What are the most important virtues to acquire in life? Perusing children’s and adolescents’ television programming gives the impression that in the top tier are tolerance, niceness, and self-esteem. I know these affected me. Perhaps they affected you, too.
I’m not a psychologist, so I won’t be getting into the history of psychology on the development of this trending prioritization of children’s virtues. I am qualified to critique them, however, as a parent and as an armchair theologian. As a parent, I can tell you that these terms and their prevalence in modern society drive me a little nuts. The “virtues” of tolerance, niceness, and self-esteem are not comparable to the virtues of prudence, temperance, courage, and justice. As a Catholic parent, the kind who reads Catholic blogs, imagine your delight if Dora the Explorer told Swiper not to swipe because it violates commutative justice (perhaps in simpler terms) or if, instead of telling them to believe in themselves, today’s superhero cartoon characters were role models in courage who thought prudently before acting. The world would be a better place.
I can also tell you that these three so-called virtues bother me on a different level. I doubt that any of the producers of these children’s shows could tell you what the word virtue means, in light of its origins. Do you know what it means? Manhood. Vir is Latin for man. In its genitive (possessive) form, the Latin virtus becomes virtutis. The -tut- in the word evolved through German into the suffix -hood. Man-hood. So, having reinvigorated virtue with the concept of manhood, let’s look at these three alleged virtues to judge their manliness and look at some ways to fix the problems and suggest some changes.
- Tolerance – Tolerance, we are told, is manly because it is gentlemanly. The gentleman respects the differences he has with others and most importantly does not bring them up if that would bother the person he’d be in disagreement with. In reality, tolerance isn’t really about avoiding uncomfortable topics or trying not to offend. Tolerance is about resisting. We say that certain materials are heat tolerant. We don’t mean that they try to make excuses for heat or ignore heat. We mean that they can put up with the heat, they can stand it, they can tolerate it. Here’s another illustration: in a high wind, a mountain is more tolerant than a reed. In this sense, tolerance is the opposite of what our society believes it is. The mountain doesn’t bend with the wind. The wind bends around the mountain.
Until we all attain to the unity of faith and knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the extent of the full stature of Christ, so that we may no longer be infants, tossed by waves and swept along by every wind of teaching arising from human trickery, from their cunning in the interests of deceitful scheming.
- Manly virtues to foster instead: Humility, Justice, Courage, and Compassion
- Objective: Learn how to consider and critically evaluate the reasons for another person’s position, to find common ground, and to disagree with charity. Be commanding, but not domineering. Be dynamic, but not forceful. Be like a mountain, neither submitting to the wind, nor moving to attack it.
- Niceness – You can’t go more than a few minutes today in a typical conversation without hearing the word nice. Ambivalent people throw the word around without distinction, although to me it seems the best use of the word would be to describe Barney the Dinosaur. Do you know what nice means? In Middle English, it meant “stupid” or “foolish,” deriving from the Latin word for “ignorant.” (There have been many and widely varied connotations of the word nice in its development, all of them negative until a couple centuries ago.) A nice man was a simpleton or a silly person. To some, it still betrays a sense of folly – if the best people can do is call you “a nice man,” perhaps it’s because you don’t strike them as worthy of being called “a kind man.” At the very least, we have a common sense that it is not a serious word, for good or bad. The Online Etymology Dictionary cites one etymologist as saying the word niceis “too great a favorite with the ladies, who have charmed out of it all its individuality and converted it into a mere diffuser of vague and mild agreeableness.” That seems fitting. I typically use the word in conversation when I’m not really paying attention. It seems that today, the word nice has settled on “vaguely pleasant.” Why are we teaching our children to be nice again?
- Manly virtues to foster instead: Wisdom, Practicality, Temperance, Flavor (see Matthew 5:13)
- Objective: Develop a character imbued with the proper balance of humorous wit and sage advice. Be the kind of steady man people trust and admire. Say what you mean and mean what you say. Give the people around you the full attention they deserve. Never in the process settle on the blandness of being “nice” – move boldly beyond it.
- Self-Esteem – In a society as egocentric as ours, it’s no surprise that self-esteem ranks high among the virtues taught to our children. Personally, I prefer to teach my kids confidence. Why? Self-esteem smacks of finding value in myself. Here’s a secret for you non-parents out there: kids don’t need to find value in themselves. They already know they’re awesome. Confidence is a much greater virtue to teach the young, and a more manly one, too. What’s the difference between self-esteem and confidence? Self-esteem roots a sense of dignity in the self, and then promotes action based on that dignity. It’s not all bad, but it isn’t enough. Confidence, from the Latin for with faith, is directly action-oriented and roots those actions in God, the object of faith. It’s manly to act. It’s even more manly to have faith in God. Self-esteem tells kids, “You’re special! You can do anything!” Confidence tells kids, “God made you and has a plan for you!” Those may not seem all that different, but consider the difference in light of life’s struggles. Self-esteem tells kids, “You can do it! If you can’t, then it must be a failure in your value as a person!” Confidence tells kids, “God has a plan. Stick it out and you’ll make it to heaven. What more could you want?” You see, self-esteem is a psychological creeping Pelagianism. Confidence is rooted in our faith in God to save us.
- Manly virtue to foster instead: Confidence
- Objective: Go. Move. Don’t delay. Follow St. Padre Pio’s advice: “Pray, hope, don’t worry.” Carry yourself – and your cross – with the dignity of a Christian. Don’t just talk about how to make the world a better place. Be a man of action.
Do you have any additional manly virtues you want to add? Let me know in the comments!