Wake the Dead with Air Guitars: Adventures in Training 3-Year Old’s in Virtue

By Nathan Carr

Vigen Guroian, in his Tending the Heart of Virtue, quotes Flannery O’Connor as having said the following: “a story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way….You tell a story because a statement would be inadequate.” You are inviting the eye-roll in your three-year old classroom if you simply said, “Olive Kate, you are resisting my role as King in this family by not eating your spinach-laced noodle! To your room, young princess!!” Or, “Olive Kate, evil is entrapped by its own snares, so resist it!” If her moral imagination exists at all, it is likely the size of a peanut, and my job is to enlarge it to the size of an ocean. We won’t get there with propositions that invite her acceptance when her world is filled with dolls, magic umbrellas, potions made with grass clippings and Oklahoma red dirt, and old quilts that double as palace roofs. We might get there with Cannetella.

Vigen goes on:

“Mere instruction in morality is not sufficient to nurture the virtues (obviously I’m assuming some things here about what your school exists to teach). It might even backfire, especially when the presentation is heavily exhortative and the pupil’s will is coerced. Instead, a compelling vision of the goodness of Goodness itself needs to be presented in a way that is attractive and stirs the imagination. A good moral education addresses both the cognitive AND affective dimensions of human nature. Stories are an irreplaceable medium for this kind of moral education—that is, the education of character. The Greek word for character literally means impression.”

Educating three-year old’s is primarily about the moral imagination, and to get there we must wake the dead. Let me give you an example.

A few summers ago, I transitioned our family from readings of red-letter saints on feast days to “street saints.” I had purchased a book by the same name, written by the wonderful Barbara Elliot, in which she outlined the lives of current heroes in the urban core of American cities doing remarkable work to renew dangerous neighborhoods for the sake of the Kingdom of Christ. One story of a Houston hero who had converted an abandoned K-Mart into a local hub of ministries including a church, a rehab clinic for those experiencing the worst kinds of withdrawal, job training, a school, etc. had made a deep impression upon my kids. I didn’t know it at the time of reading it—they seemed to respond to it like any other story, but the next day, I climbed the stairway upstairs to investigate the unusual silence of some two hours. Usually, this meant that a bit of funny business was taking place; either they were painting the walls with pastels or dumping Legos into an air-conditioning vent to see how many would fit. But that’s not what I found. Laid out on the ground was a felt rug that had streets—something usually used for hot-wheels races. In the middle of it was a series of Lincoln-log homes and a large building made of antique blocks. Inside the building they had built Lego cots where lay Lego storm troopers and pirates going through the pangs of withdrawal, while Lego hobbits and Chewbacca held their hands as they lay sweating and vomiting. There was a grocery and a school as well. Thank you Vigen, and thank you Barbara Elliot.

When engaging the youngest and greatest among us, create a carnival of liberty.  Here’s a short list of ideas:

  1. Play with a view to greatness. Great men and women lead exaggerated, epoch-making lives dismissive of the prevailing “balanced” or “holistic” lifestyles around them. To these few do we owe the great shifts in cultural tide. They hold to a bedrock of moral principles, having come to terms with their own conscience. They have courage: “fair is their prize and great their hope.” As a friend and fellow Head of School has written, “A classical curriculum (and others should do the same) does not propose that a student merely ‘shake hands’ and develop a passing acquaintance with the greatest thinkers, the greatest artists, saints, and prophets, but rather that he becomes so wholly habituated to their thoughts and words, their prayers and psalms, their masterpieces of art and music, that he himself becomes like those great people.”
  2. Get a Land of Nod catalog and buy a few tent castles, sand tables, and dress-up clothes.
  3. Get a copy of a simple catechism and teach them the first ten Q & A’s while they work puzzles. Then spend the rest of the year asking them different kinds of questions that will require those same ten answers to begin building universal ideas into their minds.
  4. Buy a world-class library for the classroom that ranges from Dr. Seuss to Stories of the Saints.
  5. Hire brilliant teachers who are well-read, say their prayers, know Bible stories you’ve never heard of, and know how to play hard.
  6. Only have the three-year olds on campus about twice a week. They belong at home.
  7. Go outside as much as possible.
  8. Teach them formal prayer times in which they can participate. They can say the Lord’s Prayer beautifully and they can sing the Doxology.
  9. Let them dance in music class.



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