If the cardinal virtues are essential to the Christian life—the Latin root “cardo” indicating that all virtues “hinge” on them—then not only must I think about developing them in my own life. I should be fostering them in my children, too.

I felt pretty daunted when I started to think about building the virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance in each of my children. These were virtues I am still working on myself, how will I help a nine-year-old acquire them?

Prudence: The Mother of All Virtues

Like most of my overwhelming tasks, I discovered the need to break it down into small parts. Let’s begin with prudence. First, just what is prudence? Prudence is the mother of all the virtues, because it teaches us the right way to act in every situation. It is the virtue that helps us apply Truth to the complicated, messy situations and decisions that make up daily life. It’s said that without prudence the other virtues cannot be truly practiced, for we will not know how and when to act on them.

Prudence is built on human virtues like reason, intelligence, memory, discretion, diligence, and fear of God. This means that when I hold a child accountable for a rash act, I’m helping him work toward prudence. When I slow a child down to think about the consequences of his choice, I’m encouraging prudence. And not only must we hold our children’s action up to the light of reason, but also their words. Kids are good at displaying their poor reasoning skills when they’re upset. We need to call them on it. Not to persuade them that we’re right, but to show them the logical errors in their arguments. 

Modeling helps, too. I’m not very good at thinking out loud, but I’ve started trying to do it more often when I think my kids could learn something from my thought process. Sometimes with little things—like the best way to organize weekly chores. And sometimes, with older kids, the big things, like the best way to handle a grandparent’s dementia. I was sharing recently with my daughter that I was trying to help my mom see that something she was saying didn’t make sense, and I ended up making her more anxious. That was the wrong tack to take, I told my daughter, and next time I’ll try something else, like changing the subject. Learning from our mistakes is an important element of developing prudence and one we would be wise to let our kids observe us doing.

Justice: Giving Others Their Due

How about the virtue of justice? Will kids who are quick to proclaim, “that’s not fair!” have an advantage here? Not necessarily. Justice is giving God and others what they are due. There is the implication of obligation here—that persons (and God), because of what they have done for us, deserve something of us in return. “That’s not fair,” on the other hand, usually has reference only to ourselves, not others.

Because our age is anxious to shake off any notion of owing anyone anything, we would do well to spell out these obligations to our children. We cannot expect them to hear of them from most other people.

The first human virtue that comes to mind in association with justice is the virtue of religion: giving God his due. In some ways, we may feel justified (no pun intended) in checking that off the list—yep, we give God his due: we go to church—and not just on Sundays, we pray together, we practice other devotions. We love God! But I have to ask myself this—do my children understand that although we do these things out of love, we do have an obligation to do them? God actually deserves them of us?

Spelling this out to our kids from time to time will have several benefits. First, it argues against the prevailing notion that religious practices are to be done when we feel like doing them. Second, it illuminates our relationship with God—the majesty of who he is. Our impulse today is to bring God down to our level—God is our friend. Perhaps that notion has its place. But not to the exclusion of the truth that God is far, far above us. I think the two notions can be reconciled thus—you are friends with the King of your country. What a privilege and a joy to be friends with the King! But is this friend like your other friends? In many ways, no. This friendship carries different privileges—and different responsibilities. God created the world and holds it in existence. He created me, he died for my salvation… The list is inexhaustible: a debt that cannot be repaid. But we try.

Another traditional human virtue that falls under justice is “Law.” This means that we take seriously the obligations put on us by religious and civil law. We can model this for our children by discussing the importance of the Church’s dictates, as well as the laws of our country. Naturally this will include a discussion of what the Christian must do when God’s law is contradicted by a human law.

Have you ever considered that the human virtue of punctuality actually falls under the virtue of justice? Would you steal from your neighbor? Certainly not! Then should we steal others’ time by causing them to wait for us? Let’s put our efforts to get our family out the door on time in these terms then. We’re not looking for Miss Manners’ stamp of approval, we are striving to treat others with justice.

“Truth” is another human virtue associated with justice. What does it mean to encourage the virtue of truth in ourselves and our children? More than a simple proscription against lying, this virtue implies both a longing and a love for the truth. It falls under justice because people, in certain ways, have a right to truth. Again, modeling is our best method of teaching. If we ourselves are lovers of truth, we will introduce our children to it as we would a beloved friend. Where is it found? In Scripture, in the traditions of the Church, and first of all in the Way, the Truth, and the Life: our Lord Jesus Christ. 

Every person is indebted. We owe God everything, we owe our parents our life, we owe our country a place to live, and we even owe others certain things. Meeting our obligations to God and to others is not something we do when we feel like it; it’s something we are obliged to do.

Fortitude: Strength Through Trials

And now for the fan favorite: fortitude. We know that every person faces trials and temptations—no life is without them. Fortitude is the virtue that ensures strength to face these trials. In addition, fortitude strengthens our resolve to pursue the good. Without fortitude we are like the rocky and thorny ground on which the divine Gardener casts seed. The plants soon wither.

