Did you see what’s come to be called the “marshmallow study“?
It shows, rather persuasively, that children with self-control grow up more likely to be wealthy, successful, and healthy. Not that those worldly things are what we would be impressing people with when discussing our children. That would be crass, and besides, that’s not the point.
The point is self-control in order to achieve a meaningful life. I think it might be harder to design a study that tracked less concrete goals than the ones mentioned. I’m not sure how you would ascertain if people had restrained their marshmallow desires and grown up to love truth, serve the good, and appreciate beauty, so we’ll just go with what we’ve got.
Anyway, we all know that we prefer to be around people who have self-control — that’s so obvious that it might surprise you for me even to say it that way, but honestly, do you like being around your own kids?
Who do you enjoy the most? The people you know whose spontaneity and sense of humor sparkle, but not at the expense of their responsibilities? Or the ones who are always bumming stuff off of you, never know where their keys are, and tend to get food on themselves while they eat?
Would you rather be around someone who will bring you a meal if you are sick, or someone who will loot your store if they get the chance? Do you want your children to grow up to think of others — or to be rioters? I mean, the rioters are someone’s kids, you know?
I know that most blogs aren’t linear, and I wouldn’t claim linearity for myself, but I do think that up until now I’ve mainly focused on getting self-control for ourselves.
Here’s the thing — I really feel that most of the frustration parents feel at their children’s lack of self-control is firmly rooted in their own lack of self-control!
I know that the reason I regularly lost my cool when my kids were young is that I felt incompetent.
When a Mom writes to me about her sad lack of patience with her children — not the ordinary impatience that comes with just being human, but that crazy “I can’t be with them all day because I might explode” kind — I always suspect that what’s at the bottom of it is that she doesn’t know how to do the simplest things in her day!
Now we’re as ready as we’ll ever be to work on the virtue of self-control in your children. In the coming while we’ll focus on chores and discipline, un-linearly, of course (that is, I reserve the right to digress and even go back and clean up a series or two!).
But you can see why I wanted to be sure that you understood about your own duties and your own ability to accomplish tasks like showering, waking up on time, making meals, doing the laundry, and cleaning.
Some of you are onto me, I know, but others might not realize my true devotion to, if not complete acquisition of, the old-fashioned cardinal virtues:
Prudence, Temperance, Justice, Fortitude.
To be fully human, we need each of these qualities — Prudence just means seeing things as they really are; Justice, giving each one (including ourselves) his due; Fortitude, having the power of acting despite opposition —
–and Temperance, well, that’s not letting our passions get the best of us, of not being at the mercy of our senses!
And that’s self-control.
Those virtues work together and you can hardly have one without the other. (I could go on and on about them, but if you want a beautiful book to read, try The Four Cardinal Virtues by Josef Pieper. This is a book to pray over!)
Fortunately, God gave us the perfect setting in which to hone these virtues with a minimum of danger and vexation. That setting is called the family!
What’s wonderful is that we can be growing in virtue while at the same time helping our children! In fact, children are God’s way of teaching us virtue! However, even though we can learn it all at once, I can’t write about all that simultaneously, so that’s why it’s taken so long.
In our time, unlike any other, technology has made it possible for individuals to survive for quite a while without actually depending on each other — and it’s even possible for families to seem outwardly unified but inwardly all fractured. We’ve lost the knack for knowing what a family really is.
A lot of folks think a family is a sort of vehicle for mutual entertainment or shallow fulfillment. Ladies get caught up in the cuddly vision of babies, hardly realizing how small this aspect of babies turns out to be, in reality. Men think that video-gaming will continue as before. Having never worked on anything concrete (knitting? gardening? furniture-making? brewing? spackling? car repair?), many latter-day would-be adults think of life as the process of acquiring things.
Immature people, tricked by being detached from the true purpose of marriage, which is building a family, think that children are an interruption of life rather than life itself. The interruption seems intense but limited (I’m reminded of that funny line in Ghost Town when a girl exclaims over a birthing story, “Ten hours is a long time to wait for something!”), and the unsuspecting parents figure that they can endure some painful moments until, they hope soon, they can pass on the irritation of the day-to-day child-related drudgery to others. Increasingly, to the government.
Even when parents wish to enjoy their children, their imagination is limited by this idea of entertainment. To most people, life is work — but not work at home or on the home — and play — but not the play that comes as a joyful outcome of celebration. No, fun is what they think of — something that distracts from the tedium of work. Yet how disappointed they are after an expensive vacation or carefully planned outing!
They’re disappointed because it’s just not fun when no one has self-control! But… when would anyone have developed this virtue?
Not running out the door! Not by being frantic! Not by trying to escape from home.
They miss the most rewarding and fulfilling aspect of the family, which is the actual, somewhat mundane, activity of raising persons entrusted to your care: Love that is striving to build something lasting together, each person overcoming his own selfishness — controlling it, in fact — for the sake of the others.
What’s wonderful and makes this all so much easier is that as soon as a child becomes aware of what’s going on around him, he just wants to imitate and help. Some people don’t see this, because they are too busy with outside activities, and the focus becomes getting from one place to another — efficiency — which is the bane of existence, as far as a child is concerned. There is frustration when we try to wrestle a child into our adult world. That frustration is nothing compared to what he feels when he can’t help you because you are rushing somewhere!
The frantic activity causes us to miss the real charm of his little efforts.
Instead, we must wisely see the course his interest will take over the years — when we prudently allow him the time to develop his funny and possibly destructive attempts with a broom into the competence of a real contributor to the life of the household. But it’s nothing compared to the charm he feels when he knows he’s done something to help the Bigs in his life!
Charm builds on charm if you let it.
The family is where this takes place. It’s meant to be the safest place by far — where everyone loves everyone else, where the Papa is strong and a little fearsome, the Mama is soft and a little demanding, and the brothers and sisters can have a wonderful time together if they are worn out enough by chores not to fight too much. Little by little, because of pitching in and relying on each other, everyone in the family grows in virtue!
So my thought is to tell you what I think you should expect in this area of development. I will go back through the emails I’ve received and answer the questions in my posts. You know we’ll talk about the secrets of a big family — how to make each child feel that he contributes; how to step away from being the victim and martyr in your own home. And what the secrets to quelling sibling rivalry could possibly be!
So here’s my question to you: Do you consider that your family is in it together?