Discover more from Gaudium Magazine
Children Need Fortitude... And So Do We
I remember very well a time in the past where I (a young child) lied to my teacher. I did it for two reasons: first, because I hadn't done my work; second, because I was afraid of punishment or loss of some sort. I didn't want to get in trouble for not fulfilling my obligations, so I lied at an attempt to avoid suffering. Of course, as a child I lied at other times, for other reasons, too–often out of pride. In every case though, I feared the same thing: suffering. I did not want to suffer consequences, whether emotional, physical, or social.
Fear of consequences drives many of us to act. It is especially strong in some children–many children, I would say–who instinctively try to cover up wrongdoing. To their credit, and God’s, not all children are like this. I have met children who were honest even when they clearly knew it would result in undesirable consequences for them. But it is common enough for children to conceal things in school, to downplay or lie about their part in something, and so on. But they can be honest, too; I have heard many, when caught in a lie, admitting that they were afraid, which is why they lied.
We think of the opposite of fear as courage; in a sense, this is true. The opposite of momentary fear is courage. But the opposite of habitual fears and anxieties is not simply courage: it is fortitude. Far more than a moment of courage to be honest, I needed to grow in the fortitude to face and endure and persevere in the face of suffering. St. Thomas tells us that fortitude is more than courage: it is also endurance.
Most children do not have the “practice” needed to endure great shame and loss. However, each child has heard a story about a courageous hero in an extraordinary situation: children know what courage is. What they need is to see how such courage isn’t meant to be a one-time, exceptional event: true courage manifests as fortitude, for each of them and each of us, in every moment and every day.
Children need this fortitude: that is, not the courage to be a momentary hero, but to persevere through ongoing adversity and pain. They need it, first of all for their own salvation. In this day of growing anti-Christian sentiment, such fortitude must be founded in hope and faith, in God’s promises, not in human affirmations and encouragements.
I wish someone had told me in my childhood, “You don't have to be afraid, even of punishment and uncertainty.” Why not? Because we are able to hope in the future. And divine hope means that, after the punishment, there can be joy, rejoicing, and the prospect of never suffering again. Contingent upon, however, being able to face our sin with fortitude, and to repent for it.
In the short-term, not only the long-eternal term, children need fortitude because they will face harsh consequences in the world for holding to the Catholic faith. (God forbid) they may, perhaps as children and certainly as adults, face widespread scorn, false accusations, homelessness, joblessness, discrimination, slander… even, possibly, torture and martyrdom. St. Jacinta de Jesus Marto, before she was out of childhood, faced slander, discrimination, threats, mockery, and at the end of her 11 years of earthly life, illness and loneliness, which she chose to endure for souls. And St. José Luis Sánchez del Río, a Cristero martyr, was not yet 15 when government forces forced him to watch the murder of a fellow Cristero and cut him with knives before making him walk, bleeding, to the place of his execution: yet he did not apostasize. Both of these young souls endured heroically, by the grace of God, unto their death.
How do we show our own children to practice the virtue of fortitude? Perhaps we wish to leave it all to God, knowing we have very little of the virtue ourselves. I know Catholic parents and teachers who (half-joking, and all serious) say that they hope their children, their students, become smarter, better, holier than them. A practicing Catholic adult who examines their conscience knows, after all, that they are deeply sinful, and hopes for better for their children; and such a Catholic also knows that only God can impart the graces our children need for heaven.
However, reliance upon the Lord is not an excuse for cowardice or laziness. It is for children’s sake (and our own) that we adults must become better and holier than we are now. Our moral decisions, no matter how private they are (such as secret gluttony, or undiscovered lies) always affect others, regardless of the spirit of the world claiming “What I do in private doesn’t matter.” Our souls are always affected by sin, and evil thoughts and intentions spread in supernatural ways we cannot understand. But even on a more tangible level, our own internal attitudes and dispositions DO end up manifesting in our conversation and our behaviors. And if we have sin we are trying to keep others from seeing, we will probably end up lying to someone at some point. It is very hard for us to keep sin "private" or only to ourselves. Simple wishful thinking, and laughing off our own sins in favor of trying to teach virtue to others, is both hypocritical and counter to how we should be raising and educating children.
Teachers are figures of authority, when the parents or guardians (the first earthly authority) is not present. And both parents and teachers are given authority by God’s will, not because we earn or deserve it! So, it is not our right to lose our temper and take out anger especially upon children; to give arbitrary consequences; and to go to extremes when we are emotional. Still, even if we know this, it is easy for us to be unjust, intemperate, and imprudent when we cannot control a child’s behavior, when we believe a child’s motivations for an action were bad, when we believe a child should know better, when we are simply stressed out, and so on.
What kind of example does it set for children, when we fail to model the virtues we wish them to have? First, they will imitate us, and we will instead pass on undesirable vices on by modeling them! Furthermore, a parent or teacher who is willing to lecture and punish, but not to forgive, comfort, and advise, will raise children who will be marked by fear rather than courage, vindictiveness rather than love.
No, it is our duty to do God’s will and God’s work with our children, and to do so, we must become closer to Him–and much, much, much holier. We adults, parents and teachers alike, need to be able to face children with temperance, prudence, justice, and yes, fortitude.
There are practical, psychological reasons, as well as spiritual reasons, that we who guide children must constantly practice and strive for the cardinal virtues. Children’s experiences with authorities will eventually influence their perception of God as The Authority, because we largely understand God in comparison or analogy to what (or who) we know. A child who feels that they were only loved conditionally will believe God loves them conditionally. A child whose parents only show kindness and charity in good times will fail to trust and turn to God in bad times. A child with a teacher who is habitually impatient (or worse, self-righteous) will be mistrustful and scornful of the Divine Teacher. A child who sees adults break promises will not only break promises themselves, but will find difficulty trusting in God’s promises.
So if we give uneven consequences, or lose our tempers quickly at the first signs of trouble, or make all punishment about retribution (with no intention of aiding in reparation or repentance), then we will, however unintentionally, teach children that God is that way, as well.
For children to grow in virtues, including the fortitude to face the trials of the world, we must not let our ego, our pride, or our own sins stand in the way of showing them love. Everything we do must be out of love, even though our love on earth will always be imperfect. Every other motive will be seen through one day (or today); and anything other than love will fail to reach our children.
We must practice love persistently, fostering fortitude in ourselves by resisting all manner of sin, even the most secret. A writer once called courage not simply a virtue, but the form of every virtue at the testing point. It does not take only temperance to avoid gluttony, or patience to avoid anger. It requires fortitude.
So, let us all have the courage to admit our hidden sins, and to ask for courage to wish them gone. Let us have the courage to be humble before God and beg His aid. And more than the courage to do so once, let us practice our fortitude by doing so daily, no matter what humiliations and troubles befall us.
Finally, let us seek this fortitude for our children’s sake. We cannot pass on what we do not have. If we want our children to have virtues, we need them.
By asking for such graces and practicing such virtues, perhaps, God willing, we will become channels of grace and fosterers of virtues for our children.