When my father taught me how to drive a manual, he began by trying to explain what was happening: Something about input shafts and output shafts and differentials. The important thing is that, we both quickly realized that the only way I was going to learn how to do it was by doing it. So I would practice going from neutral to first in an empty parking lot, while he sat in a beach chair reading the paper and providing proper supervision. Nobody died, and I now can drive a manual.
There are many things that we need to learn by doing. Regarding virtue, for example, Aristotle observes that:
“The virtues we get by first exercising them, as also happens in the case of the arts as well. For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them, e.g. men become builders by building and lyre-players by playing the lyre; so too we become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts.” (Nicomachean Ethics 1103b)
In fact, it’s not just the acquisition of virtue that requires practice. Just recognizing what the virtuous action in a given circumstance is, Aristotle says, requires virtue: “Virtue, then, is a state of character concerned with choice, lying in a mean, . . . determined by a rational principle, and by that principle by which the man of practical wisdom would determine it” (1107a). The measure of virtue is the virtuous man.
Learning how to be in relationships with others, both platonic and romantic, is another one of those things we learn by doing. Unfortunately, unlike learning to drive a manual, it cannot be done in an empty parking lot. As much as parents would hope their children will have good friends and healthy romantic relationships, they can’t guarantee against broken hearts and hurt feelings.
But as common sense suggests parents can help prepare their children to establish good relationships with their peers by first establishing good relationships with their children. And research confirms this. According to a recent study by Felicia Tuggle, Jennifer Kerpelman, and Joe Pittman of Auburn University of 1,680 sixth, seventh, and eighth-graders, children’s experience of parental support or parental psychological control affected both adolescents peer relationship experiences and their satisfaction with their relationships.
The study assessed adolescents’ experience of their relationships according to three factors—communication, emotional support, and possessiveness—and how these factors contributed to the adolescents’ satisfaction with the relationship. When the teens’ experience of their peer relationships were compared with their experience of their parental relationships, some of the findings are just what you would expect:
- “Greater parental support predicted more communication and emotional support in adolescent close peer relationships”
- “Parental support was directly and positively related to adolescents’ reports of relationship satisfaction.”
Just like learning temperance by practicing it, kids can learn how to communicate well with others and to provide emotional support through their daily interactions with their parents. When a child has learned, for example, “not to take that tone” with her mother or father, although she is angry, she can bring that habit to her relationships with her peers. And just as the measure of virtue is according to the mind of the virtuous person, a child who has experienced healthy communication and received emotional support from her parents is better equipped to assess her relationship with her peers and to hold them to the standards which she has come to expect from her relationship with her parents.