Catholic faith and current research in education and psychology are the basis for these key elements of character formation.
It’s easy to look at trends in society today and wonder what the world is coming to. We often see young people faced with pressures and temptations we never had to deal with when we were their age. As a Catholic child psychologist, I am frequently asked about how best to guide children and teens to live holy lives. The more they grow, the less we can make decisions for them; but we can help set them on the path to virtue. Here are Ten Commandments of Forming Catholic Conscience and Character, gleaned from our Catholic faith and from current research in education and psychology.
Invite your learners to be their best selves. Education comes from the Latin word educare, which means, “to draw out that which is within.” We are called to see the best in our learners and invite them to become, more and more, who they really are. As Catholics, we believe that people are created good. We are created out of love, by a God who is love, for the purpose of loving God and others. Certainly this goodness can be clouded, but the divine spark still exists within all people, created as they are in the image and likeness of God. It is our work as Catholic educators to fan this spark into flame. Do you have a dream, a positive vision, for each of your students? Express your confidence that they really can become all God made them to be.
Sometimes we don’t know what we are capable of, and we need someone to see within us what we cannot see within ourselves. Children and teens often do what we communicate that we expect of them, even if (and sometimes especially if) those expectations are low. Instead, say “I know you can do this” often, and give your learners judicious amounts of trust and responsibility when appropriate. You might find that they unexpectedly rise to the occasion.
Teach morality as discipleship. Morality in the Christian life is not based on knowing and following a list of “do’s” and “don’ts.” Rather, it is about knowing and following a person—the person of Jesus Christ. The first letter of Peter states, “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example that you should follow in his footsteps” (1 Peter 2:21, NAB). Jesus showed us the way to live the lives we were made for. His life is the pattern for authentic humanity.
Exposing your learners to the saints, our heroes of the faith, can also provide them with powerful examples. Our saints come from many backgrounds, places, and life situations, but all of them are recognized for the ways they followed Jesus. Research young saints who might be an inspiration to the children and teens in your group. Marketing experts tell us that children and teens are especially intrigued by young people who are just a little older than they are. This is why children who are probably just a little too old are used in commercials to market a toy targeted toward younger children. Kids who are slightly older look “cool” to them.
Remember the power of your own witness. Developmental psychologist Dr. Emmy Werner is known for her ambitious Hawaii Longitudinal Study which followed 698 children from infancy until 40 years of age, examining what factors in their lives kept them on track to achievement, successful relationships, and positive behaviors at home, in school, and in the community. One of her key findings was that the presence of a mentor, a positive role model who was actively involved in the child’s life, made a key difference, especially when other risk factors were present. Never underestimate the lessons you teach by example. What experience do your learners have of you? Can they tell that you really mean what you say? Do they see you as a person who really knows Jesus? You teach not only by what you say, but also by what you do, both in the classroom and in the community. We teach a living faith that must be taken out into the world.
Practice positive behaviors. Young people, especially children 12 and under, tend to be very concrete learners. They tend to learn best by experiencing the material with their senses. We often speak in “what ifs” when we try to teach them moral decision making, but children this age often have difficulty with hypothetical situations. You can help make moral lessons more concrete by role-playing how to make good choices and practice positive behaviors, from ways of handling moral dilemmas to service activities that allow children and teens to participate in works of mercy towards others.
Make it a community effort. A great deal of Cath-olic moral teaching, especially the social teaching of the Church, includes the idea of the common good. As Catholics, we consider the good of everyone when we make choices. This is different from the idea of a “greater good,” which is more a utilitarian principle than a Catholic one. If we are operating according to the common good, we don’t leave anyone behind. The goodness of our actions is determined by how we treat the most vulnerable, the “least” of those among us (Matthew 25).
Assist learners in forming, and being accountable to, a community. Reflect together with them on group guidelines that show respect for everyone and reflect what it means to live and work in Catholic community. Encourage them to hold themselves and others accountable for following those guidelines. And when someone is wronged, seek just solutions together. This requires learning to listen to one another and see situations from multiple perspectives—skills that will benefit your learners for the rest of their lives.
