Parenting: A School of Virtue


Parenting provides a very important good beyond the good of bestowing the gift of life on one’s children.  The family is not only a school of virtue for the children, but for the parents as well.   In fact, I argue that children serve to make adults of their parents.


      When we consider what we are going to do with our lives we rarely ask ourselves one of the most important questions our choices entail.  When we are deciding to enter a profession, to take a job, to marry someone, to move to a different part of the country, we often ask ourselves which choice will make us happy, or perhaps what will make others happy or what will at least bring us money or pleasure. These are important questions, of course, but not the most important questions.

      What we often fail to ask ourselves is “What kind of person will I become if I pursue this profession, take this job, marry this individual? Will my choice help me become a better or a worse person? Will my choice help me acquire the virtues I need?”

      The current resurgence of interest in virtue has roots in the ancient and medieval understanding of ethics.

      Ancient and medieval ethics focused on character, on what qualities make for a good human being; individuals were urged to engage in activities suitable for fostering these qualities. The ethical life was viewed not as a life of discrete actions that kept to or violated some rule; rather the ethical life was a life oriented to shaping one’s character and to giving full scope to those qualities or virtues in action.

      In fact, the proper understanding of the Christian life sees it as a life of virtue: Christians desire not to compile a record of impressive moral actions but desire to become ever more Christ-like.

      People have some sense that certain jobs or undertakings are related to certain qualities of character.

      Young people in attempting to discern their future careers often consider whether they have the qualities needed to do a certain job well; they ask themselves if they have the qualities needed to perform the tasks expected of a doctor or lawyer or businessman, for instance. Certainly when a student tells me he wants to go to law school and I know him to be lazy, for instance, I will pint out that he is going to have to change if he is going to succeed at the profession of law.

      Here I am inviting readers to consider the value of an activity conducive to the formation of the human character and to the acquisition of virtue. And, of course, “parenting” is not simply of the act of begetting a child but is much more the sustained activity of raising a child, or taking care of his needs day in and day out, of attempting to form the child to be a responsible and independent adult. Parenting provides a very important good beyond the good of bestowing the gift of life on one’s children. The family is not only a school of virtue for the children, but for the parents as well. In fact, I argue that children serve to make adults of their parents.

      Those who become good parents must learn to deal with many stresses and overcome many challenges.

      We all work hard to acquire the virtues necessary to do a job if we truly love it. Since the natural love that parents have for their children is so strong, parents have a particularly strong motivation to do a good job, that is, to acquire the virtues necessary for being good parents.

      Let me acknowledge at the outset that since I am not a parent, I come to this endeavor somewhat as an anthropologist or as a De Tocqueville to a foreign land who may well, because of a more distant point of view, see things that those intimately involved in a culture or activity might not see.  And, like many anthropologists, I may be inclined to have an overly idealized or romanticized view of the activity I observe!

      Let me also note that I am saying that engaging in any activity guarantees one will become virtuous. For instance, most of us think participating in athletics helps one develop such qualities as self discipline, cooperation, perseverance, and graciousness both in victory and defeat; yet the corruption of many athletes may make us doubt this claim. Nonetheless, many successful adults attribute much of their success to the qualities that they developed through sports.

      Parenting is no different; some parents may not respond well to the opportunities that parenting gives them for acquiring virtue.

      For instance, some parents may become more narrow, selfish, and materialistic through having children and may treat their children as mere extensions of their own ego, as mere opportunities for dressing them up and showing them off. But I think that such parents are in the minority.

      I think most people become manifestly more unselfish, more disciplined, and more generous when they have children.

      New parents frequently find themselves looking at the world with a new set of eyes. They start to have concerns and take matters seriously which were of little interest to them previously. For instance, parents take an interest in the school systems and school curriculum that they most likely never had as single individuals.

      One who thinks as a parent is much less likely to argue that permitting pornography is important to protect other freedoms protected by the first amendment; one who thinks like a parent of a daughter is much less likely to champion the goods of premarital sexual activity.

      The traditional list of virtues includes the cardinal virtues of temperance, courage, prudence and justice and the three theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity (self-giving). Here I wish to sketch out how parenting fosters each of these virtues.


      Courage is the virtue whose most immediate object is overcoming the fear of death. Many individuals upon becoming parents find themselves with a strong willingness to die for another—namely their child. My sister, who is deathly afraid of blood and all related manifestations of physical suffering, took a course in emergency medical treatment so that she would be prepared to cope with whatever emergencies her beloved toddler might encounter.

       Certainly just the day-to-day trials of parenthood also call for different varieties of courage. Some must overcome fears of financial demands just to have children. Others may find it difficult to speak to the principal because of concerns about the education of their child.

      There are more subtle needs for courage as well. Many parents have children who are quite unlike themselves and they need to have the courage to assist these children in such activities as sports or musical competitions or dramatic productions in which the parents themselves have never had any notable expertise. The parent may never have found the courage to do certain activities for him or herself but will often do them for the sake of their children.


      Temperance is the virtue that requires the tempering of one’s desires. An infant almost immediately forces new parents to find new limits to their needs of sleep, privacy, sexual intimacy, and the lesser pleasures of dining out or going to a movie. The financial burdens of parenthood enable many to learn a new economy in their money-management.

