these fine human qualities. Unfortunately, although many young people actively following sagas offered in myriad forms—real or fictitious—they don't always know how to parse actions in meaningful ways. The people they watch are often reduced to cool or boring, in or out, attractive or repulsive—but if we teach them to assess events using a better vocabulary, it will benefit them greatly, and provide a valuable means by which to process their world.
One could begin by asking if children know what particular words mean, such as fidelity, tenacity, and integrity. After defining a particular word, you could ask them to consider what other words come from the same root—for example, why would integrity be related to integrated and integer? Or you could ask them to consider those things to which people are faithful. Many are faithful to sports teams—through winning and losing seasons; others prefer a particular super hero or brand of clothing. The Marine Corps motto is Semper Fidelis (“Always Faithful”), but to what do the soldiers offer their allegiance?
The more virtues that they can define and categorize, the more various events can be dissected, with different virtues being attributed to various characters. What virtues would have kept Peter Rabbit from getting into so much trouble, and what virtues did Harry exemplify when he sacrificed himself for his friends? For years in our family, we have discussed virtues as they apply to popular performers, the plots of various television shows, and news stories that gain traction with teenagers. A greater understanding of virtue adds insight into the various qualities that bring good outcomes—in fiction and real life—and naturally leads to the closely related discussion of vice.
The four cardinal virtues are justice, temperance, fortitude and prudence. Some other examples of virtues are patience, kindness, honesty, meekness, generosity, perseverance, humility, purity, mercy, graciousness, obedience, forbearance, patriotism, gratitude, docility, courage, discipline, piety, hope and reverence. There are many others, and with a little ingenuity, examples can be found all around us on a daily basis.
The cultural void concerning this topic is the result of decades of “situational ethics,” an unfortunate aspect of the public education system, which refuses to define virtue or vice. The reliance on “values clarification” posits that action is contingent on circumstances, and most people now reject an eternal standard of right and wrong. Instead of forming consciences, feelings predominate, and emotions are allowed to guide decision making.
If we take the time to remind ourselves of the vocabulary of virtue, we can inform our consciences so that we will know right from wrong. Love is the pinnacle of virtue, but unless it is undergirded with the various elements that give it flesh, it will remain a vague platitude that never finds traction. Jesus, of course, is the perfect model of every virtue, and in imitating his perfect love, we will understand authentic freedom.
Much has been said of imminent threats to our religious liberty, but that liberty means little apart from the freedom to manifest our human dignity. Irenaeus said, “The glory of God is man fully alive,” and that life is impossible without virtue. Keep it light, keep it fun, keep it simple. Grow the language to embrace all that is good, and the beauty of virtue itself will attract the young who learn of it. Teach your children before it's too late.