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Fortitude, Snowplows, and Tears at the Kitchen Table

by Mark Rivers

As my son Micaiah prepares to graduate from university this spring I have spent some time reflecting on his education. While I have many happy memories of his time at SFS - watching him perform in the Spring musical or competing on Olympic Day, it is the memories of his nights at our kitchen table (Micaiah’s preferred homework spot), books and papers spread out before him, tears dropping from his cheeks, that I have reflected on the most. Looking back, I can see that it was in those moments, as he was learning to tame his fears and push through to complete a difficult math sheet or find the right words for a tough writing assignment, that I was seeing Virtue Formation in action.

Virtue can be defined as a habit of moral excellence, and at the heart of the Samuel Fuller School mission is the cultivation of Virtue - the four Cardinal Virtues (Prudence, Temperance, Justice, Fortitude) and the three Theological Virtues (Faith, Hope, Love). Classical Christian education is grounded in the belief that a truly well-lived life, a life lived to its fullest as God intends, is a life lived virtuously in pursuit of the highest good, a belief that certainly grates against our culture. And perhaps there is no virtue more contrary to modern ideas, especially modern ideas of parenting, than that of Fortitude.

Thomas Aquinas, in his discussion of virtues in the Summa Theologica, describes Fortitude this way:
“ . . . Fortitude is chiefly about fear of difficult things, which can withdraw the will from following the reason. And it behooves one not only firmly to bear the assault of these difficulties by restraining fear, but also moderately to withstand them, when, to wit, it is necessary to dispel them altogether in order to free oneself there from for the future.”

Through Aquinas’ description we can see that a person demonstrates fortitude when he maintains fidelity to Goodness, Truth, and Beauty in the midst of severe trial and temptation. To put it simply: a person of fortitude is someone who stays and fights the good fight when his fear is screaming at him to run. Having fortitude means we ignore the voices in our mind that want us to quit, to shift responsibility, to take shortcuts, and instead we finish our task faithfully with good effort, enduring all hardships we might encounter along the way. For the child in tears at the kitchen table, overwhelmed with his homework, fortitude means learning to calm himself, to put aside his fears that he will never finish, and to complete his assignment to the best of his ability, even if it means forsaking whatever pursuit he would rather be doing and exhaustion from a late bedtime.

In recent years the terms “Helicopter Parent” and “Snowplow Parent” have become common vocabulary. While few parents embrace these labels for themselves, the terms exist because the belief that struggle and difficulty are harmful to a child’s development and well-being has become pervasive in our parenting. No normal parents enjoy seeing their child struggle, but if we believe that virtue is essential to our children living well, we will learn to help our children work through challenges instead of trying to remove every obstacle for them. Helping our children develop fortitude might mean we lovingly push them through their despair when it’s 8:30 PM on a Monday and they still have an hour’s work ahead, rather than shifting responsibility to the teacher with a late night email about the volume of homework. Seeing fortitude grow in our children might mean we send them out to the yard with their soccer ball for extra practice after a game spent on the bench instead of calling the coach to question playing time. While we as parents might deride the “Trophy for Everyone” nature of today’s youth culture, an honest assessment of our own heart will find the same tendency and temptation lurking, and we too can be guilty of trying to engineer the easiest path for our children, rather than the most virtuous and fruitful.

As in all of life, our children’s education will have mountains and valleys, with plenty of flat plains to walk along the way. For each Bon Libri medal achieved there will be more moments of struggle and exasperation. It is in those valleys we must resist trying to always clear the way, but rather encourage our children to keep fighting on, learning for themselves the satisfaction God grants us in enduring and finishing a hard thing well. While tears at the kitchen table are never enjoyable in the moment, we can take heart that those tears are watering the roots of fortitude and growing in our children the habits needed to live life to its fullest.

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