Raised to Love

Fostering Virtues

Character equals good habits

‘Good character consists of knowing the good, desiring the good, and doing the good … habits of mind, habits of heart, and habits of action.’

Thomas Lickona, State University of New York

Character equals good habits. If you are systematic and persevering in sculpting good habits of thinking and acting in your child, you will have a happy child and a happy adult. Parenting is the art of preparing a young person for happiness in adult life. Ensuring that your child has a deep, loving respect for others is the living rock on which these habits will thrive. And with such habits your child will take control of his or her own life and connect with others in lifelong relationships.

Never forget that you are sculpting for life. This is the essence of parenting for character. Provided food, shelter and family love are not lacking, happiness in adult life is largely determined by the good habits we have in our character – habits of optimism, generosity, honesty, loyalty, self-control and clear-headed problem-solving. It is upon our own habitual behaviours and attitudes that the relationships we form will flourish or flounder.

Happiness does not depend on feelings, or on what others do or don’t do, so do your best to raise your children not to be tossed around by impulsive reactions – outbursts, overeating, putting things off, dominating fears, grudges that destroy – based on passions and emotions working to their detriment. Raise them so that their good intentions are not thwarted by ingrained habits of laziness. Raise them from their youngest, most formative years with a sure sense of what will enrich them as human beings, and with the gumption to walk away from anything that will diminish them or lead them to use others for their own gain.

My experience is that parents who keep their focus on these priorities, patiently and lovingly, give their children something of incalculable worth. The Talmud, a type of ancient Jewish guidebook for life, sums it all up: ‘The one great requisite is character’. Plutarch, the famous Greek historian writing in Roman times, knew how to cut to essentials: ‘Character’, he wrote, ‘is simply strongly established habit’.

Parenting for Character (Finch 2005)

A response to the basic question of ethics

‘How must I act?’ is one of the fundamental questions for a human being to ask and answer: our decisions must be based on good reasoning. But what is good reasoning? Some say we should choose actions to maximize winners: the end justifies the means… even if you have do bad things to get there. Others argue that actions are ok as long as they follow the ‘rules’ … but whose rules?

Our approach is different. Let us be good to do good. The advice in this blog is based on a simple principle that human beings have the capacity to make good decisions for action if they are guided effectively by their reason. And we will reason well provided we have developed the habits of character that free us from our impulse behaviours, our fears, and the self centredness that comes with immaturity. Let us strive to think clearly, enriched but not ruled by our emotions, and so choose well, for only then can we love wisely. And when we raise children to be virtuous, they too have the wherewithal to be happy and to flourish as human beings.

Virtues are the building blocks of human personality

Human beings reach their potential by the development of virtues. In the vision of human flourishing that started with Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, tracking down to us through Augustine and Aquinas, virtues are good habits that enable us to live our lives well… habits of managing emotion, of deeply respecting others, of making good choices. They are all about effective self-management. They are habits established by repetition which work a gradual change in our personalities – a child who learns to work hard in time becomes an industrious person. Our choices change us as people, and this true also for bad habits, vices. Martin Seligman, the founder the Positive Psychology movement, perhaps the most well known contemporary clinical psychologist, famous also for his work on the causes of adolescent depression, has come to exactly the same conclusion. He insists on the need to build virtues as our character strengths if we wish to flourish as human beings. This is absolutely timeless wisdom that we ignore at our peril.

Virtues help us carry out actions with ease. Virtues free us to act: releasing us from external pressures and also from debilitating bad habits, or vices. Virtues enable us to be self directing in life… education in virtue gives us the freedom to chart our own course in life. Plato was effusive in his praise of virtue: ‘All the gold on earth or below earth are not equal in price to virtue.’

Virtues empower us to love others. Egotists are not virtuous. There is enough selfishness in the world. Let us raise children so they steadily but surely grow out of the self centredness of childhood in into people capable of loving with all their being. Virtues are habits we have developed so that the focus of our lives is on others. Virtues empower us to ‘deliver love to others’ as Canadian philosopher, Donald De Marco reminds us. True virtue is motivated by a loving intention.

What is a virtue?

