a young girl three and a half years old sits on a rock in the mountains in Glacier National Park, looking down at a flower in her hand

How Do I Raise My Kids to Revere Life, Love What Is Good, and Reject the Bad?

Countering culture, instilling virtue

How do you raise your kids to revere life and take care of the world?

Why it matters: We don't want to raise the next generation of short-term thinkers who are always chasing the latest pleasure while racking up debt. We don't want materialist, consumer children. We want children who love and revere life, of all kinds; who actively work to protect it and love it. In the world at large, that's a tall order.

This topic came up both at a recent book club meeting (we read Braiding Sweetgrassread my review) and at a Catholic homeschooling mom's night. My social circles are very interested in this question. How do we raise our children to love what is good and reject the bad, when the bad can be ever so enticing?

Why the answer is difficult

One challenge is that we don't know everything our children need to know. The world today is different from the world we grew up in. That's always true, but it probably feels more true for parents of generations in the past hundred years, and more so in the past thirty. The rate of change increased post-industrial revolution. Some of the challenges our children face weren't challenges we faced as children—even in the realm of media and technology. Some of the things we want them to know weren't taught to us as children—perhaps because there was no need, or perhaps because we've changed our perspective from what we grew up with.

Another challenge is that we won't know if we did enough, or did the right things, until our children are adults themselves. In our discussions, moms with older kids and more experience pointed out that no matter what you do, at some point, your kids go out into the world. They interact with peers and strangers. They're exposed to the temptations that maybe you tried hard to keep out of your home. And you just have to hope you prepared them well enough. At that point, it's out of your hands.

Sometimes, no matter how good a job you do, the temptations are greater. Maybe your kid makes choices you disagree with. There's probably no way of knowing whether you did all you could—but it is absolutely worth considering what is all you can do.

The questions

Let's break it down. The question to answer include:

How do we help our children…

  • ... learn practices or ideas we may not have grown up with ourselves?
  • ... be good people?
  • ... revere nature and life, to love what is good and beautiful?
  • ... resist bad things and overcome temptations in the world?

In some sense, these questions are the same ones parents have always had. But as the world changes, the answer changes.

Let's dive in. But first, a quick caveat: My kids are young. We're still figuring this out. These are my current best guesses, based on where we are now and what I've learned from other parents. Much of this is drawn from the discussions I mentioned above with other moms.

Learning practices or ideas that we didn't grow up with

Whatever the custom or practice or idea is that you want your children to know, children need an example to follow. The best example is you, their parents. You need to live how you want them to live. They need to see what you do as "normal"; you can't be a hypocrite. No "do as I say, not as I do".

This means the first step in showing children a different way is to be different yourself. Home life is where they begin to learn everything. If you want your children to interact with plants in a certain way, or have a certain attitude toward other people, or follow a certain tradition, or whatever it is—enact it yourself. Invite your children to participate in customs, traditions, and activities that promote the mindset and behavior you want, and some of it may sink in. Show, not tell, as is so common in writing advice. Children see your actions; they copy your behavior. Often unconsciously. You, as parent, are their key example early on.

As children get older, their peers become more and more influential. Choose your friends carefully. Surround yourself and your children with people who share some of the key mindsets or practices you want your children to have. If your children only interact with people very different from the person you want your child to be—who have different practices or customs—then the mismatch will convert your child, or upset your child, or both.

Now the practical steps. If you want to show children a different way, you need to know what different way. Define what you want your children to learn and be. What practices, customs, traditions, or attitudes do you want to instill? Listing them in no way guarantees you will actually pass them on, but you are setting a goal. You are laying out your values: this is what's important. You could even compile some of the most important values into a family mission statement (as suggested in The Secrets of Happy Familiesread my review).

Next, what behaviors or actions can you do regularly (daily, weekly, yearly, etc) that demonstrate the value? E.g., you may celebrate certain holidays, say certain prayers, participate in certain groups or clubs. Do them. That will help your children see that you find these things important. When you do them, talk about the significance. Explain the value. Hopefully, some of it will stick.

(Read: Why Watching My Parents Cook Means I Can't Share Soup Recipe—And How I'm Encouraging My Kids to Cook Too)

Revering nature and life, loving what is good and beautiful

The discussion among the Catholic moms focused on how we show children what is good and beautiful. How do we show them what's good and real, so that when they go out into the world and experience all the temptations it has to offer, they know what the good things are?

Most of the ideas were around showing our children good, beautiful things. Ground them in experiences in the world of virtue, everyday happiness and joy, nature, exploration, love, family. If they know the real stuff, then they will be less tempted by the attention economy. One mom began her homeschooling day with her kids by sharing a beautiful image, painting, poem, or other art.

