Sunday, September 30, 2012

Don't Give Up.

Don't give up. 

Difficult times make you stronger. 

Enduring hardships builds character. 

Like gold that is tested in fire, afflictions purify you. 

The struggles of life shape you into the person God wants you to be.

Sound familiar? Life's hard times have an enormous impact on us.  Our suffering draws us closer to God by stripping away our selfishness and by teaching us to lean fully on God's grace instead of our own strength. In other words, our trials form us in God's image. 

I know my own children and the students I teach will face difficulties in their lives (indeed, some already have). What they will need is the virtue of fortitude, or "firmness in difficulties and constancy in pursuit of the good" (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1808) which strengthens us, and helps us stand firm when life gets tough.  

How can our children acquire this virtue, especially when the last thing any of us would want is for them to suffer? 

One thing I've found incredibly helpful with young people is to build their character through the small experiences that come up each day. For instance, having consequences for poor behavior and lovingly following through on those consequences builds the child's resilience. Allowing a child to face the consequences of his or her choices can also boost a child's perseverance, if the adult acts with patience and love. When a child doesn't make the team or misses first place, it's an opportunity for him or her to learn perseverance

I sympathize with the desire to shield kids from consequences.  I have a five year-old, and it's hard for me to knowingly allow him to choose a path I know he might end up regretting, no matter how small the disappointment might actually be. However, he will never develop the virtue of fortitude if I shield him from even the small hardships and disappointments of life. Those disappointments will become the building blocks of virtuous behavior later in life

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Sunday, September 16, 2012

To Know, Love, and Serve God

Just a short post this week to clarify a point that should have been made prior to setting off on a discussion of the "Keys to Your Child's Success" a few weeks back . . .

After posting two different references to the "Marshmallow Test" last week, the realization dawned on me that the type of success that at least one of the videos refers to-- material success-- is not necessarily the type of success to which I refer in the posts on this blog.

Definitely, my goal is for my children and students to develop their intellects and be able to use them both for the good of our world and in support of their own material needs.  I haven't run into a single person who doesn't desire this kind of "success" for his or her child. 

Make No Mistake
However, I would never want to be mistaken for having material wealth serve as the only definition of "success" written about in the posts on this blog. When I speak of success, please think more along the lines of the Baltimore Catechism than People Magazine. In my book, a child who ends up succeeding is the one who is able to "know, love, and serve God in this world" (BC #4 & Mt. 6:19-20).

For more on this, please see my previous post, "Why I Send My Child to a Catholic School."

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Sunday, September 9, 2012

Don't Eat the Marshmallow!

I have been focusing lately on the keys to your child's success. By now it's clear where I stand: Your child's future success is directly related to their training in the virtues. One of my favorite indicators of this truth is the infamous "Marshmallow Study."

What Was the "Marshmallow Study"?
In the early 1970's at Stanford University, psychologist Walter Mischel created a simple test: place a four, five, or six-year old in a room with a marshmallow and tell him he'd receive another marshmallow if he didn't eat the one until Dr. Mischel returned 15 minutes later. Recently, Dr. David Walsh reproduced this experiment for a news program, and Joachim de Posada did the same in Colombia. The videos are quite funny and can be seen here:

What the Marshmallow Study Tells Us About Success
As Dr. Walsh says, the true genius of the study was to follow up on the kids once they reached their early 20's to determine if there was any correlation between their ability to defer the immediate gratification of eating one marshmallow in order to get two, and their future success. The results of the experiment clearly showed a link. The children who were able to defer or delay their desires to obtain an even greater reward ended up being far more successful than those who were not able, with only a few exceptions on each side.

This makes sense logically. If someone is constantly seeking his or her own gratification and pleasure, how can that person make any progress toward a goal, especially if achieving that goal involves unpleasant circumstances, hard work, or difficult tasks?

The Marshmallow Study and the Spiritual Life
The Marshmallow Study therefore reveals what is actually a spiritual principle and truth about the virtue of fortitude. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, #1808, fortitude "strengthens the resolve to resist temptations and to overcome obstacles in the moral life." As the Marshmallow Study showed, those who learn at an early age to defer their own pleasure in order to achieve a greater good are later able to apply that ability to the challenges of the adult life, and by extension, the spiritual life.

