Tuesday, March 07, 2023

The Virtues

There was a tree on the playground with an angled trunk. Every now and then, the kids would challenge themselves by climbing up it. There are no branches on this trunk, no reliable hand-holds, so they never made it very far before reaching the limit of their courage. Some of them would stop themselves only inches off the ground, essentially standing on an exposed root. Yet all of them, almost without exception, would call out, "Look at me!" in celebration of their act of courage. 

Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and the rest of the founding philosophers of Western culture were deeply concerned with "the virtues," which they generally spoke of as wisdom, justice, courage, and temperance. There were other proposed virtues, but these are the ones that made everyone's list. Today, we are more likely to talk of beliefs, morals, or even values, but they aren't exactly the same thing, at least not as the ancients thought of them; those have to do with our inner state. They may inform our behavior, but ultimately they are ideals that reside within us. Virtues, on the other hand, are concerned with action.

A virtuous person could be identified by their deeds. And of all the virtues, Aristotle placed the crown on the virtue of courage because, he reasoned, it took courage to engage in the world with wisdom, justice, and temperance. Without courage, the rest of it was moot.

These concepts are familiar to us, of course. We still, I hope, aspire to wisdom (however we define it) and fight for justice (however we perceive it). I tend to think of temperance as an old-timely concept akin to prudish abstinence, but the ideal it embodied for the ancients is what we today think of today as balance. 

I've been wondering lately about this idea of courage as king as it applies to our work with young children. Like temperance, courage seems to exist on a continuum and we must learn to find our balance. Too little courage is called cowardice, and that's not a good thing, while too much tends to show up in the world as foolhardiness, also not so good. Courage may guarantee the other virtues, but wisdom, justice, and temperance must be there to ensure against rashness or exerting bravery in pursuit of something unwise or unjust.

As the children take their turns climbing the tree trunk, I see them playing with justice in action, as one child at a time makes their effort while the others wait. Likewise I see the children contemplating the right thing to do (wisdom) in the way they consider where to place their hands and feet. And even the children who begin their quest in silliness and giggles, temper themselves as they approach their limits.

And courage is what makes it all happen.

Courage is the virtue that allows us to act in the face of doubt and fear. And there is always doubt and fear. Even the child who only made it as far as the exposed root, was engaged in a courageous act. Modern neuroscience and psychology find that these acts of courage, no matter how small they appear to the outside world, beget future, greater acts of courage. In other words, and perhaps paradoxically, we must teach ourselves to be courageous by being courageous. 

This goes for wisdom, justice, and temperance as well. Wisdom is often built upon a foundation of failures. An understanding of justice results from exposure to injustice. And temperance cannot be understood without experience with both excess and dearth. We tend to try to instill our beliefs, morals, and values in our children through lectures and role modeling, but virtues, those aspects of character that have to do with acting in the world, as far as I can tell, are always self-taught. And that process requires courage, first in small doses, but then larger and larger ones because courage begets greater courage.

Those of us in the play-based world have become accustomed to detailing the learning that emerges from childhood play, citing the math, literacy, and science learning that takes place. The children are stretching themselves as they play, gaining more and more understanding of these school-ish concepts. At the same time, however, and more importantly, the act of play, especially in the community of others, is the process by which we learn to act virtuously in the world. 

I think we all know that the world needs as many virtuous people as it can get. It makes me wonder if play could be considered among the virtues of the ancients, maybe even as the king.


It takes a village to raise a child. As preschool educators, we don't just educate children, but their families as well. For the past 20 years, I've been working in a place that puts the tri-cornered relationship of child-parent-educator at the center, and over that time I've learned a great deal about how to work with families to create the kind of village every child needs and deserves. I'm proud to announce that I've assembled what I've learned into a 6-part e-course called Partnering With Parents in which I share my best thinking on how educators can and should make allies of the parents of the children we teach. (Click this link to register and to learn more.) Discounts are available for groups. The one and only 2023 cohort just started on Thursday, so catching up will be easy. Please join us!

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