The Catholic University of America

May 2, 2011

The School of Virtue

WASHINGTON (CNS) – A couple of years ago, the Journal of Experimental Psychology published a study of Canadian air traffic controllers that compared the performance of older and younger workers. Predictably, it found that the older ones had slower reaction times, poorer memories and diminished perceptual and motor skills. But when presented with complicated air traffic problems – situations with a lot of planes coming from all directions and a host of imminent conflicts – the older workers performed just as well as the younger ones.

The older controllers lacked fluidity and analytical quickness, but they had something else that their younger peers had not yet acquired: experience. Like chess grandmasters, who are intimately familiar with thousands of opening variations and can anticipate the flow of a game in hundreds of directions, older air traffic controllers can assess complicated situations immediately because they have dealt with similar situations many times.

Our culture has a tendency to idealize youth and downplay the importance of age and experience. As a result, young people may not realize, until they are much older, the value that their parents added to their own character and understanding.

There is a trope in pop psychology about how young adults notice their parents’ failings. It may take them a little longer to see how their own practices of virtue are learned from the example their parents set through repeated practice and persistent struggle.

My wife and I have learned, in the course of raising our children over the past few decades, how many of our actions are learned, almost instinctive behavior.

I remember one morning some years ago, when one of our five young children began to cry for what seemed like a frivolous reason. I had changed three diapers and cleaned up after a new puppy, all before breakfast.
I said, “Keep that up and I’ll give you something to cry about.” The sentence just sprang to my lips. I hadn’t heard it in 30 years. But my father would sometimes say it when provoked by one of his eight children.

Parents are a lot like air traffic controllers or chess grandmasters, except they play a much more complicated game. My mother used to speak disdainfully about “theories” of child rearing. What she meant was that raising a family is such a complicated enterprise, that even the most intelligent person cannot devise it from scratch.

Ninety percent of what we do is behavior we assimilate, consciously or unconsciously, from our own parents and other caretakers. And the most successful parents are the ones whose own parents set a good example for them. They begin the job with most of the knowledge they need.

When our kids were teenagers, it often fell to me to lay down the law for curfew violations (or more serious offenses). When I was tempted to react too much like Inspector Javert, my wife would remind me that I was really doing two things:

  • I was teaching the misbehaving child not to stay out after curfew.
  • I was also teaching him or her how to deal with children who stay out after curfew.

The second might, in the long run, be the more important lesson.

The moral virtues are both taught and learned. We do not conceive them in our minds and work them out on our own. We learn them from the right people. In our own turn, we teach them by our example – especially those of us who have or will have children of our own.

As the catechism says, the Christian “learns the example of holiness [from the church]; … he discerns it in the authentic witness of those who live it.”

Of course, even our mutual help and example is not enough for a life of virtue. We need the word of God and the grace of the sacraments to sustain us. It is a need whose very acknowledgement depends upon our humility and openness, and upon the virtue of faith that only God himself can supply.