Keep in mind, our society is not geared toward learning to defer gratification. In fact, our society says very emphatically, "Eat the marshmallow! Eat it NOW! Don't wait! You deserve the marshmallow! Who knows if you'll even be around in 15 minutes! Doesn't the marshmallow look delicious? Everyone else is eating their marshmallow . . . you should eat yours now, too!"

Don't Be a Spiritual Marshmallow
As parents and teachers, it's our job to train our children and students in the virtue of fortitude; to help them become strong in the face of temptation and able to resist the many messages of our consumeristic, materialistic society. It starts small: by building the ability to put off television in favor of studying, or play time in favor of multiplication tables, for instance. As children grow into their teen years, however, the stakes get higher, and the potential either for gain or loss becomes greater. 

Prayer is our first, best resource to assist our children/students.  However, since "the moral virtues are acquired by human effort" (CCC, #1804), young people can be guided through each situation with an eye toward their own spiritual development. With gentle, age-appropriate reminders like, "By finishing your chores before you play video games, you're learning how to be stronger than your desires.  In your life, you're going to need that kind of strength!" 

Let's raise spiritual heroes who possess the virtue of fortitude, not spiritual marshmallows!

Monday, September 3, 2012

One Key to Students' Success

     After 15 years at St. Pius V, I've seen almost 900 young people graduate. I've been closely involved with their successes and their struggles. Observation of so many students has led me to the conclusion that one key to a child's success in school (and life) is perseverance.

I Can't!
     At the Back-to-School Night parent meeting, my son's kindergarten teacher announced that a student asking for help with shoe-tying anytime after Christmas would be gently encouraged to complete the task on his or her own. In other words, as easy as Velcro is for my son (and by extension, his parents), it's time for my boy to man up and learn how to tie his shoes. 
     Unfortunately, his patience is almost nonexistent. Within a minute of trying to make the initial loop, he gives up. When encouraged to continue, he breaks into tears, and claims, "I CAN'T!" 
     He is no different that so many students I've seen over the years-- whether it be shoe-tying, prepositional phrases, or algebra. The goal is to see if an adult will rush to the rescue. After all, it's easier to get dad to tie the shoes than to learn to do it on his own. What kids often lack is perseverance.
     During childhood, the struggles requiring perseverance are often small: learning to tie shoes, dealing with an unkind student on the playground, or working through the multiplication tables.  As adults, the struggles are deeper and more difficult.

     I've seen adults suffering through cancer who persevere without complaint and without neglecting their responsibilities, believing that they'll beat the disease as long as they don't give up. I've seen adults struggling with the loss of a job who don't lose faith, trusting that they'll find something new as long as they keep trying.  I've seen adults experiencing family problems who find the strength to bring their trials to prayer day in and day out, never ceasing to believe that their prayers will be answered.
     Personally, I greatly admire people who have the ability to persevere through a struggle. This is a quality I want my children and students to have, since I know their lives will entail some kind of struggle. 

Teaching Perseverance
     For children to learn perseverance, then, requires that children experience struggle and difficulty on a small scale. Learning to carry her own backpack, or to tie his shoes, or to memorize the multiplication tables, or even learning to deal with an unkind student on the playground-- these are necessary "classrooms" for the lessons of perseverance.
     What is required of parents and teachers who desire their children/students to learn never to give up in the face of difficulty?

  • Patience: It will take time to break children of the "I Can't!" habit. 
  • Wisdom: Take the long view on the child's present struggles. Rushing to the rescue only stunts the child's growth.
  • Leadership: Break the task at hand into smaller, more manageable chunks. Say, "Today we're just going to try to make the first loop with your shoelaces and get really good at it! Maybe tomorrow we can try the next one."
  • Prayer: Often forgotten, but most important, prayer should be our first tactic when trying to help our children.  Perseverance is closely linked to the virtue of fortitude, which is "firmness in difficulties and constancy in the pursuit of the good." (CCC, 1808) Virtues are gifts of the Holy Spirit, and that means prayer is our best hope.
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