The Word Among Us

Personal Spirituality Resources

Back-to-School Virtues

Helping Your Child Succeed in Class and in Life

By: Louise Perrotta

Back-to-School Virtues: Helping Your Child Succeed in Class and in Life by Louise Perrotta

Your children’s moral and spiritual formation goes hand-in-hand with their intellectual development.

As the new school year begins, parenting magazines, chat rooms, and talk shows come alive with suggestions for success in the schoolroom. And as we gear up for the academic year, how about also stirring up some enthusiasm for improving the instruction that our kids receive year-round? I’m talking about the “school of virtue” that meets every day in our own homes and lays the foundation for academic achievement.

Our kids’ moral and spiritual formation goes hand-in-hand with the intellectual development that also begins at home and then unfolds beyond it, with the assistance of teachers and school systems. As Catholic psychologist and educator Thomas Lickona puts it, education has always had two great goals: “to help people become smart and to help them become good.”

In fact, helping children to become good helps them to become smart. Your insistence that Jenny do a good job on her weekly chores teaches her far more than how to clean a bathroom. She’s also learning thoroughness, hard work, perseverance, and responsibility—virtues that will stand her in good stead years from now when she’s writing her doctoral dissertation or compiling a PowerPoint presentation for the vice president for marketing.

As teachers are refining their lesson plans, why not do a little planning on the home front? Talk with your spouse about what virtues you’d especially like to build in your family this school year. Ask the Holy Spirit to lead you, and then choose just one or two character traits to focus on. You might decide on one of the three virtues discussed below, which are especially relevant to academic achievement: respect, honesty, and responsibility.

Expect the Spirit to teach you, too. When it comes to growing in virtue, we’re all lifelong learners! You can also trust him to equip you for that role of primary educator, to provide what you need, including renewed enthusiasm and vision.


Respect is a foundational virtue, one that includes regard for self and others, for life in all its forms, for legitimate authority, and for people’s rights. At its center is respect for human life because it is sacred.

Inwardly, we sense this innate dignity of the person. It’s why we cringe when we hear the dad down the street shout “you little brat” to his son. Or when we see ten-year-old Brandon sassily roll his eyes at his mother when she tells him to do something. Neither is treating the other with the respect they deserve.

Ask yourself these questions:

Do you treat your children with respect? Entrusted by God to your care, your children are persons in their own right—individuals with rights, free will, and unique personalities and abilities. Is this truth reflected in the way you deal with them? Do you treat them like persons? Taking account of their ages, do you make an effort to explain your reasons when you disagree? Do you listen to their opinions? Invite their ideas? Does your tone of voice, as well as your words, communicate respect?

Do you require respect from your children? Are you teaching them to honor God? Consider areas like behavior in church, respect for God’s name, and respect for those consecrated to his service. Are you instilling respect for people who exercise legitimate authority? Could you improve on the way you’re teaching courtesy? Consideration for others? Manners? And what about “honor your father and your mother”? When your kids treat you disrespectfully, do you overlook it or correct it? The best policy toward disrespectful speech and behavior to parents is zero tolerance. Ignoring or excusing disrespect from our kids will only increase their bad attitude and erode their respect for other adults.

Schools everywhere are experiencing the effects. “Teachers Get No Respect as Student Rudeness Rises,” ran one newspaper headline. Quoting high school teachers and administrators, the article described today’s students as increasingly ruder, sassier, and harder to teach, with a “you-can’t-make-me-do-that” edge that undermines the learning environment.

Parental training on the home front is the best prevention—make sure you’re maintaining respect, too, urges one counselor at a Catholic high school in the Midwest. “All the time, kids come to me complaining that a teacher is incompetent, no good, and needs to be fired. ‘You can’t talk that way about your teacher,’ I’ll say. And the kid will answer, ‘Why not? My dad says it.’”

