Teaching children virtues is more than a quick study

April 21, 1994|By SUSAN REIMER

When I realized that I needed to teach my children values, in addition to how to cut their meat and how to ride a two-wheeler, I did what over-involved mothers such as me usually do.

I bought a book.

I bought "The Book of Virtues: A Treasury of Great Moral Stories," a compendium of 370 fables, poems, essays and stories collected by former Secretary of Education and drug czar William J. Bennett and divided into chapters with titles such as "Self-discipline," "Compassion," "Work" and "Courage."

Here, then, was the perfect way to convey a value system to my children. I would simply read to them at night -- by the 800-page thickness of the book, it would be many nights -- and when I was done, I would have instilled in them the values that Dr. Bennett, at least, thought they should have.

I began by reading the story of the little Dutch boy and the dike, under the chapter heading "Perseverance," because we were having trouble in our house sticking to tasks.

But after I read the dramatic account of the little boy who kept his finger in a hole in the dike all night long and saved his village, my son screwed up his face and said:

"That's dumb. Why did they build a dike out of dirt that is going to crack like that. Why didn't they call in the Army Corps of Engineers to build a real dike?"

Why do it yourself, he seemed to have concluded, when you can get a government agency to do it for you?

Teaching values, I thought, is slippery business. The word itself sounds kind of square. Like a preacher talking. But thanks to President Clinton and his politics of meaning, it is now safe for some of us to come out from under the cabbage leaves and use the word "values" without being dismissed as a devotee of the religious right.

For years, we have said nothing at all -- a new kind of Silent Majority -- fearing that whatever we said would be a judgment of others the likes of which we would never tolerate if leveled against us.

How could we disapprove of out-of-wedlock births without seeming to condemn the valiant single mom to whom her successful children point as their inspiration?

How could we condemn the faithless father without acknowledging that government rewards the mother and his child with more benefits if he splits?

How can we condemn illegitimacy without stigmatizing the blameless child?

And so we have treated whatever values we held like some private thing that never sees the light of day. Something you don't talk about in mixed company.

But we have children now, and they are our stake in the world, and we have to dust off our values and start applying them to issues that will affect their lives.

One of those issues is sex.

We felt like we discovered it. We certainly revolutionized it. Now that revolution is over. It ended when we realized that some day our baby daughters would date. It ended when we realized they could get pregnant on one of those dates.

The pendulum has swung back, and we are riding it. The country has concluded that teen-age pregnancy is the inexorable result of teen-age sex, and teen-age mothers are not good mothers. We have also concluded that children are better off with two parents. The logic of this syllogism is inescapable: Don't have sex until you are a grown-up, and don't have children until you are married. And don't get divorced.

Wow. We will feel like Alice-through-the-looking-glass preaching this line to our children.

And it will not work if it is our only message, if abstinence is the only thing we preach. That's not so much a virtue as it is the result of virtues. Virtues such as courage and responsibility.

We can all agree on the worth of Dr. Bennett's chapter headings, but teaching faith, loyalty, work, compassion -- that is something else altogether. How do you know when your children have learned them? Must you wait 20 years and see what they are like as adults?

President Clinton is not just using the lectern like a pulpit and preaching to Americans about these values; he and his advisers are fashioning what they hope will be a comprehensive "family policy," and its principles will show up in the health care, welfare and crime legislation he will send to Congress this year.

Whew. It will get mighty crowded in my son's bed at night -- me and a raft of government advisers trying to teach him his values. The idea of politicians -- even Bill Clinton, a politician with whom I often agree -- issuing family values as government policy makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up.

The real lesson I learned when I read the story of the little Dutch boy and the dike to Joseph is this: There is no book of virtues. There is no one place where they are all kept, no place where they are all arranged in neat categories.

And there are no flashcards for virtues, I learned. No after-school program for virtues. No sleep-over summer camp for virtues. I know. I checked. And my guess is, you will never find them in a government white paper, either.

If there is a simple way to instill in children the qualities that will keep them happy and help them contribute to the world while doing no harm to others, I have not found it.

Young women are having babies before their own growing up is complete. And they are doing it without a husband, without a partner -- a statistical guarantee that mother and child will live in poverty.

Today, Susan Reimer concludes a series of columns which examine illegitimacy and the problems that result from it.

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