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Principles from Plutarch (10) – Instilling Habits of Faithfulness in our Children

In my last message I wrote about how instilling the right mindset in our children can help them to face hardship. In this message I am going to write about how instilling habits of faithfulness in our children will help them to grow in strength and maturity.

In his “Life of Aemilius Paulus” Plutarch wrote, “Those who are careless in trifles give a precedent for remissness in important duties.”

Have your kids ever asked (or have you yourself ever thought) “Why do I have to make my bed? I am just going to mess it up again tonight when I go to sleep, what is the point of making it?” There are a number of good reasons for making a bed—e.g. it shows care for the things you own, it creates an environment of order—but the most important may be that it builds into our character a habit of discipline, a habit of daily faithfulness in small tasks. Being faithful in small tasks prepares us to be faithful in larger tasks, while being unfaithful in small tasks prepares us to be unfaithful in large tasks. This is a fundamental truth that we have largely forgotten.

For example, in how many hero movies does a character move from being a normal or below average individual to absolute excellence? In the latest Star Wars trilogy Rey, a young Jedi, is able to surpass the collective knowledge of the Jedi in a matter of a few months of training. Likewise, in the boxing movie Creed the titled character is able to transform himself from an average boxer to the best in the world in one single training montage. This might make for an entertaining film, but it leaves our children with the impression that they can achieve excellence easily. They need not work hard over time, they need not be faithful, they can simply decide to do something great and be prepared in a short amount of time to do it. This, again, may make for an interesting film, but it is downright false.

The primary key to success in just about everything is not natural ability or circumstances, but faithfulness. For example, the key to a healthy and lasting marriage is not marrying the “right one”, but honoring the vow you made before God to stick with your spouse through good and bad times alike. The key to success in the workplace is not one’s IQ, but one’s ability to show up and do one’s best, day in and day out.

This isn’t just my opinion, there is solid evidence to back up both of these claims. A study was done among spouses that rated their happiness in their marriage a 1 out of 10 (which was the worst possible rating). Some of them divorced and some stayed married. The researches followed up with all of them ten years later. Those that stayed married reported happiness levels of 7, 8, or 9 while those that had divorced and remarried reported low levels of happiness.

Similarly, an IQ test was done among children. After the initial test the testers offered candy to the children if they could get a higher score. Some students were already doing their best and could not improve their scores. Other students, though, raised their scores by 5 to 10 points. This is supposed to be impossible on an IQ test! But these children were able to do better because they were not initially trying their best. After the test, these kids were followed as teenagers and adults and the key predictor of their future success was not their score, but rather whether or not they had done their best without promise of reward. Those that did their best without a reward fared better in life, while those that needed external motivation did worse, even if they had a higher level of natural ability.

I am sure all of us know someone from our youth that was bursting with creativity, intelligence, and ability who nonetheless lives a life of marked failure because they failed to be faithful. For whatever reason they could not or would not stick with small tasks—their disorganized room led to disorganized notes which led to a disorganized education, or they refused to take an entry level position because they thought it beneath them. These men and women should be a warning for our children. While it is gratifying to see our children succeed—to get high grades or high test scores, to win big games, to be recognized and receive awards—unless these successes are grounded in habitual faithfulness, they will ultimately do little for our children.

Plutarch said of Marius, the famed Roman general, “He never declined the greatest difficulties, nor disdained undertaking the least of them.” If we want our children to be equipped and prepared to undertake the greatest and most difficult tasks we must teach them to do the least of them well and to do them faithfully.