Modesty of words and actions in family life

I have begun writing about the great social virtue of modesty, which requires a proper understanding of who a person is and how he stands in relationship with others, so as to present himself to others in accordance with that right understanding.

Last week, I wrote about how our identity is in part a given (e.g. a son or daughter of determinate parents, born in a particular time and place, and also a baptized child of God) and in part a matter of the character that has been shaped by our own choices and actions. The development of character, as a matter of fact, has a great deal to do with how we recognize and accept and live from the givens of our identity.

In any case, today I want to get a little more practical and enter into some of the specifics of modesty of words and actions. I will leave the controversial topic of modesty in dress for a later essay.

Since modesty has to do with a person’s identity and relationship with others it is inseparable from the different social orders in which the person lives. Actually we have already seen that a person’s identity is rooted in two fundamental social orders, the order of the family in which he entered the world and the Church in which he was baptized.

Let me begin with a few remarks about modesty of words and actions in the family. Here it is above all a manner of how parents train their children.

A good starting place are those four famous words and phrases that parents need to teach their children, “Please”, “Thank you”, “I am sorry”, and “I forgive you”. Parents do not wait until their children learn these sentiments before teaching the words, but inculcate the sentiments and teach the proper circumstances and occasions precisely by teaching the words.

These words actually teach us a lot about who we are and how we are to relate to others.

The first pair (“Please” and “Thank you”) tells us that because the other person shares the same fundamental personal autonomy as I do, he does not altogether, ‘owe’ anything to me. When someone does something for me, even when there is a moral or legal obligation behind it, there is also always an element of personal freedom, even in obeying the law. Thus, rather than feeling ‘entitled’ our default attitude should be to recognize the favor by our expression of gratitude and rather than commanding recognize the autonomy by asking the favor.

The second pair (“I am sorry” and “I forgive you”) reminds us that even when we have the best of intentions we make mistakes so that human social life really demands the both the humility to acknowledge our mistakes (and sins) and the generous readiness to forgive those we love.

We can move beyond these fundamental words and expressions to another of the fundamentals, the polite greeting. So often we begin speaking to someone without first recognizing and greeting the person. When we learn to start with the greeting, the simple “good morning” or “good evening”, in a very simple way we communicate the message, “I acknowledge and value your existence, apart from anything I expect to get from you.”

From there we can move to listening and paying attention to the other family members, not to mention care in our movements so as not to assume that others should just get out of my way and care about the noise we make so as not to disturb others.

In the family the children should learn both their own intrinsic worth and the worth of others. They should learn when to speak, when to be silent; what sort of information to share and with whom and what to keep to themselves.

Here we need to take note of a great contemporary impediment to the social order of the family: electronic devices. Don’t let electronic devices take priority over personal interaction.

There is something else implied in all this: a family is not an equal society; children are not equal to their parents and younger siblings are not equal to older siblings. While the younger should be the object of special care and attention, the purpose of that care and attention is to help them grow and mature. That means finally that children should adapt to adult life, not the other way around.

Of course in family life there should be much playing, laughing, joking together, as well as allowing each other time and space for themselves. Yet, the basic rules of respect that I have mentioned need to moderate all the other interactions.

In this way the children learn little by little that there is a time and place for everything; they also learn their own place in the family and learning their own place in the family begin to learn their place in the world. Children learn how to move, to act, and to speak in a way that recognizes and respects others, rather than supposing that they are the center of the world. Of course, that all presupposes that the parents themselves are providing the children with a good example.

When children are trained well in the home, they more readily recognize the different social situations outside the home and how to adapt to each situation in appropriate ways, respecting others and not making an excessive display of themselves. (Next week: modesty of words and actions in the life of the Church)

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Fr. Joseph Levine graduated from Thomas Aquinas College and after a long journey was ordained to the priesthood for the Diocese of Baker, Oregon. He currently serves as pastor of St. Peter Catholic Church in The Dalles on the Columbia River.