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Beyond Nice: Raising Virtuous Kids

  • Paul Coughlin Author, No More Jellyfish, Chickens, or Wimps
  • 2008 28 Mar
Beyond Nice: Raising Virtuous Kids
March 28, 2008

In my previous article, I discussed how misunderstanding and ignorance have too often led Christian parents to raise fearful, unassertive children.  Now we reflect on how we came to that point.

Marital disintegration often creates fragile, timid, and wary children.  If they ever had it at all, the parental strength they once relied upon to help them face their inner insecurities and outer-world concerns becomes disrupted and usually dismantled.  Sometimes their fragility is concealed behind a fake toughness; what’s not hidden is a closed spirit that requires special healing to reopen.

Pop star Kelly Clarkson, who experienced this kind of home-life distress, wrote a dark and accusatory song that resonates in the hearts of many young adults who find themselves in a similar place.  Her “Because of You” video shows a husband and wife at each other’s throats while a little girl watches.  After verbal brawls, depression, breakage, and tears, the father moves out.

Clarkson is that brokenhearted little girl.  The song’s poignant and painful chorus says that because of her parents’ choices, she stays on the safe side of life, has a hard time trusting herself and others, and lives in constant fear.  In an online interview she admitted it was hard for her family to watch the video, but she says “Because of You” is more than a protest.  “The song is about breaking that cycle [of domestic violence and divorce] and not carrying it on to the next generation.  Kids are like sponges, and they imitate what they see.  And sometimes that’s not fair because what we see is not good for us.”

It’s a phenomenal tragedy that divorce rates in the church aren’t markedly different from those in the general culture.  At the same time, in recognizing the damaging effects of divorce and in seeking to stem its prevalence, the Christian community is among the few brave entities to confront the nefarious effects of divorce upon individuals and societies.

We need to learn how to start showing courage in other ways as well.  Christian culture is prone toward “bubble living,” isolating (or thinking we’re isolating) ourselves from danger when sometimes what we’re really doing is trying to immunize against living real life.

We’re good at focusing on the negative: Jesus did say we’re not to be of the world.  Yet we somehow manage to forget the positive: we also are to be in it (see John 17).  Failure to recognize and apply this—indeed, many Christians seek to live out the opposite—contributes to the crisis of fragile and ill-prepared children.  If they’re sealed in a biosphere for eighteen years, sure, they may stay “uninfected”…until they’re let out.  Then, far from being immunized or inoculated, they’re prone to catch almost anything.  

I’m still amazed by what I saw kids from Christian homes do when they got to college, away from their highly sheltered lives. They had professed to follow the Lord and receive His whole council, and they had lived such highly prescribed lives, but if their parents only knew half their exploits, they might, like Job, tear their clothing and sit in ashes.  “Every fall,” observes John Portmann, professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia, “parents drop off their well-groomed freshmen, and within two or three days many have consumed a dangerous amount of alcohol and placed themselves in harm’s way.  These kids have been controlled for so long, they just go crazy.”

By and large, we’re not debilitating our kids on purpose. Over the years I’ve slogged through a ton of negativity, and I’m insistent that guilt is not an acceptable synonym for parenthood.  Nonetheless, often with the best of intentions, Christian and non-Christian parents alike are raising children who are passive, pleasant, and malleable rather than innovative, proactive, and bold.  These “nice” children prevalently struggle with fear, anxiety, loneliness, and, later in life, relational instability and divorce.  Our goal should be to create confident and truly virtuous kids who are capable of doing more than their part in obtaining an abundant life.  These children become adults who lend their strength to others and help them obtain happiness as well.

I have coached soccer for both genders, mostly boys, for more than a decade.  Some are home-schooled, most go to public school, and some come from private schools.  The kids from religious homes are mostly Christian, some Jewish, or a mixture of religious expressions and beliefs.  Some don’t go to a house of worship at all.

The only consistent difference I’ve noticed is that the kids who come from religious homes might swear less.  If my kid doesn’t curse, we say to ourselves, I’m doing well.  In that one sense, this does make them different, but in the larger picture of life, it’s a pathetic difference.  Talk about straining at gnats and swallowing entire camels!  (See Matthew 23:24.)

Jesus used this metaphor to describe errors the religious leaders of His day were perpetrating.  They paid too much attention to minor matters and in the process ignored “weightier” matters like “justice, mercy, and good faith.”  I sometimes do the same thing as a parent, and I’m not proud of the reason: I strain at gnats because in myriad ways it’s easier than teaching and living out for my kids a Christlike example of what matters most.

Swearing is the gnat some schools strain as well.  My old high school, for example, held a summit among teachers and staff and decided that in the entire galaxy encapsulating tumultuous youth—which includes bullying so pervasive that an estimated 160,000 U.S. kids each day skip school—curtailing swearing was the most important crackdown they could undertake.

I’m not advocating swearing, especially taking the Lord’s name in vain.  But instead of a primary emphasis on rearing children known for not swearing as much as their peers, what about producing children known for their love of justice?  Children who, with this love, are trained in the shrewd ways of creating righteousness and peace?  What about rearing warriors of light, the kind of kids with fortitude and perseverance to withstand the wicked peer pressure that pounds them and others?  Give kids this kind of upbringing, and issues like swearing may well just take care of themselves.  After all, Jesus said it’s what comes out of us that defines us and can defile us; a heart that produces blessedness and light cannot continue to produce profanity and darkness (Mark 7:14-23; Luke 6:44-46).

Here’s another difference I’ve seen as a coach, and it’s heartbreaking.  Religious kids are far more inhibited than their secular peers, and in the wrong way.  They’re less likely to put up a healthy boundary against another kid.  They’re also less likely to defend another person, and most of them have been drilled from toddlerhood that all conflict is wrong.

Conflict-avoidance disguised as “patience” or “gentleness” is a false front; the vice of cowardice is frequently disguised behind a “forbearing spirit” and a false understanding of gentleness.  A gentle person uses the appropriate amount of force and power.  When gentleness needs to take a stance, it does, and it does so with grace.  But gentleness is always truthful, as well; niceness favors pleasantry and manners over truth.  Niceness is the drowning of force (sometimes a good thing), but it can also be the refusal to honor what’s right, the unwillingness to stand tall for any and all reasons.

The understanding that a gentle man still wields force is an eye-opening revelation to many men at my conferences, a revelation that often propels them into more godly living.  Learning to use appropriate force in any given situation takes time and a cultivation of virtue.  Trace the origin of the word virtue and you’ll see that one of its meanings is “force”:  Virtue brings whatever energy and force is needful to a situation.

The belief that nice equals good is among the most amazing deceptions of our time, and it’s resulted in profound spiritual and relational degeneration as we’ve continued to atrophy behind the façade.

Next time we’ll talk about the terrible impact of cowardice and the terrific importance of courage.

Paul Coughlin is the founder of Coughlin Ministries, which helps people discover the more rugged, protective, substantial and more vibrant side of the Christian faith, enabling people throughout the world to live a more powerful faith and express a more substantial love toward God and others.

He is a member of the Official Speakers Resource List through Focus on the Family, is a regular writer for Focus on the Family, as well as He has been interviewed by Good Morning America, Nightline, Focus on the Family, 700 Club, Today’s Christian Woman, Newsweek and other major media outlets. Paul’s two-part radio interview with Dr. James Dobson was rated among the most popular shows for 2007. He is the best-selling author of numerous books, including No More Christian Nice GuyNo More Jellyfish, Chickens or Wimps, and Married But Not Engaged with his wife Sandy. Paul is the Founder of The Protectors: The Faith-Based Answer to Adolescent Bullying (

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