One mom talked about moments of joy in the family. Being funny together, inside family jokes, experiences where you feel loved, known, and part of something. Everyone wants to feel loved and known. And the place you can—or should—feel the most loved and the most known is in your family—the people who raised you, who live with you day in and day out, who do love you and know you.

The discussion at book club focused on revering nature, since the book club is attended by the moms of the forest school nature group we're a part of—and the book we had read, Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Kimmerer, is focused on our relationship with nature. (Read more about the group.)

Kimmerer argued that we develop a sense of responsibility for nature when we develop a relationship with nature, because relationships build a sense of obligation and connection. She suggested that one to build the relationship is to recognize, as her people do, the gifts that nature gives us, and to give nature gifts in return. She explained the gift economy underlying much Native culture.

Given that we are not Native, and are not steeped in that culture, we have a challenge: to help our children build a relationship with nature, with the world, so they feel a responsibility to care for the earth.

I think the answer is the same as instilling any other ideas or practice: demonstrate it yourself. Be the example. Show, and teach, the habits that build the values.

Foremost, children need to know and appreciate the world around them. They need to be in nature. They need to know about its gifts; they need to know where food comes from; they need to know what it's like to nurture plants or animals.

In the book club, our kids all regularly play together in local forests and creeks—exploring, building, doing projects, learning to identify plants, and so on. The kids are familiar with some of these parks in all seasons; the group has been going strong for nearly four years.

We show our kids how to be respectful. We have general rules: don't pick the flowers—though if there are tons, you can pick one; don't pull things off of growing plants and instead collect things from the ground; be gentle with nature. Don't litter, clean up trash (with a parent's help; we'll have a trash bag). These set up habits, ways of relating, which tell us that the thing we're relating to matters and ought to be treated in a respectful way because it's something to be respected.

The activities we do at forest school are part of that, too: appreciating nature, observing what we find and sharing joy at discovering the first wildflowers of spring or weird black beetle or some cool lichen; learning the names of plants and trees (and eventually, birds, but I'm not good at birds yet); nature-themed crafts; and so on.

I remember when I was a girl scout, whenever we went camping, at the end of the trip we'd scour the campground for trash before leaving. Always leave it better than you found it.

Build a relationship with the good and beautiful in the world, and with nature. Build the right habits. Then your children will feel a connection, and perhaps, the desire to improve it, and leave it a better place than they found it.

(Read: Forming Good Habits and Breaking Bad Habits: Aristotle's 4 Levels of Virtue)

Resisting the bad temptations in the world

Worldly temptations are many: social media, video games, the internet's many time wasters. While there are certainly good uses of technology, media, and games, much of what's out there gives the wrong message, seeds an addiction to dopamine, and feeds the attention economy (the economy you reward by giving it your attention).

(Read: How to Practice Self-Denial—and What You'll Gain By Doing So)

The gist of everyone's approaches was:

  • Curate your kids' media use; screen books, movies, etc ahead of time if you can; get recommendations from trusted sources; use services such as VidAngel to filter movies.
  • No phones until absolutely necessary, like when kids learn to drive and need to be able to call for help if they get stuck somewhere.
  • Use media together. Then you can see what's in it, and discuss everything with your kids.
  • Steep your children in real, good, beautiful things (see above) so the temptations of the attention economy aren't as appealing. Many of the Catholic moms would probably agree with this article.

Personally, we've been pretty limited in the kinds of media our kids use, especially as pertains to videos, movies, and TV. We don't have a TV and the kids don't watch any shows (I didn't either, when I was a kid, and it seemed to work well). The videos we do watch tend to be educational: bushcraft videos of dudes building cabins in the woods; orchestra playing symphonies; documentaries about the ocean; chainsaws cutting wood; stuff that shows them how the world works. We listen to audiobooks sometimes.

We play games, too, but nearly always as a joint activity. Randy enjoys video games, so the kids get to watch him play certain games sometimes (such as Age of Empires). We have a few computer games (old ones that we used to play as kids—such as the Logical Journey of the Zoombinis). And we have a few curated tablet games; I should probably find more, since there actually are some good ones out there.

Since our kids are still young, we haven't had to deal with phones, or social media, or seeing movies at a friend's house. We haven't had to deal with access to the internet, though one family we know gives their kids very restricted access to certain websites, and no access to anything else. It's an interesting dilemma—technology of any kind has great potential for learning and social connection. It also has risks and downsides.

Navigating how to raise children is a fascinating project.

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We're Jacqueline and Randy, a blogging duo with backgrounds in tech, robots, art, and writing, now raising our family in northern Idaho.

Our goal is to encourage deliberate choices, individual responsibility, and lifelong curiosity by sharing stories about our adventures in living, loving, and learning.

Learn more about us.



Start here

Curious about our life and journey? Here are some good places to start reading:

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