So don’t erode respect for teachers with remarks like, “What a stupid assignment.” If there’s a problem, take it to the teacher and watch your tone at home. You’ll be helping your kids to be learners rather than perpetual criticizers who find it hard to accept that anyone is qualified to teach them anything.

Honesty. Essentially, to be honest means to live in the truth. We train our kids in honesty because we want them to become people of integrity who don’t lie, cheat, or steal. To put it another way, we want the “Spirit of truth” to live in them as fully as possible, leading them “into all the truth” (John 14:17; 16:13).

In the classroom, technology is giving students more ways to cheat. Many kids copy information off the Internet, with no concern for plagiarism. There are websites that sell term papers. Cheating on exams is facilitated by graphing calculators, cell phones, computers, and two-way pagers.

“It’s hard to keep up with the technology,” a Catholic school teacher said, “And when we do catch someone cheating, they typically say they don’t see anything wrong with it because ‘everybody does it.’ And they want the grades.” Her advice to parents: “Start early talking to your kids. Explain: What is honesty? What is stealing? Let them know it includes copying from other kids, taking other people’s ideas and information. From the get-go, talk about academic integrity.”

If we want to cultivate honesty in our children, we must of course take a good look at the example we’re giving them. But “practice what you preach” must go hand in hand with “preach what you practice,” says educator Thomas Lickona in his book Raising Good Children. You have to “teach by telling”—forming conscience through direct moral instruction that explains why some things are right and others wrong. He writes:

Teach kids that a reputation for being honest is one of the most valuable things they can have. Help them think clearly about violations of honesty. Why is it wrong to lie or break an agreement? Because it violates trust, and trust is essential in any relationship. Why is it wrong to cheat in school? Because cheating is a lie (it misrepresents your knowledge); it’s a violation of your teacher’s trust in you; and it’s unfair to all the people who aren’t cheating. Why is it wrong to steal? Because there’s a person behind the property. Theft violates that person.

You might find it helpful to review the Catechism sections on offenses against the seventh and the eighth commandments (see especially 2401, 2412, 2450-54, 2464-92). And don’t forget to teach your kids how to make things right with God and others by going to Confession and making restitution for stolen goods.

Responsibility. “I went to a party, and it ended up with no chaperone and lots of alcohol. I called my mom to pick me up. Instead of reprimanding me, my parents said they were proud. Now if I’m in that situation again, I know I don’t need to be afraid to go home.”

The high school senior who tells this story acted in a responsible way. Responsible persons exercise their freedom of choice in ways that are good. When they make mistakes, they accept the consequences of their actions and deal with them without making others suffer.

If you want your kids to learn responsibility, give them something to be responsible for. Even young children can help around the house and yard and feel proud of their contribution to family life. Assign chores, commend and correct as needed, and don’t allow them to weasel out.

Children who are in school have the important responsibility of doing their personal best to make the most of their education. One of many ways we can help our kids take responsibility for their learning is to facilitate doing homework. Let them know you see it as a priority. Establish a regular daily time for homework. Designate a study area where they can work without distractions; have necessary supplies on hand. As appropriate for their age, oversee their work.

Don’t do it for them, however! And if, through their own fault, they fail to do their work, resist the temptation to cover for them. Don’t be like the parents described by an Illinois teacher: “They’re at their kids’ beck and call—doing their work, running late papers in for them, making excuses, and blaming teachers. How will their kids learn accountability if they never experience the consequences of their actions?”

Whether it’s responsibility, honesty, respect, or some other virtue that you target as your “school of virtue” curriculum this semester, be encouraged! The Lord is with you as you help your kids to become both smart and good.

Let’s all take our cue from that outstanding man of God and master teacher, Pope St. John Paul II, whose enthusiasm for youth was on display for over a quarter of a century. You are the future of the world, he told kids. You have an immense potential for good and for creative possibility. Let’s make that our perspective too.

Louise Perrotta is the former Features editor for The Word Among Us.