Understand the typical stages of moral development in children and teens, and “meet them where they are.” Present material on morality in the way they can best understand and use it. Some aspects of moral formation will be further developed over time. For example, very young children can learn that breaking God’s rules on purpose is “sin,” but they might not yet understand the difference between mortal and venial sin—that will come later. Still later will come a more complete understanding of the “object chosen, intentions and circumstances” that help us to determine the morality of particular action (see Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1750-1754).
We also want to be aware of and encourage other aspects of development that have an effect on moral behavior. For example, delay of gratification—the ability to put off something we want in the moment for the sake of something more important that will come later—is key in avoiding impulsive (and often bad) decisions. But delay of gratification grows over time in most people. Scientists who study the brain tell us that delay of gratification is highly influenced by the prefrontal cortex of the brain, which continues growing and developing until the early 20s.
Provide a framework. As children and teens are ready, it’s important to help them learn and understand some basic guidelines for Christian living, such as the Ten Commandments, Beatitudes, works of mercy, seven themes of Catholic social teaching, and precepts of the Church. It’s also important to provide them with frameworks for approaching particular ethical situations, such as the object/intention/circumstances framework presented in the Catechism, as well as some problem-solving steps or questions that allow for thorough discernment in ethical dilemmas. Again, practice in working through these situations is key to building the skills needed for good decision making.
Focus on goals, not fear. Although we don’t know all of the situations the children and teens in our lives may face, our life experience as adults tells us some of the potential pitfalls children may face. We sometimes use fear-based tactics to dissuade kids and teens from risky behaviors, such as sexual activity and drug and alcohol use. However, outcome research suggests that this approach is often ineffective because young people tend to feel invincible. Even if we say that a certain behavior has a very high risk of a negative outcome, they feel they will be the exception to the rule.
In a cooperative study by the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Jemmett, Jemmett and Fong (2010) demonstrated that programs for prevention of risky behaviors are most effective when they are goal-focused, encourage critical thinking, and allow group discussion of the issues involved. Looking toward a bigger, positive goal down the road helped middle-school-age children avoid risky behaviors. After some guided group discussion, they were able to identify behaviors that might lead them away from their future goals, and these students were less likely to engage in sexual activity compared with students who had been through other prevention programs.
Be open to questions. The teen and young adult years, especially, are times of identity development, striving for autonomy, and asking questions. Many young people move from accepting their family’s beliefs just because those beliefs are what they have always been taught, to the point of discerning their own beliefs and practices. This process sometimes includes asking questions or even voicing disagreement with Church teaching. As Catholic educators, it’s important that we be as prepared as possible for questions as they arise and let our learners know that it’s OK to question, as it shows they are still engaged. We need to avoid acting defensive, even (and especially) if we are asked questions that we are unsure how to answer. It’s OK to say, “I’m not sure, but I’ll do some research on that and get back to you.” If students express disagreement with a Church teaching, acknowledge that some people find certain Church teaching challenging, but encourage them to stay open to learning more about what Catholics believe on the issue. When handled well, the independent thinking we see in young people can facilitate a process of “making the faith their own,” rather than an abandonment of the faith altogether.
Help learners live what they have received. Living a godly life means learning what it means to be self-giving people, loving God above all things and loving our neighbors as ourselves. The precise way in which this is lived out depends upon the vocation of each individual. However, the secret to long-term happiness is doing what we were made for—living the life God planned for us. It is never too early for children and teens to begin reflecting on who God made them to be and the steps toward becoming that person. Ask your learners who they feel God might be calling them to be and what his plan might be for their lives. Help them become aware of the ways in which our talents, opportunities, and dreams help us to discern God’s will for our lives.
While we often fear for the future of our youn-gest generation, God invites us beyond fear, to hope. He gently reminds us, “Behold, I make all things new” (Revelation 21:5, NAB).