Martin Luther King, in his famous ‘I have a dream’ speech, spoke of a time when children will be judged not by the colour of their skin but by their character. What does he mean by character? Tom Lickona, one of the champions of the character education movement, explains that character is the sum of the good habits we have developed in our personalities.
Good character consists of knowing the good, desiring the good, and doing the good... habits of mind, habits of heart, and habits of action.
Habits are more than just values. Certainly values are important, but they are not enough on their own. Just having values can be like having the good intention of getting up when your alarm goes but instead of getting out of bed, you opt out, push the snooze button, roll over luxuriously, and go back to sleep. Good intentions are not enough in life.
A parent’s job is to equip each child with the foundation habits of emotional management (self control, and the fortitude to face difficulties), the habit of acting always with a deep respect and consideration for others, and the habit of making decisions based on what we know to be true. Young people who have formed these four habits can think for themselves and set wise goals for themselves. They are honest and generous - absolute necessities for happiness in life. Virtues are habits of action. If we foster virtues, values can translate into action. The convictions and ideals you wish to pass on can take root.
The good news is that once we develop a habit of holding our tongue, of saying ‘no’ to a raid on the fridge, or of facing problems and staying positive, it gets easier and easier. Good habits are the essence of virtues and have been recognised as the key to character for at least the past 2500 years. Plato called these four virtues- temperance, fortitude, justice and prudence- the cardinal virtues.
Aristotle, the most perceptive of parenting writers, insisted, ‘We always like best whatever we first experience… and therefore youth should be kept strangers to all that is bad’. Bad example, and repeated negative behaviours, leads to bad habits - Plato called them vices. Intentional selfishness, for example, is a vice. The more self-centred we become, the less we are able to enter permanent loving relationships. In all this, the example children receive is vital.
‘Happiness is the reward of virtue,’ Aristotle proclaimed. By this he meant that these good habits release us from fears (think of the paralysis that stops us attempting great tasks, or even fear of discomfort), from rogue impulses (think of anger, impatience, overeating, pornography), and from habits of selfishness and Narcissism, so we can think clearly and well. Our emotions, our convictions, and our actions fall into sync. Your job as a parent is to raise your kids to do good in this world, to possess peace of heart, and to loving deeply and wisely. Virtues are the key to all this.
- Do you talk together as a couple about your child’s strengths and areas to improve?
- Do you find ways to reinforce good behaviours? With encouragement and with star charts? Good. But most of all consolidate good behaviour by the joy on your face.
- Do you have a time to talk everyday about the kids? Are you more professional about this than any 9-5 job? It is more important.
Habits of courtesy
Do you insist on ‘please’, ‘thank you’ and ‘I’m sorry’, and on putting things back where they belong, on coming to meals when called, and on courtesy, no ifs, no buts. Parenting author James Stenson encourages parents to teach children these simple habits of respect. If these attitudes are not established early it is much harder later on. Habits of consideration for others, if learned in early childhood, later become fully intentional virtues.
Anything but old
Virtues are not some mouldy old theory. Martin Seligman, perhaps the world’s most famous psychologist, says his goal is to bring virtues back into clinical discussions. He says we have focused on mental illness long enough; it is time to focus on strengths of character. Not surprisingly the neural footprint of virtues is also quite evident. Our brains are plastic. The more we consolidate a behavior, the more we build up preferred pathways of action, attention and reward in the brain.