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On the Development of Character in Children
Fr. John F. Fullerton

This was the (SSPX USA) District Superior's Letter to Friends and Benefactors in the June 2005 Regina Coeli Report.

Dear Friends and Benefactors,

We live in a time of ever changing moral standards (e.g., who would have imagined 100, 50 or even 20 years ago that there could be a debate about the definition of marriage!). The main reason for this is the principle that the majority rules; what the majority wishes to do, that is the moral law. Or at most we are told that economics, or biology, or psychology should be the sole guides in shaping human conduct.

Thus the individualís judgment, as to what will contribute most to his own well-being and welfare of society, becomes the final court of appeals in moral matters. This of course is simply the modern version of Satanís lie: "You shall be as gods, knowing good and evil." The educational policy of any age reflects the philosophy of the age, and therefore we have in todayís education no mention of the sublime commandments of religion: "thou shalt" and "thou shalt not." Instead, we have the deification of human reason and an insisting upon the all-sufficiency of knowledge and enlightenment. Intellectual development, tests and measurement, and individual differences receive most of the attention, while character formation and the will are largely overlooked.

The fruits of this policy are abundant: the amoral and immoral conditions it promotes, the increase of lawlessness and crime, and the riotous freedom of our youth to name just a few.

The solution to this moral dilemma can be found only in religion as Pope Pius XI said in his Encyclical on the Christian Education of Youth:

Disorderly inclinations must be corrected, good tendencies encouraged and regulated from tender childhood, and, above all, the mind must be enlightened and the will strengthened by supernatural truth and by the means of grace, without which it is impossible to control evil impulses, impossible to attain the full and complete perfection of education intended by the Church, which Christ has endowed so richly with divine doctrine and with the Sacraments, the efficacious means of grace.

To overcome this moral dilemma it is important that we begin by building solid foundations otherwise known as character formation. The word "character" is derived from the Greek word meaning an instrument used to engrave or cut furrows. Character is the sum total of all the qualities that have been engraved upon the soul and that have become part and parcel of a man. Character is life dominated by principle, or in other words the completely formed will.

The development of character in children should be the supreme objective of priests, parents, and teachers. As Pope Pius XI described in the same encyclical:

Hence the true Christian, the product of Christian education, is the supernatural man who thinks, judges, and acts constantly and consistently in accordance with right reason illumined by the supernatural light of the example and teaching of Christ; in other words, to use the current term, the true and finished man of character. For, it is not every kind of consistency and firmness of conduct based on subjective principles that makes true character, but only constancy in following the eternal principles of justice, as is admitted even by the pagan poet when he praises as one and the same "the man who is just and firm of purpose."

Character training must therefore be made the center of the educational scheme from our earliest years. When this has been done then the child, when he comes to the critical years, will readily respond to the appeal of the higher motives to which he has reacted so often before. When this has not been done we can expect ruin. Individuals and nations are brought to ruin not by a lack of knowledge, but by a lack of proper conduct as Pope Pius XI explains: "particularly in young people, evil practices are the effect not so much of ignorance of intellect as of weakness of a will exposed to dangerous occasions, and unsupported by the means of grace."

While grace is all-powerful, it does not relieve us of the duty of developing to the utmost the natural strength of character of which our young people are capable. Priests, parents and teachers need to awaken in young people the spirit of the conqueror. There is a nobility that lies in their soul, dormant, perhaps, but never dead. If we would have them win out in the battle for virtue this nobility must be aroused and spurred on.

To aid in this it is important that proper attention be given to forming good habits in the young. Our character is the result of acquired habits added to our natural temperament. Hence, character education is largely the formation of habits. Therefore, parents and teachers must ceaselessly endeavor to prevent the formation of habits of wrong doing; for such habits weaken the will and cause misery. The formation of an evil habit happens so easily that it may take a long time before one even realizes that he is bound by it. Habits are neither made in a moment nor are they broken in a moment. But at any moment one can begin to make or break them. Acts develop habits, and habits form character, and character determines destiny. The boy, who, at the age of fourteen, is rude, selfish, or offensively loud, is likely to retain these habits as a man. Many psychologists affirm that, on the average, habits are formed from the ages of three to fourteen. If so then it behooves parents to begin early with habituating their children to what will form the basis of their character and therefore their protection when they are passing through the fire and water of the many temptations incident to adolescence.

This work of character formation must then begin with the pre-school child. Every day in a childís early life is forming and determining his future. Good habits of courtesy, table manners and speech have a part to play in forming their character, as do good health habits, habits of orderliness and play habits. Even more important are the general moral habits which must also be formed early. Among these are: truthfulness and honesty, the foundations of character; respect for parents and authority; co-operation with others; sense of responsibility; sympathy; sense of modesty, so important for the proper training in chastity.

Among the most important habits to be formed in children is to teach them to be moderate in their wants. This is not a question of denying them joys and pleasures, as childhood should be filled with joy. Yet they should learn that no one can satisfy all his wishes, one who doesnít learn this will be miserable later in life when he is not able to get everything that his heart desires.

A child, who has had each and every whim gratified, will be habituated to yield to every urge, and will not hesitate to push aside even moral considerations if they stand in the way of satisfying sensuous impulses. On the other hand, if they have been trained to abstain cheerfully they will develop the basis of the habit which will assist them in saying no when these same sensuous impulses tempt them.

In our world it is not too difficult to see the urgent need of training children in habits of self-control. Many years ago the late Archbishop John Spalding made an appeal in this regard to mothers: "O mothers, you whose love is the best any of us have known, harden your sons, and urge them on, not in the race for wealth, but in the steep and narrow path wherein, through self-conquest and self-knowledge, they rise towards God and all high things."

Parents should urge their children on to what one bishop called "the strategy of the Holy War." They can do this if they train their children every now and then to deny themselves some favorite food, or to ignore some little pain, or to make a heroic conquest of laziness. These things will train then to exercise themselves spiritually and will help to harden them for the spiritual war that wages against us all. If, however, they have never been trained to deny themselves permissible indulgences how will they be able to abstain from gratifying the non-permissible desires.

Nor is it difficult to arouse childrenís enthusiasm for such little acts of self-denial. Some children may whine at first, especially if they are just beginning to form good habits, but, as the principle of doing not what they like but what is right begins to sink in, they will soon take interest in doing these little "acts of heroism" as beneficial to their own character development. Self-control should therefore be represented to them as an act of growth, of strength, of freedom; it must be made evident that the apparent repression is only a step towards a higher life. They should be shown how a gradual process of practice on the smallest things builds up willpower, and how every act of self-conquest in one sphere of life makes the battle easier in all the other spheres. In the work of self-discipline and the war for the control of our emotional nature the offensive is the best defense of the higher nature.

By training our children along these lines, we shall give them a conception of that true liberty which is the enjoyment of our privileges without trespassing on the rights of oneís soul, of our neighbors, or of God. They must be trained to obey the principle not their impulses. Only in this will they find true happiness, both in this life and, one day, in the next.

Sincerely yours in the Mystical Body of Christ,

Fr. John D. Fullerton