A confession should come first: I am not a parent. I’ve mentored many young people, I’ve observed many families (including my own), and I am very excited about one day becoming a father with hopefully many children—but I am not a parent.
And yet, I have pondered the subject of parenthood for many years.
Generally speaking, here is what I have observed: Parenting in our day and age has become less about teaching children virtue, and more about helping them with “career prep.” Parents are more often seen running their kids around to every conceivable activity—sports, dance, chess club, and so on—often in an attempt to augment their resumes in preparation for college, while in the meantime, deeper issues go unaddressed.
What are some of these deeper issues? In my view, one of the great truths the modern world simply doesn’t get is that virtue, not satisfaction and emotional happiness, is the foundation of a truly happy life in the long term. This seems to have been ignored by many modern parents, who often seem to care more for the material sustenance of their children than their moral sustenance.
Reason Versus Passions
Indeed, it was an idea that arose in the 1960s that inhibition itself was a source of human unhappiness—chaining our appetites to archaic morals led to dysfunction and disorder. Naturally, this claim was made primarily in relation to sex. Not going beyond various guardrails was, in fact, the source of our problems, some claimed (see, for example, this famous interview of Hugh Heffner, the founder of Playboy, by William F. Buckley). It wasn’t long before this abhorrence for any form of inhibition on human appetites developed a new vocabulary with words like “repressive” and “oppressive.” Eventually, this abhorrence of moral limitations was reframed in positive terms, and defined itself primarily by one phrase: “self-expression.”
It wasn’t long before this idea was applied to parenting, and the idea became to let children determine their own values. The logic of this has flowered into absolute insanity in our own day with gender ideology—adults have become so willing to bow to their children that they even claim that a male child can claim he’s a girl, and a girl child can claim she’s a boy. To declare otherwise is to “limit” the child—to interfere with their own goals and dreams.
Of course, left out is the idea that the human person benefits from objective moral goods, and can, in fact, become better and more content (“happy”) by conforming themselves to those goods. Left out entirely is the idea that morality is objective, and thus binding, but that even though “binding,” it nonetheless liberates the human person from the bondage that comes from something much worse: their passions. We are bound to one of two things, our reason or our passions, and reason is the far easier and more ennobling taskmaster.
You find this idea both in the Greek and Roman philosophers, as well as in traditional Catholic and protestant theology (to say nothing of traditional Confucian as well as Jewish sources). Human beings, all recognized, are a mixed bag. They clearly possess reason—the principle of the intellect which directs the will. But they also have passions—desires of the flesh for things like fame, wealth, power, and pleasure. Thus, the great adventure of the human person toward true happiness is the path of virtue: the assertion of the primacy of reason over the passions.
It isn’t that our desires for fame, wealth, power, and pleasure—what the Bible calls “the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life” [1 John 2:16]—are bad in and of themselves. Rather, it is that by virtue of being passions, or as the Bible says, lusts, they are necessarily prone to get out of control, and in doing so bring ruin.
Physical pleasure only goes so far to satisfy the human soul—as anyone who has partaken knows. The same with wealth, power, etc. A practical example: most of us partake in a casual wish that we had the money and fame of celebrities. But then we use our reason, and we recognize that celebrities have astoundingly high rates of drug abuse, marital breakdown, and suicide. Does that mean all of them, or that wealth and fame are necessarily bad? No. But it does mean that they are not ends in themselves. None of the passions are.
The virtues, however, are ends in themselves. In traditional Aristotelian terms, virtue was a habitual act that was itself the mean between two extremes. For example, the virtue of courage is the habitual act of courage as opposed to the acts of cowardice (one extreme) or rashness (the other extreme). This virtue is, of itself, worthy of pursuit in a way that the passions are not. Whenever something that appeals to our passions is pursued as if it was, itself, a worthy goal, it always goes to excess.
Therefore, it is the path of virtue—the path of reason directing and guiding the passions—which leads to true and long-term happiness. Obeying our passions tends to get us in far more trouble.
I say all of that as a preliminary to this observation: these are not lessons many modern parents teach their children. Any brief look at our society makes this clear. And yet they are liberating lessons. They teach us how to be free of our passions—a lifelong process to be sure, but a liberating one nonetheless. It teaches us to value reason more than our emotions—not because our emotions are bad, but because uninhibited, they rarely lead to individual or societal happiness. Take a look at social media these days, and you’ll see the truth of this observation.
These realities became even more obvious to me when I read the writings of various historical figures who partook of the traditional view (often opposed to those in their own day who took the more modern view of “self-expression”). For the sake of space, I’d like to focus on one particular family: the Adams family. No, not the weird ones on TV who live in a haunted house, but the great early American family who contributed so much to American independence and nationhood. Specifically, I’d like to focus on the mother, Abigail Adams, the wife of the famous Founding Father, John Adams.
