Humble Heroes: Teaching Children to Value Suffering

David said to the Philistine, ". . . I come against you in the name of the LORD Almighty, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied . . . All those gathered here will know that it is not by sword or spear that the LORD saves; for the battle is the LORD's, and he will give all of you into our hands" (1 Sam. 17:45, 47).

Kids need heroes just like we do. You've seen the way they gravitate toward celebrities from sports and TV. They absorb a lot of junk media that gives the false impression that heroism equals dominance, whether it's in music, fashion, warfare, or the pursuit of wealth. Sometimes the one who "wins" in our children's eyes is simply the one who gets the most media exposure. Made to seem larger-than-life, these false heroes strut and sin with wild abandon, addicted to fame and blind to the dead-end that awaits them. It's so empty it can be distressing to watch, and it's even worse to see children so enthralled.

But if we look at the Bible, each of our true and abiding heroes is remembered for a combination of humility, obedience, and a truly stunning faith in the power of God. In the Old Testament, think of Moses, Noah, Abraham, Judith, Daniel, David, and so on. In the New Testament, the Blessed Mother, St. Joseph, St. Peter, St. Paul, the Three Kings, and others. Every one of them is remembered for the blessings that followed a profound act of trust and their radical abandonment to the will of God. But how do we turn children's eyes from the endless media parade and help them to learn to see real heroism?

First, we have to understand that a heroic character is not built on soft choices, on compromising values and avoiding suffering at all costs, which is what our consumerist culture encourages in young people. Selfishness is a kind of slavery, weakening us and making us dependent on our pleasures. Children need to know, from an early age, that in order to live powerful lives, they have to befriend suffering and learn to forget about themselves. Real freedom comes through self-denial. Here are some age-appropriate behaviors that build the strong character of future heroes:

  1. Comforting a sibling or friend when they are hurt or upset.
  2. Standing up for a persecuted child at school.
  3. Participating in spiritual bouquets for those who are sick or suffering.
  4. Visiting elderly relatives and helping them write letters, or simply keeping them company.
  5. Helping with house and yard work at home without complaint.
  6. Learning to forgive others their faults and focus on reforming their own.
  7. Giving some of their allowance to the Church collection on Sunday.
  8. Participating in community service through the Church or local civic organizations (i.e., yard clean-ups for the elderly, canned food drives, serving food at a shelter, collecting tattered towels and linens for animal shelters).

But what about in our religious education classrooms?
Children often assume that their prayers are unimportant, and that heroism is the precinct of adults. I love doing a full-out dramatic reading of the story of David and Goliath for my religion students because it demonstrates the power of a child's faith to defeat an overwhelming enemy. Prayerfully read the whole story and see if you aren't struck by the humble certainty of David's faith. How ridiculous this small boy must have looked to the Philistine army as he approached to challenge the giant, Goliath. How his own brothers mocked him! And yet, he stepped forward to declare God the victor before the battle was even fought. Then he fired off a stone from his homemade slingshot and slew the terrifying enemy that had the entire Israelite army shaking in their boots. The Philistine army fled in terror at this sign of God's favor. Their courage renewed, God's people took up arms and pursued the enemy. Their victory was swift and sure.

Here are some ways to inspire children with a heroic faith:

  1. Pray for them and their families. Make sacrifices for them at least one day a week: fast from junk food, gossip, or procrastination; offer up your chores or exercise.
  2. Remind them of the value of suffering. Read the story of Christ's passion and explain that in His holy sacrifice Jesus endowed suffering with redemptive power. Help them offer up their sufferings for others and thereby engage them in helping to save souls.
  3. Point out the quiet heroism of those who care for the sick, the elderly, and the disabled. Ask them for examples in their own lives.
  4. Introduce them to the lives of biblical heroes and Catholic saints throughout the liturgical year. The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us: "By keeping the memorials of the saints . . . the Church on earth shows that she is connected with the liturgy of heaven" (1195). See here.
  5. Ask for the intercession of these heavenly allies and tell your students their stories of faith. Presented vividly, their lives are captivating and thrilling to children. They'll love you for sharing them. See here and here.
  6. Share your own faith walk with them. In brief, appropriate doses, there's nothing like the power of a personal witness. Listen to their responses and respect their experiences. The Holy Spirit works in marvelous and mysterious ways.
  7. Remember that you are the face of the Church to some of your students, since many are not taken to Mass on a regular basis. Teach them with great kindness and enthusiasm. While maintaining a calm and loving discipline, be affectionate in your attitude toward them, even if they seem disinterested. As a wonderful catechist said to me recently, "They often remember you and how you made them feel more than they remember the lesson."
  8. Remind them that our heroes are broken, like we are. This is a great topic to bring up with children of all ages, especially in preparation for First Reconciliation. With the notable exceptions of the Blessed Virgin and Jesus Christ, all of our heroes were/are sinners like us. And God still treasures us and uses us to accomplish great things! Consider offering the graces of your confessions for young people, as they are led to humbly seek God's will and discover the hero in themselves.
  9. Check out this beautiful article by Sarah Reinhard, about Our Lady's willingness to suffer in faithfulness to her Son.
  10. Order Barbara Falk's excellent CD: "Fostering Heroism in Your Children"

Above all, while you keep standards high and encourage children to face problems with a courageous attitude, remind them that it is in humble acknowledgement of our dependence on God that we find our true strength and an appreciation for the value of suffering.

But he said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ's sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong (2 Cor. 12:9-10).

God bless you, and a very happy Easter to you all!