The actual word virtue suggests something that is at the heart of character itself: its origin is the Latin word for ‘strength’; they are strengths of character. Virtues enable us to think clearly. Augustine wrote of them as ‘the rightness and perfection of reason’. In our own time, Martin Seligman insists on the same principle, ‘Building strengths and virtues and using them in daily life are very much a matter of making choices’.

Simply speaking, a virtue is a good habit, a readiness in one's character to act consistently in a particular way for a good motive. It follows that a person with a weak character is one who has poorly developed virtues, or in whom vices, deliberate self centredness and complacent impulsivity, are present.

In their essence, virtues are habits of well managed emotions – our capacity to choose pleasures wisely rather than act on impulse, and our capacity to overcome fears and difficulties for a good reason; and habits of sound reasoning – a clear sense of right and wrong, good habits of goal setting, underpinned by a deep sense of responsibility to others. Human maturity comes down to this well-rounded development of virtues. ‘There is a physical beauty and a moral: there is a beauty of person, there is a beauty of our moral being, which is natural virtue....’ Aristotle wrote of virtue as: ‘that which makes its possessor good and his work good likewise’; Cicero described virtues as ‘a kind of health of the soul.’

Teaching virtues at different ages

  1. We lead younger children to have good habits through repeated actions, hence the importance for a young child to have routines, timetables, clear consistent expectations, example in everything and from everyone, clear consistent guidelines, close follow up, and corrections imposed without anger. And all this in a loving and predictable home atmosphere.

  2. When a child is older the focus continues on orderly routines and clear parental expectations, but attention to motives becomes more and more important. The child should be helped to reflect on his own actions by asking him to make certain decisions himself, by teaching him to learn from his mistakes and to have an optimistic view of difficulties, and, when necessary, by the imposition of punishments which are most effective when they help the child remedy the consequences of poor actions. In these years children are able to take far more responsibility for their own character improvement. They respond very well if encouraged to act from motives of affection towards a parent or one of their sisters or brothers. Home atmosphere and family example continue to play a major role, consolidating the habits acquired in earlier years. The value of a positive peer group becomes more noticeable also at this time.

  3. In teenage years, a boy or girl develops the adult capacity for independent action based on personal conviction. It is good and natural that teenagers should want more and more freedom and autonomy; in fact it is a prerequisite for a mature personality. Parents should not be scared when they observe a growing independent spirit in their son or daughter. They should not react with panic and legislate rules as if their teenager were still a child. Over-management of children is a major parenting flaw. Leave your son or daughter free. Stay close to them and encourage them to measure their own actions against the clear standards of right and wrong you have taught them from childhood. Unless there is the likelihood of physical or moral danger, teenagers should be given the necessary information and asked to make up their own mind on issues. Then they should be helped to learn from the consequences of their choices so we shouldn’t make the decisions for them. Give them practice in making up their own minds and then debrief them with abundant affection when they make mistakes. They will be helped by their parents’ loving encouragement and the confidence they will get there. Help them to see, as Aristotle simply put it, ‘Happiness depends on ourselves’. Consider Goethe’s profound insight, ‘Treat a man as he is and he will remain what he is; treat him as he can and should be and he will become as he can and should be.’ A good rule of thumb is to treat children just a little older than we naturally may be drawn to do. We retard a child’s development when we smother or pamper, and when we accept irresponsible behaviours.

  4. We can learn from our own chequered pasts. As adults, having missed out on opportunities to acquire particular virtues during up childhood and teen years, even when we are already painfully aware of the bad habits we have, we still get another chance, thank goodness. We build the new habit by building up and repeating new behaviours, but in a self directed manner. By reflecting on values, by setting our own goals, by correcting our own rogue behaviours and thoughts, and then by plugging away until we consolidate the new behaviours, we get there. Intention is crucial… there is no virtue without a loving intention: sometimes we realize we have acquired particular positive habit, like working hard, but without a noble intention, we have become too focused on the money… we then have to reset the intention, rectify the intention, reminding ourselves that family comes first, and perhaps adjusting timetable accordingly. When as a parent you teach your children this life-skill of internalising convictions and correcting personal behaviours, you are passing on something priceless, the capacity to love.