By Jason Barney, CDA Principal
So far in this series on “Sowing the Seeds of Virtue” in our children, we discussed a couple crucial ways of helping our children grow in virtues. First, we discussed how Christians need to recover the language of virtue in our contemporary context. Peter calls us to “make every effort to supplement [our] faith with virtue…” (2 Peter 1:5), so we can’t shy away from cultivating virtues for fear of legalism. Then we saw how we can stock our kids’ memories with sayings or proverbs (see Coram Deo Shout and Sayings for examples) and train them in habits to help sow the seeds of virtue. These two ways are complementary and shouldn’t be pitted against each other.
In this article we’re going to unpack ideas as a way of helping children catch the desire for virtue in their own lives. In a way, both stocking the memory and training in habits will be ineffective, unless we are also sowing ideas into our students’ hearts.
How Ideas Lead to Virtues
Ideas might seem to be more aligned with wisdom, but ideas are also the seeds of virtue. If you think about it, this makes sense because for virtue to be meaningful it should not be mere outward conformity. If a person just does what the crowd does, they have not attained any peculiar excellence or virtue in life. But virtues are the fruit of great ideas.
Think about courage, for instance. According to Aristotle, courage is the mean between being too fearful of some danger and too little fearful. It is not being rash and rushing into danger without counting the cost or considering the situation. Nor is it being cowardly by avoiding or running away from the danger when our duties and obligations to others would call us to stand up and face it.
Well, what is ultimately going to make someone courageous? It’s true that courage involves our habits, being habituated to feel the right amount of fear, but to go ahead with the task anyway. But there has to be some motivating power, some purpose behind it that drives you to stand in fray when others would run and hide. Great ideas give the motivating power for virtue. They are fuel in the engine of moral excellence.
For Christians ultimately, the Great Idea that encapsulates all other true ideas and provides the fuel for a life of holiness is the gospel itself. We fulfill our duties and obligations out of a sense of love, a sense of service to God and others. We love because He first loved us. That’s the life-giving idea. You have to believe deep down in your heart that it’s good to do the right thing, even when other people are shirking their duty for fear of man.
Underneath the gospel, there are a host of other great ideas, whether from divine revelation or general revelation in the world, that will help inspire us toward virtue.
Sowing the Great Ideas of Virtue
So, if you want your children to be virtuous, you need to sow those great ideas of life, that have led to virtue in people before. This is why the books we read, the shows we watch, the things we listen to matter. Because it is ideas that our souls live on, and the seeds of ideas in the content we consume over time will bear fruit in our lives.
Charlotte Mason describes the process of habit formation by ideas this way:
We entertain the idea which gives birth to the act and the act repeated again and again becomes the habit; ‘Sow an act,’ we are told, ‘reap a habit.’ ‘Sow a habit, reap a character.’ But we must go a step further back, we must sow the idea or notion which makes the act worth while. The lazy boy who hears of the Great Duke’s narrow camp bed, preferred by him because when he wanted to turn over it was time to get up, receives the idea of prompt rising. But his nurse or his mother knows how often and how ingeniously the tale must be brought to his mind before the habit of prompt rising is formed; she knows too how the idea of self-conquest must be made at home in the boy’s mind until it become a chivalric impulse which he cannot resist. It is possible to sow a great idea lightly and casually and perhaps this sort of sowing should be rare and casual because if a child detect a definite purpose in his mentor he is apt to stiffen himself against it.
-Charlotte Mason, vol. 6 Towards a Philosophy of Education
I love how Mason pictures the ingenuity and tactfulness of parents, mentors and teachers in sowing the ideas of virtue in their children. These ideas come in the form of stories and characters, as well as sayings and definitions of virtues.
What seeds of ideas are you sowing into your children, day in and day out? What could you be sowing? If you haven’t already looked through and used our Classical Reading List that we’ve published online and is available on every Weekly Update, please check that out and use it. A big thank you to Michelle Schall for her work on that (and on the developing library at CDA!).
This is why we have a Great Ideas focused curriculum and teaching process, especially in the 7th-12th grades Great Books Omnibus courses. Ideas matter. Ideas have consequences. Some types of schools just focus on facts, facts, facts; others are overflowing with opinions, propaganda, and ideologies. We want to sow the ideas in our students’ minds that lead to virtue and wisdom.
But as a parent, you can also sow great ideas that lead to virtue casually in conversation with your kids. I can’t teach you how to do this. In order to do this, you need to be feeding on good ideas yourself, if you’re going to have the spark of insight to say some comment in response to your kids that has the potential to lodge itself in their heart and bear fruit, five, ten, fifteen years from now in how they live their life. So, join a book study or cohort. Read classic literature along with your children. Make sure you’re in a small group at church. Reading your Bible and pray every day. Tackle a Great Book on your own.
Feeding on Great Ideas is the only sure way to have something to give your children. Imagine a mother bird feeding her chicks. What she has caught and partially chewed nourishes her baby chicks. Let’s feed our own souls on Great Ideas, so that we can be a reliable source of wisdom for our children.
“A word aptly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver,” and that word might make the difference in whether our children keep trusting in God in the midst of tragedy, or whether they show integrity by standing up for what’s right at work. Of course, it’s all in the Lord’s hands, but our meaningful efforts in the power of the Spirit can have a great effect, and our words and comments, frail as we are, can be used by Him in the lives of our kids. Let’s never forget that.
In the final installment of this series, we’ll discuss curated experiences as a way to sow the seeds of virtue and part with some concluding thoughts on how all these methods work together.
Check out the rest of this series!
Part 1: Is Virtue Even Christian?
Part 2: Stocking the Memory
Part 3: Training in Habits
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