Core business for parents is to raise their children to be enriched by emotional responses, but not bullied by their impulses. You may have noticed that time and again on this website there is an emphasis on managing our emotional lives, particularly our impulsiveness and our fears if we are to think clearly and love wisely. Let us look at how emotions and deliberate choices fit together in our personalities.
With a little introspection we find a number of capacities that are integrated in our personalities. Some of these capacities are evident in your pets, others seem distinctly human.
- the power to respond with emotion to events around us.
- desires for sensible needs and wants such as food, the power to grasp what is real (upon which we can make informed choices),
- the power to make intentional choices,
- and ultimately the power to love intentionally, and constantly, with all our being.
Amazingly, Aristotle and Aquinas were able to map all this out 2300 and 800 years ago. They said that memory, imagination, desires and emotions are faculties that both animals and human beings possess. However, the power to grasp knowingly the truth of things, and our abilities to choose and to love in responses to these truths, are distinctly human capacities. The consensus since Aristotle has been that, in a well-balanced personality, sound reasons should govern our actions. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting that emotion and feelings do not enrich our decision making – they most certainly should. Without affection and warmth, mercy and contrition, care and compassion, we would raise robots, and life would be insufferable. Simply, head should guide heart.
Ultimately our actions all may be traced back to considered or impulsive choices, to well or poorly managed passions and emotions. By our considered choices we can set goals for ourselves and for the children in our care. When these goals are about repeating positive behaviours to build up habits, we can mold our own and our children’s characters. Literally we can condition our own desires: we can train ourselves not to take seconds or to pursue uncomfortable goals like jump out of bed when the alarm goes. And we can train the desires of a small child in a way not unlike training a puppy: to hold hands to cross the road, to leave the video screen, and to go to be on time.
Importantly we can decide to carry out good actions with a loving intention. We can develop a loving intention for our actions. For example, work is normally a good thing, but a person may work primarily for egotistical and vain motives, for recognition and for reward, or they can reflect on their work, see it as service, and carry it out as a loving action that helps others. There is a world of difference. Only humans can choose to act with a loving intention.
Emotion, and in particular joy, is the best motivator in life. Your child must see how happy you become when you give our time, when you help them, when you are talking to those you love. All this helps to train a child to act with a loving intention. By witnessing your joy in loving others, they too learn to love others.
Neuroscience maps what happens at the biological level in these processes, giving us specific insights and skills that assist in developing character strengths. For example, we now understand very much about how voluntary good habits are formed, how we have the capacity to regulate our emotional responses, how we can refocus our attention bestowing salience on things we choose to value, how we can modify our reward expectations, and how we can hone our capacity to live in reality and be less susceptible to subjective perceptions. All this provides us with greater clarity about the actions we should take, train and teach, if we wish the young characters in our care to flourish and excel.