By Patrick Fagan
Just as Spartan mothers told their sons to “Return with your shield or on it!,” so, too, great parents tutor their children in greatness, each child in his own way.
Public honors were the motivator for the great men of Greece, and to this day, we are used to drawing the best out of each other in sports: to win an Olympic gold is an honor that spurs athletes to ever-greater achievements. The great modern father teaches his son to strive in all areas of his life, not only in sports but also in his favorite subjects, his chosen field of work, in the arts, and in his areas of special gifts. These battles extend the boundaries of his son’s soul—ultimately in the service of others.
He teaches his son that in life you never coast. You’re either going uphill or sliding down. You cannot coast on an inclined plane. Some try by moving sideways, but gravity distorts that journey.
Great fathers, families, schools, and societies are aware of this “inclined plane” and make it clear that happiness comes from leaning into the hill. By adolescence, the well-tutored boy knows, deep in his bones, the nature of this internal battle … small but, at times, intense and, like the Spartans, ever-ongoing.
The father begins with his very young child by the way he plays with him. Taking delight in him, the father draws out excellence—in a way the son loves! It might be to throw the ball a bit further, or straighter, or faster. The son who delights in his father will push himself to that “little excellence” in order to see his father’s joy. A small honor for a small thing, but that is how the masculine “bond of doing” grows between father and son.
The great modern father teaches his son to strive in all areas of his life, not only in sports but also in his favorite subjects, his chosen field of work, in the arts, and in his areas of special gifts.
Though the time will come when being honored by his father alone is not sufficient, the father is prepared for this transition and teaches his son how to seek other men the son admires, men who will also draw the best out of him, and to whom he says: “I want to learn from you. What do I need to be permitted to do that?” On being told, the boy responds: “As soon as I am ready, I will be back for that honor!” Thus, the father has taught his son a strategic lesson: how to seek the one who can help expand his heart in his pursuit of excellence, and the father gets him to repeat this again and again during adolescence.
In our times, we need a civilization dedicated to excellence and can build it by seeking to be honored by those within our reach whom we hold in highest regard. Imagine a culture of such “honor seeking”: all seeking to be honored by those they admire and all bestowing honors on those who come to them. Such a civilization starts with fathers loving their toddlers enough to play ball when they are tired after a hard day’s work. Such are the magnanimous men who raise magnanimous sons.
Patrick Fagan, Ph.D., from Dublin, Ireland, is Director of MARRI at the Catholic University of America, and publisher of Faith and Family Findings. He has been a teacher, family therapist, and Deputy Assistant Secretary of Family and Community Policy at HHS for President George H. Bush, and a Senior Fellow at The Heritage Foundation and at The Family Research Council.