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May 2015 Brief: Volume 22, Number 14

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What We Want for Our Children…


by Deborah D. Thornton



“There is a kind of happiness and wonder that makes you serious. It is too good to waste on jokes.” ― C.S. Lewis, “Narnia,” 1950


As Mother’s Day and Father’s Day once again approach, and families and friends gather for graduations and weddings, we need to think about what we want for ourselves and our children and then behave in positive ways. There is an overwhelming focus in the U.S. today on our young children’s safety (note the multiple cases of parents being investigated or arrested for simply letting their children play outside or walk home alone) and mental health (one example is the anti-bullying laws), with significant government interventions occurring in every state and at every level to address these issues.


Yet as mothers and fathers, what are we really teaching our children about how to live a happy and satisfied life? When we indulge in divorce? Not going to church? Keeping up with the Joneses? Encouraging free sex? More liquor and binge drinking? Hopefully we are not teaching our children that these will lead them to a happy and satisfied life. If so we are failing our duty. Yet children and young people learn not by what they are told, but by what they see on a daily basis, and they see a lot of all of the above.


According to Dr. Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania, the father of positive psychology, there are “three major routes to happiness: pleasure and positive emotion (the pleasant life), engagement (the engaged life), and meaning (the meaningful life).”[1] One way to characterize these three routes, and the underlying actions and approaches which make them up, is as “virtue.” Six virtues are generally recognized as being universal. Those are wisdom and knowledge, courage, humanity, justice, temperance, and transcendence.[2] Making up the six virtues are specific character traits; for example, to be “courageous” one must be authentic, brave, persistent, and full of zest.


According to the Via Institute on Character, established by Dr. Seligman, the character traits making up wisdom and knowledge are creativity, curiosity, judgment, love of learning, and perspective. Humanity encompasses love, kindness, and social intelligence. The development of justice includes teamwork, fairness, and leadership. To be temperate one must practice forgiveness, humility, self-regulation, and prudence. Finally, transcendence includes appreciation of beauty and excellence, gratitude, hope, humor, and spirituality.[3]


The U.S. Armed Forces Network, a radio and TV network for those stationed overseas, continually runs public service commercials targeted at our young soldiers encouraging them to not engage in high-risk negative behaviors such as smoking or chewing tobacco, excessive drinking, making unwanted sexual passes at others, and not gambling or getting into excessive debt. The commercials basically encourage them to have the six virtues.


At the same time, church attendance and religious identification are at record lows. Only one-fourth of American Catholics call themselves “strong” Catholics, among “the lowest levels seen in…38 years.”[4] Most (two of three) mainline Protestants do not consider themselves strong Christians either. Of those who are skeptical of God and church, the three reasons most cited in studies done by the Barna Group, which studies the relationship between faith and culture, are “rejection of the Bible, a lack of trust in the local churches, and a cultural reinforcement of a secular worldview.”[5]


In response to these high-risk negative behaviors and an increase in suicides, the Army started a Comprehensive Soldier and Family Fitness program to build resilience and enhance competency. Unfortunately, even after six years many soldiers still report low optimism and job satisfaction, poor nutrition and sleep, and “catastrophic thinking.”[6] The Army is working hard on these issues, as are the government schools and the state and federal governments – though nanny-state oversight and control of parents and children aren’t the solutions.


The solution is for parent(s) to step up – even though the list of 6 virtues and 24 character traits is daunting and challenging to live up to – and start being accountable to ourselves and responsible for teaching our children. No matter how hard it is. And the first thing we need to do is take them to church, not only on Mother’s Day and Father’s Day Sundays, but every Sunday. Then we must hold ourselves to a high standard of virtue and accountability, not just on Sundays, but every day.


The Via Institute has a character trait survey; you can measure your own ranking on the six virtues and presumably work to address those you are lacking. For the sake of our children, we need to start doing just that. We, mothers and fathers both, need to have the courage of a lioness so that our children may also.


[1] James Schroeder, “Seeking Virtue, Finding Happiness,”, April 12, 2015, <> accessed April 19, 2015.
[2] Ibid.
[3] “Do You Know Your Strengths?” The VIA Institute on Character, <> accessed on April 19, 2015.
[4] “‘Strong’ Catholic Identity at Four-Decade Low in U.S.,” Pew Research Center, March 13, 2013, <> accessed on April 19, 2015.
[5] “2015 State of Atheism in America,” Barna Group, March 24, 2015, <> accessed on April 19, 2015.
[6] Gregg Zoroya, “Army Morale Low Despite 6-year, $287M Optimism Program,” USA Today, April 16, 2015, <> accessed April 19, 2015.


Deborah D. Thornton is a Research Analyst with Public Interest Institute, Mount Pleasant, Iowa. Contact her at


Permission to reprint or copy in whole or part is granted, provided a version of this credit line is used:"Reprinted by permission from INSTITUTE BRIEF, a publication of Public Interest Institute." The views expressed in this publication are those of the author and not necessarily those of Public Interest Institute. They are brought to you in the interest of a better-informed citizenry.




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