Kids Want What We Teach Them to Want
“Do your kids ever complain about going to church every week?” my friend asks.
She and her husband were raised in small countryside churches in the south of France, and while they were never zealous for the faith, they dutifully attended mass on Christmas and Easter until recent years. My friends accept the seeming inevitability of spiritual lapse. Sunday worship, hardly exhilarating in its own right, stands to compete with birthday parties, competitive sports, and the luxury of sleeping late.
Remarkably, our five children don’t complain. This isn’t to say that our 13-year-old son doesn’t occasionally look bored during the sermon. It isn’t to deny that our twin eight-year-old boys wiggle distractedly during prayer, asking in loud whispers, “When is this going to be over?” On any given Sunday, our children may be more or less engaged in the 90-minute liturgy that moves us from a call to worship to a final benediction, but they do come willingly.
Everyone is a worshiper, and every habit is a liturgy. This is the central premise of James K. A. Smith’s research in the last several years, whose work David Brooks highlighted in his recent New York Times column, “Putting Grit in Its Place.” Brooks laments that our educational system, with its emphasis on grade-point average, forges “grit”—the mindless perseverance for extrinsic reward. But grit can only get us so far. Citing Smith’s research, Brooks reminds readers that what really motivates human beings is desire. Our lives are oriented by our vision of the good life.
Smith’s research has been important not only for my work as a writer, but also as a parent. He argues against the Enlightenment idea that “thinking” is most fundamental to human personhood, illustrating instead that the human being is primarily a desiring animal. In other words, human beings do not act according to their deepest held beliefs; instead, they do (and are) what they love. The formation of longing is the business of parents and educators, pastors and politicians. We can’t simply teach our children, our congregation, or our citizenry to know the right thing or to act in right ways. We must help them to love right things.
The trick is that the only way to cultivate right desires is to practice our way into them. This isn’t a new idea, even if behavioral and sociological research seems newly interested in the power of habit. Ancient wisdom characterized virtue as the acquisition of good habits. To develop the character of courage, self-restraint, cool judgment, and determination, one needed an everyday training regimen that routinized “good” behavior and eventually educated the impulse—or, as we might say, formed the right desires. To become a kind person, for example, was to choose kindness a thousand times, against the will, enabling one to choose it willingly on the thousandth-and-first time.
To assert that desire is the fundamental human mechanism—and habit the “hinge of desire,” as Smith writes—can cause us to take inventory of our lives in new ways. As parents, for example, we are helped to examine our lives through the realm of liturgy. What do our family habits say about the things we love? Do we spend our money, time, and energy in ways congruent with our values? Or, is there an unintended education of longing in our busyness, our over-consumption, and our digital addictions? Moreover, what do our personal habits reveal to our children about the things we cherish?
Our children have been asked to skip birthday parties and forgo sports leagues to keep church attendance as a family priority. We have no illusion that our faith will inevitably become theirs; nevertheless, we have hoped to maintain a habit that cultivates the desires that we as parents deem important—love for God and love for neighbor. At the very least, weekly worship is one concrete way of saying that there is more to being human than getting into the right college, that there is more to being happy that keeping busy. Clarinet lessons, math tutoring, basketball practice, and dinner from the drive-thru cannot be our only family habits. Because everyone is a worshiper, and every habit a liturgy.