Column: Raising the bar forms virtuous leaders

Mary Juliana


Comparing the activities of 13 year olds today with their counterparts 100 years ago is startling when examined from the viewpoint of expectations.

Today, it’s not uncommon for teens to be let off the hook for even simple tasks, such as making their beds or cleaning their rooms. In the early 1900s, children as young as 5 would have fed the livestock, fetched water from the well and put oil in the lamps by the time many of today’s teenagers are just waking from sleep.

What’s the difference? Why the change in behavior? It’s not that young people have become inherently lazy, rather our society’s expectations have changed.

“Do not let anyone look down upon you because you are young but set an example for the believers in speech, in life, in love, in faith and in purity.” (1 Timothy 4:12) As adults, we have a responsibility to raise the expectations we have of our children, first in our own minds and then in the minds of our children. But how do we do this when our present culture, with an almost singular focus on “me time” and serving self rather than others, encourages us to have low expectations for ourselves and our children?

There are a few practical ways to guide children to rebel against these low expectations and empower them to be the transformation that is so desperately needed in today’s world.

First, create opportunities for young people to get in the habit of stepping outside their comfort zones. As students approach teenage years in particular, it’s vital that they regularly do something that brings them out of themselves to serve others. In doing so, they learn as much about themselves as about those they’re serving. At St. Croix Catholic School, we regularly send students out into the community to serve others and bring them back in to discuss how it went, what wasn’t as hard as they anticipated, and what they can do to improve the experience. In doing so, we are presenting service not as a one-time, feel good event, but rather an ongoing challenge to stretch oneself.

A second way to set higher expectations is to encourage children to take initiative. Have you noticed the things you feel best about are those that you initiated on your own? This is true for our children as well. It’s wonderful for them to come away from an experience knowing they’re responsible for making something happen. This can be as simple as a child seeing a household chore that needs to be done and taking pride in doing it without being asked or a student devising a game plan for successfully tackling a challenging academic project. Praise the initiative in particular — and encourage children to continue to take the initiative. Let them face fear, embrace challenges and, yes, even fail. Let them pick themselves up. Doing so, they’ll develop confidence and fortitude and naturally begin to set the bar higher all by themselves.

Finally, as these energized young people interact with others, they begin to lift each other up and challenge each other to set higher expectations. A practical way to help students bridge their virtuous formation from self to leading others is to give students a task that, for all practical purposes, is impossible for them to complete on their own as an individual: organizing an assembly, making a video to promote something helpful and worthwhile, or raising money for a worthy charity. These are all tasks that require teamwork and collaboration.

Imagine a room filled, a community filled, or even a world filled with young people who are all setting the bar higher within themselves and for each other. This is virtuous leadership. This is transformation of society.

Sister Mary Juliana, O.P. is principal of St. Croix Catholic School in Stillwater.