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“The way to get people to build a ship is not to teach them carpentry, assign them tasks, and give them schedules to meet; but to inspire them to long for the infinite immensity of the sea.”

– Antoine de Saint-Euxupéry, the author of “The Little Prince”

Over the past few months, CSA teachers have been reading a book together: Vigen Guroian’s Tending the Heart of Virtue: How Classic Stories Awaken a Child’s Moral Imagination. This was also the book selected for the parent evenings.

The author, Dr Guroian, is an emeritus professor of philosophy at the University of Virginia, but this book is not just for scholars. It’s for parents, teachers, and anyone who plays some part in caring for and raising children. This is the first in a series of brief posts that explore this book, and its insights about the importance and moral and spiritual impact of stories in education, both at home and at school.

Guroian opens in the book’s Introduction by making some key points:

  1. Children naturally want to distinguish good and evil.
  2. Children need clear moral direction, not relativism.
  3. Stories teach about living virtuously and making moral decisions in memorable and powerful ways.

Anyone who has been around young children knows they have an almost instinctive commitment to fairness, truth, and justice. In reading a story, children rightly want the “bad guy” to lose, and the “good guy” to win. This is related to their emphasis on fairness. When playing together, children scrupulously attend to and ensure that each person has equal shares of this or that item. Similarly, after the distinction between “real” and “pretend” has been introduced, children will ask “is that true?” about many of the new things they learn. They are keenly cognizant of these two fundamental philosophical dimensions: morality and reality. Or, as the ancient philosophers would say, the Good and Being.

Why do children naturally want to distinguish between good and evil? First, because God has created each person with a conscience (syneídēsis), which is like an in-built compass for finding Him and knowing what is right and good. But if this compass is damaged, or is thrown off by the presence and attraction of other influences, especially early in life, then the conscience may need resetting, or readjustment. More on that below.

Children also naturally want to distinguish good and evil because, in their utter dependence on others, they benefit from right and wrong being upheld. Lastly, children naturally want to distinguish between good and evil because they are learning about the world and how to make decisions for the first time. Knowing that goodness is a principle of action will help them greatly as they mature into lives of purpose and decision.

How then are we, teachers and parents, to help form healthy, reliable consciences in our children? Communicating clear rules and expectations is an important first step, and is necessary in every home. The clarity introduced into a home from a common, shared set of expectations and rules is deeply freeing for children. Their natural desire from a young age to please their parents is given direction by such clarity. Children experience psychological well-being when expectations are clear.

Children may push up against certain boundaries, of course, and resist the rules or expectations, but this is a part of testing those boundaries in order to know what is really trustworthy in their environment. As their caretakers, we shouldn’t take it personally when they disobey or push back, nor should we expect them to follow – let alone to want to follow – what we ask of them all (or even most!) of the time. The struggle – their struggle to do what they’re asked and our struggle to remain calm and yet firm in the meantime – is purifying. This does not mean we become lenient or dismissive. If parents are consistent, calm, and loving-yet-firm, children will in the long run come to be formed by their own assurance of what is acceptable and permitted.

Some types of behavior are simply prohibited, of course. Which ones? In our home it is: hitting (and other forms out outright violence: pushing, biting, pinching), lying, stealing (taking without asking), and keeping secrets (though surprises are OK), and any obvious act of malice, deception, or selfishness. What sort of actions are encouraged, sometimes required? Listening and following directions (obedience), saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ (general manners), praying before meals and bedtime, helping clean up and tidy the house and especially their room, maintaining basic kindness toward others, and so forth.

At a certain point, however, rules and clear expectations are not enough. Children need to be formed in ways that encourage them to want to do what’s right for other, deeper reasons beyond merely pleasing their parents or achieving a reward. They must come to see themselves as playing a part in a larger story, with reference to examples that they aspire to emulate. This is where Guroian introduces the importance of stories. More on that in the next post….