A Reflection on Developing Virtues in Teens

One thing that separates religious education from other disciplines is that religion teachers and catechists go beyond teaching about the faith to teach students how to have faith.  This is especially the case with the Christian moral life.  With Christ as our model, teachers show students how to be moral persons.  They do this by teaching virtue.
A virtue is defined by the Catechism of the Catholic Church as “an habitual and firm disposition to do the good” (CCC, 1803).  The human virtues are “firm attitudes, stable dispositions, habitual perfections of intellect and will that govern our actions, order our passions, and guide our conduct according to reason and faith” (CCC, 1804).  The cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance are the “pivotal” moral/human virtues that can be acquired by human effort.
But how do we teach teens to acquire these virtues? Developing Virtues in Students
Think for a moment about your alarm clock.  How many times do you hit snooze button in the mornings?  How often do you sleep in?  What causes you to sleep in?  When is it the hardest to wake up?  Recently, I’ve had some difficulty getting out of bed on time.  Years ago, I was in the habit of getting up with the first sound of my alarm clock.  These days I set two alarms on my cell phone and hit snooze for both of them for 20-30 minutes.  I’ve developed some bad habits.  In order to help you teach kids virtue, think of the bad habits you have developed and analyze the causes.
If you are like me, then ask yourself what it will take to change.  First is motivation.  Motivations may be categorized as:
·         Negative – Waking up for fear of being late for a meeting or missing a flight.
·         Positive – Some activity for that day is going to make me happy.
·         Selfless – The baby is crying.
What is keeping you from waking up?
·         Environment – Those covers are so warm and the bed is so comfortable.
·         People – Staying in bed with a spouse.
·         Self – But I’m so tired!
Implications for the Exercise
How, then, do we teach kids to develop virtues, good habits?  Help them recognize:
1)      The motivation to develop the virtue (i.e. not sleeping in)
2)      The obstacles to living the virtue:  environment, people, and self
3)      How to start practicing the virtue
We can be motivated by fear, rewards, or love.  Take chastity for example.  Most abstinence programs preach to young people that they should be afraid of premarital sex because they could get STDs or get pregnant. They rarely provide any positive motivation (i.e. how will abstinence make you happier?).  More importantly, they seldom suggest a selfless motivation: chastity for God and others.  If we are to teach chaste love, then we have to teach them that love is selfless, not a selfish fear of disease or pregnancy.
If you gave up sweets for lent, then it probably wasn’t easy standing next to the candy in the check-out line at the grocery store.  Often our environment can hinder our development of virtue.  Similarly, people can influence us in ways that limit our ability to develop a virtue.  Teens know this is called peer pressure.  Finally, we can really enjoy the bad habits we have developed so much so that it is painful for us to change.
Practice Makes Perfect
The only way to develop the human virtues is by practice.  Once the students have recognized a worthwhile motivation, they must decide to distance themselves from or change the environment and people that will be in the way of developing a virtue.  Next they must train themselves to change.  It won’t be easy at first, but with small steps and practice they will develop the right habits and these virtues will become second nature.  However, certain environments, people, and old addictions can easily take away from all the hard work.

Free eBook on Lesson Planning

Have you signed up to receive the free eBook, The Religion Teacher's Guide to Lesson Planning? Whether you are a veteran teacher or in your first year, this guide provides a step by step process to effective lesson planning and provides 250 suggestions for activities and teaching strategies.

About Jared Dees

Jared Dees is the creator of The Religion Teacher. He is the Content Marketing Manager at Ave Maria Press and the author of 31 Days to Becoming a Better Religious Educator, To Heal, Proclaim, and Teach, and Praying the Angelus.


  1. kkollwitz says:

    "How, then, do we teach kids to develop virtues, good habits?"

    This reminds me of something I tell my 6th Graders. IIRC, it comes from Socrates.

    "Socrates, what should we strive for?

    You should strive to be be virtuous.

    But how do we become virtuous?

    By doing what virtuous people do."

    I like this because we are a unity of body & soul. In this case we see that if our bodies acquire the habits of virtuous things our souls don't want to do, it will train our souls to be virtuous as well.