My 6-year-old son doesn’t like soccer, and it’s raised a surprisingly complex parenting dilemma. Should we sign up for the next session anyway, encouraging him to persevere and build mettle? Or should we let him quit and find his niche elsewhere? Perhaps gymnastics might be his thing. Or chess. I surveyed other parents for advice.
One place I was surprised to find help was in David Brooks’s The Road to Character (Random House, 2015) [interview]. Brooks is an op-ed columnist for The New York Times, and his book examines what it takes to be a person who pursues “eulogy virtues” rather than “resumé virtues.” In his search to be a man of character, Brooks observes how the moral pendulum has swung over the past 100 years from a climate focused on overcoming inner weakness through self-mastery to a modern romanticism that celebrates discovering inner goodness through self-expression.
To put it in more practical terms: Do I keep my kid in soccer to help him master his weaknesses, or let him keep looking and find the sport he loves? As it turns out, extracurricular activities can be ethically complex.
I expected The Road to Character to be all the things that characterize Brooks’s writing: well-researched, well-written, built around a good story. I expected to be stimulated and interested. What I didn’t expect was deep, spiritual encouragement, particularly for my daily parenthood battles. In a world where our choices as parents (especially as Christian parents) are constantly questioned, The Road to Character implies that gospel parenting is fundamentally on the right track.
Combing through the biographies of several men and women of character, Brooks tells the stories of certain people and the circumstances that shaped them. Parents and suffering rank as the two biggest shaping tools in the lives of greats like Augustine, Frances Perkins, Dorothy Day, and Dwight Eisenhower, each reflecting something excellent about the moral climate in which they lived.
However, a world weary of wars in the 1940s saw the pendulum begin to swing away from a focus on taming our innate capacity for evil and toward an affirmation of our innate goodness: We are creative, we are loved, we have unique gifts and talents. Brooks concludes, though, that the pendulum has swung too far; we now live in an age when we’ve lost our moral vocabulary, and with it, the tools to pursue goodness and purpose.
The Road to Character concludes by suggesting ways that modern Western culture might begin rebuilding its moral landscape. Brooks’s conclusions read remarkably like a catechism, replete with biblical language and imagery:
- We don’t live for happiness, but holiness.
- We are deeply flawed, with a perverse tendency to choose lower loves rather than higher ones: “We need a vocabulary of sin because life is a moral affair.”
- Though flawed, we’re splendidly endowed: “We are fearfully and wonderfully made.”
- Pride is our central vice, humility our greatest virtue.
- Character is etched over time as we confront our inner weaknesses.
- The things that lead us astray are short-term—lust, fear, vanity, gluttony. The things we call “character” endure over the long-term—courage, honesty, love. It’s about “long obedience in the same direction.”
- No one can tackle sin on his or her own: “Everybody needs redemptive assistance.”
- And, Brooks says, “We are all ultimately saved by grace.”
This is the path we each need to walk if we’re to cultivate a life of purpose and self-respect; and this too, he encourages parents, is the road along which we need to lead our kids. In an age when children are both praised and honed to an unprecedented degree, they need to know that they’re unconditionally loved by their parents, but also that they’re deeply flawed and must devote their lives to overcoming weaknesses.
In other words, what they need is the gospel. Brooks’s New York Times bestseller echoes what the Book of Ages has said all along: We need the gospel to tell us of God’s unfailing, unrelenting love. And we need the gospel to speak to us in our sin with the upward call of Christ Jesus.
Back to Soccer
When I first read Elizabeth Prentiss’s classic Stepping Heavenward, I recall a scene in which the mother called in her 16-year-old daughter to tell her of the “great deal of pain” caused by her “self-will and ill-temper and conceit.” The girl collapsed in tears, feeling unlovely and wretched already; she ran crying from the room. The daughter obviously needed encouragement, not upbraiding.
Now a mother myself—and recognizing my responses have been so deeply shaped by the millennial milieu—I long for both stern rebuke and gracious kindness in my maternal toolkit. My kids need to hear of my unconditional love, and also to hear me address their sin with directness.
The road to character matters more than the road to success, even if it’s the road less traveled. What a blessed relief to discover we don’t need to swing along the moral pendulum of parenting, but can instead follow the plumb line of God’s Word.
This brings me back to the soccer dilemma. For now, I think we’ll re-enroll him. A novice can’t find his or her niche. Honed skills, with their accompanying freedom and beauty, come with hours of sweat and discipline. Niches aren’t discovered so much as carved. So we’ll sign him up again, and let him carve his groove rather than hope he’ll find it.
And if he complains, maybe I’ll resort to that line from parents older and wiser than me: “Stick with it, son. It builds character.”