      I am not certain that temperance is the virtue that enables one to curb one’s temper, but let us note that most individuals when they become parents–especially of toddlers and teenagers–learn that they have a temper they were quite unaware of before they became parents. They learn that they have a relatively low tolerance level for annoyance.

      With their children, because of their love for their children, they begin to develop what are sometimes prodigious abilities to be patient. I am always astonished at the patience that parents show their children and am a bit amused when they apologize for their lack of patience. I suspect any non-parent would have buckled much sooner.

      The necessity of being a good example to one’s children also leads to one to work to eliminate certain bad habits one may have acquired. One may need to clean up one’s language, to stop smoking, or stop leaving one’s possessions all over the house. One realizes that it is difficult to expect children to be free from the vices and bad habits that one has oneself.

      One of the little-recognized negatives about daycare is that daycare makes it more difficult to acquire some of the virtues of parenting. Those who place their children in daycare spend most of their time with their children in the few hours in the evening after a full day of work. They are tired from work and the children are  often worn out from being in daycare. This reduced time available for being with one’s children may have a significant impact on how one relates to one’s children. A parent may take on the characteristics of grandparents or aunts and uncles and tend to use their limited time with their children to spoil them.

      Both the children and the parents suffer from this “spoiling.” Leaving a considerable part of parenting to daycare works robs the parents of much opportunity to develop certain virtues.

      The day-care parent becomes accustomed to discharging responsibilities through the professional offices of another; parenting becomes something that one hires out rather than what one does himself. (And should we “hire out” an activity of such importance?) It is difficult for parenting to remain a central focus in the lives of working parents because the stresses and obligations of the workplace are quite enough to dominate their thoughts. Because they have less time with the children, they develop less patience with them, but because they have so little time with them, they become more indulgent.

      Few households can have two full-time parents; in those lucky enough to have one stay-at-home full-time parent, it is generally this parent who acquires more readily and deeply the virtues of parenting. The stay-at-home parent is generally the one more patient with the children, the one who understands them better, the one who coaxes and shapes them better. But both parents generally profit from there being a stay-at-home parent since this parent is able to aid his or her spouse in acquiring the virtues of parenting.

      And because one parent is making parenting his or her full time work, parenting may often be taken more seriously as an activity, one that the working parent is also then expected to perform well.   Those who place their children in daycare may be in danger of thinking of themselves as a couple with children, not as a family. They may sense that they have a need to spend more time away from the children for relaxation since they may find time spent with the children a considerable strain–because, indeed, it is another strain added to the strain of work.     


      Prudence is the virtue that enables one to know what is the right thing to do in any given situation. Such knowledge requires a vast amount of experience. Being a parent radically increases the amount of experiential knowledge one has; parents need to learn about nutrition and medical care, psychology, and financial management, for instance. The responsibilities of parenting give these matters and an incentive to become knowledgeable about them. Few find themselves becoming less practical upon becoming parents; rather most find themselves being forced to become very practical.


The need to set a good example often provokes many to pay closer attention to justice. Because parents realize their children observe their every move they are likely to become more law-abiding, to obey the speed limit, to be courteous to policemen, and in general to be honest and fair. The constant necessity for disciplining one’s children and mediating disputes between siblings requires one to develop the virtues of a just judge.


      There are questions concerning the existence of God and the meaning of life that many often put aside until they face the prospect of raising children. Those becoming parents often realize that they would like their children to believe in God and to have Christ as a guide. They begin to attend church more regularly and to become involved in their parish. As they teach the fundamentals of their faith to their children, they find themselves grasping those fundamentals more firmly. The parents’ faith is also bolstered by an increased understanding and love of God; they begin to realize what a father’s and mother’s love is. As they watch their children chaff and grow under their discipline, they realize that God the Father in a similar fashion disciplines and delights in everyone. Indeed, they appreciate God’s love more.


      Parents have a profound sense of how vulnerable their children are, not only as infants, but perhaps even more so as they mature and embark into a world dangerous both to their bodies and souls. Parents must develop the virtue of hope and come to rely upon God’s abundant grace. Many, if not most, parents experience some heartbreaking events in the lives of their children; there may, for instances, be illness, moral scandal, bad choices of spouses, or defection from the Church that will cause one to fret and grieve. The hope and belief that God is watching over all, protecting and guiding us, sustains many a parent.


      Charity is the love that considers another’s needs to be greater than one’s own. Parents, of course, make enormous sacrifices for their children and this need to sacrifice has a way of expanding the charity in their hearts. They become less attached to their own needs and more attentive to the needs of others. Parents engage in amusements that they have long lost interest in simply for the sake of their children. In fact, they become more accommodating others in general.

      It is my suspicion that parents are often more generous to charities than are single individuals. Many of them begin to experience a strong sense of gratitude for the sacrifices their parents made and for the blessings they have had that enable them to have good home lives.

      Recognizing what a great gift a family is, they are more sensitive to the loneliness and pain of those without families. They begin to understand how easy it is for one who has not had a good home life to go astray and become more concerned to assist organizations that minister to the needy.

      Almost all assistance to the handicapped and mentally ill comes from those who have had children with those afflictions. The love for our own children softens our hearts–for we realize that everyone is some mother’s son or daughter.

      So, as parents enjoy the many delights of being a parent, they should also enjoy the fact that they are becoming better human beings, and as they become better, likely their beloved children do so as well.

— Janet Smith is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Dallas.

Copyright 1999 Janet Smith. All rights reserved.