Back when he was a young lad in the Valley, one of our students asked me cheerfully as he headed home for the long Presidents Day Weekend, “Which president will you be celebrating this weekend, Mr. Gleason?” I noncommittally answered, “All of them!” The boy smiled, but most likely walked away disappointed, for children want to choose favorites. And they should!
Children’s enthusiasm and eagerness to do great things must be nourished by the stories of heroes, and the list of our country’s leaders is replete with such figures. Presidents Day is formally the birthday of George Washington, but the observance extends to all American presidents. And while I do celebrate each of them, I would like to offer a few qualities of one hero in particular that it would behoove our boys to emulate: Teddy Roosevelt.
Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919), the 26th president of our country, took up residence in the White House from 1901-1909. And while there is much to glean from his presidency, the following are five lessons our sons could learn from his childhood.
1. Cultivate Your Love of Nature
From the earliest days of his childhood growing up in New York City, “Teedie,” as he was called then, reveled in the wonders of nature. He continually sought whatever stretch of “wild” he could reach within walking distance of his home and, much to the dismay of his parents and siblings, brought home critters and specimens. His collection of plants and animals, dead and alive, grew so numerous that he soon claimed his own “Roosevelt Museum of Natural History.” His nature journals reveal extensive and copious amounts of information based almost entirely from his observations.
Our young men of the Valley get a great introduction to the Natural World through the Lower School curriculum, but they shouldn’t stop there. Kick them off the couch and out the door on weekends—even when it’s cold—and let them meander, wander, and explore. Encourage their outdoor curiosity—even if they must check their catches at the door!
2. Form Your Moral Imagination by Reading Great Books
When Teedie was not out traipsing through Central Park, he was sitting in his favorite chair in the family library engrossed in a book. He taught himself to read, largely by looking at Natural History books. In addition, his aunt gave him lessons and introduced him to the power of story. Teedie especially devoured legends and stories of adventure featuring fictional and historical characters of virtue and daring. In his autobiography he admits that, “from reading of the people I admired—ranging from the soldiers of Valley Forge, and Morgan’s riflemen, to the heroes of my favorite stories … I felt a great admiration for men who were fearless and could hold their own in the world, and I had a great desire to be like them.” 1
Reading great stories of admirable characters reveals to young readers a world of awesome possibilities that transcends that which they learn through their own everyday experience. Providing our sons with books that espouse nobility and honor is one of the most effective ways for us to teach them virtue.
3. Be Adventurous
For the majority of his youth, Roosevelt suffered from severe asthma. His young body lacked the healthy muscle and girth that would later loom in his presidential portraits. At times, he remained bedridden, and “so accustomed was he to recurrences of illness that he rarely bothered to record them [in his diary.]”2 Such physical setbacks, however, did not restrain Teedie from living an energetic, boyish life. He would continue to hike, hunt, and generally explore, and rarely complain. Despite having extreme seasickness, he joined his family on a trip across the Atlantic. While on this European expedition and during a two-week-long bout of asthma and stomach sickness, Teedie ventured to climb a mountain on the Austrian border. Clearly, the vigor and optimism that Roosevelt exhibited during the trials that marked his presidency owe much to the habits developed by the young adventurer, who lived life fully when many excuses could have allowed him to sit some of it out.
4. Acknowledge Your Weakness and Work to Improve
One day, when Teedie was twelve years old, his father told him, “Theodore, you have the mind but you have not the body… I know it is hard work to make one’s body, but I know you will do it.” The future president’s response was terse and determined: “I’ll make my body.”3 He knew that he was scrawny, mainly due to his infirmities, and he set himself to the task of powering through. He began weightlifting daily, first at a neighborhood gym, and then at home, after his father turned an upstairs room into a gymnasts’ playroom. He exercised so continuously—enduring such “drudgery”—that by the end of six months not only had he improved his strength considerably, but he had also eradicated nearly all symptoms of his sicknesses.
One of the most important lessons our sons need to learn early is that they are not perfect! Rather than serving as discouragement, this realization can teach our boys how capable they are of overcoming their own weaknesses when they put forth the effort. Our responses as parents can help our sons be humble in the face of their weaknesses and determined to work harder, and so become members of what Teedie would call “the fellowship of doers.”
5. Thank Your Parents
Finally, Teedie teaches us a simple lesson through his own writings, in which he effusively expresses his gratitude and love for his mother and father. His early letters to his mother gushed with filial love and enthusiasm, and he recorded in his autobiography that his father was “the best man I ever knew.”5
Gratitude is a natural response to joy, wonder, and love, but it is also a virtue formed—like others—through habit. Teaching the boys to always say thank you, to write thank-you letters for their presents, and to acknowledge all of their gifts will help them develop a sense of deep gratitude not only to their natural parents but also to their heavenly Father, source of all gifts.
And so, our sons can develop a sense of wonder through nature; expand their horizons through reading great literature; live life with gusto no matter what obstacles arise; strengthen their weaknesses; and all the time, never forget the source of their ability. In sum, they can learn to be as manly as the “Happy Warrior,” Teddy Roosevelt.