The ‘Momma’ of the Revolution
John and Abigail were intense parents. They both sacrificed a great deal of their time, money, and on occasion their reputations, for the cause of American liberty. John was away from his children for long stretches of time as he served in the Continental Congress. He was away from most of his children, and his wife, for years at a time when he was appointed as an American ambassador in Europe.
And yet, both knew that reason required such sacrifice. The passions militated against them—but they were good and right nonetheless.
Abigail is an exemplary model. Much as it pained her to be separated from her husband for such a long period of time, Abigail knew what was at stake, and continued to inculcate those lessons into her son, John Quincy Adams—who, in addition to holding several high offices, would go on to become president of the United States.
For example, writing to John Quincy after he and his father had arrived in France after a long and dangerous journey across the Atlantic, she wrote:
“I would much rather you should have found your grave in the ocean you have crossed, or that any untimely death should crop you in your infant years than see you an immoral, profligate, or graceless child.”
Virtue mattered to this momma. In the same letter, she said some things that most modern parents would likely balk at:
“Great learning and superior abilities, should you ever possess them, will be of little value and small estimation unless virtue, honor, truth, and integrity are added to them. Adhere to those religious sentiments and principles which were early instilled into your mind, and remember that you are accountable to your Maker for all your words and actions.”
Abigail recognized a reality that many modern parents fail to acknowledge: that absent training, education, and discipline, children really aren’t that great in their moral qualities and accomplishments. It is indeed hard to imagine many parents today daring to question, with respect to such qualities, whether or not their children “[should] ever possess them.” But this was a given for Abigail. Virtue costs, and she never obscured this fact.
In another letter to John Quincy, she writes eloquently on the “due government of the passions” in the pursuit of virtue:
“The due government of the passions has been considered in all ages as a most valuable acquisition. Hence an inspired writer observes, ‘He that is slow to anger, is better than the mighty; and he that ruleth his spirit, than he that taken a city.’ [Proverbs 16:32] This passion, cooperating with power, and unrestrained by reason, has produced the subversion of cities, the desolation of countries, the massacre of nations, and filled the world with injustice and oppression. Behold your own country, your native land, suffering from the effects of lawless power and malignant passions, and learn betimes, from your own observation and experience, to govern and control yourself. Having once obtained this self-government, you will find a foundation laid for happiness to yourself and usefulness to mankind.”
Observe that she does not base what she is saying on some idiosyncratic approach to parenting, but rather a truth that has been recognized in all ages.
In another letter, Abigail warns her son against the very engine of the passions, and the source of the ruin of so many: self-love.
“Self-love and partiality cast a mist before the eyes, and there is no knowledge so hard to be acquired, nor of more benefit when once thoroughly understood. Ungoverned passions have aptly been compared to the boisterous ocean, which is known to produce the most terrible effects. ‘Passions are the elements of life,’ but elements which are subject to the control of reason. Whoever will candidly examine themselves, will find some degree of passion, peevishness, or obstinacy in their natural tempers. You will seldom find these disagreeable ingredients all united in one; but the uncontrolled indulgence of either is sufficient to render the possessor unhappy in himself, and disagreeable to all who are so unhappy as to be witnesses of it, or suffer from its effects.”
All of this was put in an even larger context by this mother:
“I hope you will never lose sight of her [America’s] interests, but make her welfare your study, and spend those hours which others devote to Cards and folly in investigating the Great principles by which nations have risen to Glory and eminence, for your Country will one day call for your services, either in the Cabinet or Field. Qualify yourself to do honor to her.”
In other words, Abigail knew that virtue was not simply a matter of individual profit, but societal profit. Her parenting was directed not just toward her child’s “happiness,” but his goodness, for his ultimate happiness depended, as did the happiness of society, on that goodness. She knew that encouraging a child to obey their moment-to-moment passions and emotions was a recipe for imprisoning them to those passions and emotions. To do so would be to enslave, not liberate; to shrink, not expand the soul; to inculcate selfishness, rather than duty, as the prime motivation of life.
I say we bring back the Abigail Adams-style of parenting. After all, she did raise a president.
Joshua Charles is a bestselling author, historian, researcher, and international speaker. He is a passionate defender of America’s founding principles, Judeo-Christian civilization, and the Catholic faith, to which he converted in 2018. He loves telling, and helping others tell, great stories that communicate great truths. Follow him on Twitter @JoshuaTCharles or see JoshuaTCharles.com