Fortitude also addresses a very real natural emotion that can threaten us in the moral life: fear. With this virtue the Christian can conquer fear in order to do right, even to the point of sacrificing his life.

So let me get this straight: fortitude enables me to conquer fear, stand up to temptation, fight for a just cause, and even die a martyr’s death if necessary? Do I want this virtue for myself and my family? Yes, please!

Let’s take a look then at a few of fortitude’s many subordinate virtues, which include stability, tolerance, perseverance, patience, and fidelity. With the exception of the first two in that list I believe the connection with fortitude is evident, so let’s focus on those less obvious ones, stability and tolerance.

It’s important to develop the trait of stability if one hopes to have fortitude. Those who are stable can be counted upon; they are not subject to whims of emotion but act on principles that are unchanging. In spite of the challenges children face in learning how to master their emotions, we must encourage them to act on principle and help them see when they don’t. “But I don’t want to” should be the last excuse that ever carries weight in our homes.

Contrary to modern usage, tolerance is the human virtue that enables us to avoid being negatively influenced by the sins of other people. The sins of others do not cause us to withhold our charity from them, nor do they cause us undue temptation to the same sin. Tolerance is important for fortitude so that the sin we see around us does not weaken our resolve always to do right.

One way to understand teaching tolerance in the family is to help children understand that the “crimes” of their siblings are truly not their concern. They need not be either outraged by their siblings’ misdeeds nor easily prone to mimicking them. Rather than ignoring either of these behaviors it would be better if we see them for what they are—contrary to tolerance—and address them. The tolerant person can even be said to see the misdeeds of others in the best possible light (which is substantially different from seeing them as right).

While bravery, courage, and fortitude sound exciting, stability and tolerance may not. But without the building blocks—the human virtues—in place, we will not make our way to bravery. We will get foolhardiness or rashness perhaps, but not true courage. Take care and build the fortitude of your children as they grow. The time is coming when they will need to know how to “cast out all fear” (cf 1 John 4:18).

Temperance: The Killjoy?

Now, if Prudence is the smart kid and Justice always works to make things fair for everyone, then Temperance is the nerdy kid no one wants to sit next to at lunch. Fortitude’s over there taking gut punches with a smile on his face, while Temperance is warning a friend to go easy on the ice cream. Killjoy.

But let’s take a closer look at temperance. Is temperance all about killing our fun? It’s defined as the virtue that “moderates the attractions of pleasures and provides balance in the use of created goods.” That first part sounds like a bummer, but listen to this: “It ensures the will’s mastery over instincts and keeps desires within the limits of what is honorable.” (CCC 1809) Ah! There is something inside us that needs to be mastered. It seeks to master us—but temperance will help us master it.

Not long ago my five-year-old was in tears because her sister had eaten the last blueberry bagel, her favorite breakfast. After offering her a few alternatives I sent her to the sofa to pull herself together. While she was wailing and gnashing her teeth, it occurred to me that perhaps I should change my plans for the morning and make some banana muffins—one of her favorite foods. But, I realized, No. The alternatives I had offered her were fine. As I had mentioned to her before the couch banishment, having what we want for breakfast is not really that important. How would making muffins underscore that important lesson? Better to take the opportunity to teach temperance. Our job as parents is to teach our children how to moderate their own desires, so that instead of being mastered by them, they will master them. 

One effective strategy here is delayed gratification: requiring our children to work for the things they want. May I play outside? After you unload the dishwasher. Can I get a Razor scooter? After you show me that you’re able to share your bike with your brother. Could we have Margaret sleepover this weekend? Maybe, if your room is spotless by Friday. 

And to paraphrase Kevin Henke’s book Owen, have you ever heard of saying no? Just plain old no, and not just to things that are clearly out of bounds. We modern parents have a tendency to fill our kids’ desires for every little thing, but maybe we should be asking ourselves what message that sends them. Do my children think that happiness is found in material things?

Teaching moderation, of course, will be a top-down process. If we’re not modeling it, they’re not going to get it. And, as we become more temperate in our use of material goods we will naturally begin to moderate our children’s use of them. 

It may be tempting to think that attachment to material goods is only a problem for the well-off, not for OINKS (One Income, Numerous Kids) who can’t afford the second kid’s braces let alone the latest gadget from Apple. But no, the siren song of materialism reaches all ears. You can be just as attached to your handbag collection from Goodwill as your cousin is to hers from Coach. 

So ask yourself, where am I attached to the things of the world? And where are my children attached? How can I turn their gaze more and more to the treasures of heaven? For, where their treasure is, there will their hearts be also (Mt 6:21).

Let us pray now for the growth of the cardinal virtues in our families. And let us take steps every day to ensure our children will have within themselves deep wellsprings of virtue when it is their time to face the world.