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Make Virtue Easy

by The Next Family April 22, 2011

By: Joe Newman

Teens and Studying

My stepdaughter was 13 when I moved in to live with her and her mom.  She was very smart but doing poorly at school.  She’d developed a whole set of ways to avoid studying and doing homework and keep all the adults in the dark.  She had now dug herself a hole she didn’t know how to get out of.  After a few months of watching her run circles around her mom, her uncle, and even her tutor we all agreed that I would take over managing her homework/schoolwork.

One Saturday afternoon, a few weeks after I’d started to manage things, I caught her lying to me about the work she’d just showed me.  She’d forgotten her Latin textbook and rather than tell me and go through the difficulty of finding a classmate who she could borrow a book from, she thought it would be easier to make up a translation and pawn that off as the translation from the book she was supposed to do.

When I went into her room to talk to her about it she looked embarrassed and uncomfortable.  She admitted she’d lied and promptly launched into a new set of white lies to cover her tracks.

I wasn’t looking to humiliate or embarrass her, I wanted her to come to a realization.  So I waited until she was done explaining and said, “Look I’m not mad at you for lying about your homework.  To be honest I’m kind of impressed.  I mean you’ve been enormously creative and tenacious about coming up with ways to avoid doing your schoolwork.  You’ve clearly put a lot of effort into this and to some extent I guess that’s worked for you.”

“But, what you need to know is, I’m going to be tenacious about understanding exactly what schoolwork is due and looking at your work to make sure it’s what it’s supposed to be.  And I’m good at spotting the tricks because I used to do many of the same things.  So if you need to keep putting your creative energies into avoiding your homework that’s okay, however, it’s just going to mean you end up doing more work.”

“In terms of your Latin homework, you lied about it, you got caught, and now you’ll need to do the original work you had to in order to go out tonight.  So call your friends and find someone who has a book you can borrow.”

Then she said, “What if no one’s home and I can’t find a book?”

“That’s not my problem.  In order to go out tonight you’ll need to find a book and finish the translation.  I don’t mind driving you to pick one up if necessary.”

My instinct was to take all emotional judgment and moralizing out of our relationship.  Cause and effect are strict enough teachers in the world and I need only create a similar environment at home in order to compassionately prepare her for it.  Any added ill feeling or judgment would only create unnecessary shame, guilt, or anger between us.

Unfortunately, too often when I hear adults upbraiding children for this or that problem behavior it is done with the implication, or direct statement, of their having done said behavior because they did what was easy and bad rather than the difficult and good; or they didn’t make enough effort toward the good or enough effort resisting the bad; or that they chose the pleasurable and bad over the difficult and good.

But this kind of talk reveals the adults’ lack of understanding about the real nature of virtue.

In his essay On educating children the 16th century Renaissance thinker Michel De Montaigne said,

“What makes true virtue highly valued is the ease, usefulness, and pleasure we find in being virtuous: so far from it being difficult, children can be virtuous as well as adults; the simple as well as the clever.  The means virtue uses is control, not effort.” (underlining is mine)

Any deeper understanding of virtue leads us to the conclusion that we choose virtuous behavior and actions because they are in our best interest.  Yet we talk to our children as if they must behave in a virtuous manner because it is “good” or “right” or “compassionate” just at that time in their lives when they are trying to come into an understanding of the real meaning of what these words mean to them.

Now here’s the tricky part.  As parents and educators we are often the ones who create and administer the effects to our children’s causes.  If the effects in our home or classroom are modeled after the world then virtue will become effortless.  When children behave in ways that aren’t virtuous it’s not because they are bad or haven’t made enough effort, it’s because the environment in some way rewards those behaviors.

Set up and follow through with reasonable consequences and boundaries, administer them strictly, compassionately and without judgment and children will discover the natural path to virtue.

Epilogue

Five years later, when my stepdaughter, Joan, was a senior in high school, she came to me because she wanted my opinion about whether to cheat on a math exam.  Apparently, a lot of the students in her class had gotten hold of the actual exam and were offering it to their classmates.  What followed was an involved discussion about the hidden costs of cheating, the value in getting a good grade you didn’t deserve vs. a bad grade you did, the risks and anxiety of getting caught and the mental burden of lying vs. the freedom of telling the truth (and not having to remember the lie).  After which she decided it wasn’t in her best interest to cheat.

Today Joan is finishing her sophomore year at St. John’s College in Santa Fe where she studies the western classics.  It was only at her repeated urgings that I finally began reading Michel De Montaigne.

Joe Newman is the author of Raising Lions, which is available at Amazon.com

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[Photo Credit: Flickr image Lenifuzhead]

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