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A hazy path through the woods.

On Educating Children to be Brave and Love the Truth


Italian writer Natalia Ginzburg proposes a radically different education, focused on the great virtues and not the day-to-day.

As far as the education of children is concerned I think they should be taught not the little virtues but the great ones. Not thrift but generosity and an indifference to money; not caution but courage and a contempt for danger; nor shrewdness but frankness and a love of truth; not tact but love for one’s neighbour and self-denial; not a desire for success but a desire to be and to know.

That’s how Italian writer Natalia Ginzburg begins her essay “The Little Virtues,” whose magic lies in the complete simplicity of her prose. She wrote this text after losing her husband and raising three children by herself. In it she shares a series of maxims that propose going against the modern, conventional trends of educating children.

Unlike the list of 10 rules to raise a child written by Susan Sontag, which deals with everyday life and family routine, Ginzburg’s ecumenical topics encompass the rest. Hers is a modest posture, but is also a large-scale portrait of modern Western ideology, and of what we have considered to be the most important, to a large extent due to how we were raised by our parents; out of “an instinctive fear for life,” she says. While we all acknowledge and even aspire to the great virtues mentioned above, to her it seems we forget to convey them to our children because “we nourish the hope that they will spontaneously appear in their consciousness some day in the future, we think of them as being part of our instinctive nature, while the others, the little virtues, seem to be the result of reflection and calculation and so we think that they absolutely must be taught.”

She says, however, that humans can find the small virtues in their surroundings and “drink them in from the air,” because the little virtues are "The Journey", Elizabeth Shippen Green (1903), illustration for poems by Josephine Preston Peabodyquite common and widespread. By “small virtues,” Ginzburg refers to those defensive instincts that we develop to be more “secure” in life, such as shrewdness, tact and thrift. She makes special emphasis on our relation with money ––In teaching kids that “it is bad that they feel lonely without the company of money,” and to be moderate with themselves and generous with others, which translates into a fair relationship with money, to be free from it.

Illustration of a child staring out the window.

It isn’t that small virtues are, by themselves, contemptible, but that their value is of a complementary order, not substantial. They cannot exist without others, or by themselves, and by themselves they are a poor nourishment for human nature.

But one cannot breathe in the great virtues from the surrounding air, and they should be the basis of our relationship with our children. Besides, the great can also contain the little, but by the laws of nature there is no way that the little can contain the great.

Thus, Ginzburg argues on behalf of conveying love for the truth, generosity and courage, and that the rest of one’s upbringing, focused on the specific and mundane, will come on its own. For this to happen, we must first break the many educational premises our parents gave to us, because we are no longer the same, because the world isn’t the same than when they were young, and because it will continue to change. The great virtues are the only ones that by nature will never lose importance.

It is no use our trying to remember and imitate the way our parents acted with us. The time of our youth and childhood was not one of little virtues; it was a time of strong and sonorous words that little by little lost all their substance.

Strong in their principles, which they believed to be indestructible, they reigned over us with absolute power. It is necessary that in this dialogue we show ourselves for what we are, imperfect, in the hope that our children will not resemble us but be stronger and better than us.

First and foremost, education is a climate. Rilke wrote: “It is not inertia alone that is responsible for human relationships repeating themselves from case to case, indescribably monotonous and unrenewed: it is shyness before any sort of new, unforeseeable experience.” Ginzburg’s essay could be a little uncomfortable for many, precisely because she promotes a renewal of the greatest values and the hardest to uphold ––those which the parents must first exercise in order to bestow. She recommends keeping a distance from children, trusting they will find the small virtues for themselves once they have valued and adopted the big ones. Her “educational climate” invites us to recover that substance that has become diluted in the world and in so many human relations.

Ginzburg is one of those rare writers who, like Tarkovsky, values boredom and silence as fundamental tools for creativity. And for her there is only one thing a parent can fruitfully foster in children, and which represents true health and wealth: a vocation. “A vocation, an ardent and exclusive passion for something in which there is no prospect of money, the consciousness of being able to do something better than others, and being able to love this thing more than anything else,” is the most important thing. That is the only way, she thinks, of not being conditioned by money, of being free from it and not feeling ashamed or proud about it.

What chance do we have of awakening and stimulating in our children the birth and development of a vocation? We do not have much; however there is one way open to us. The birth and development of a vocation needs space, space and silence, the free silence of space. Our relationship with our children should be a living exchange of thoughts and feelings, but it should also include deep areas of silence: it should be an intimate relationship but it must not violently intrude on their privacy; it should be a just balance between silence and words.

This is perhaps the one real chance we have of giving them some kind of help in their search for a vocation – to have a vocation ourselves, to know it, to love it and serve it passionately; because love of life begets a love of life.

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