Keys to Building Character
By Drs. Rick and Jan Hanson
I'm worried about how to help my son and daughter turn into ethical, caring people, especially with all the questionable influences out there these days. Any ideas?
It's a real issue. With the loss of community in the past two generations (now "the village it takes to raise a child" looks more like a ghost town), an increasingly "look out for yourself" economy, and a vulgar and self-absorbed culture penetrating every corner of our lives - including children's television and advertisements - yes, we really have to wonder these days about how best to encourage good character in our precious children.
From our professional perspectives - and our lessons and mistakes in raising our own children - we offer these keys.
Support Your Own Health and Well-Being
You don't want to get into the position - especially with teenagers - of preaching various virtues to them, and then have them say (or think) essentially that: "You're unhappy in your work and grumpy and blue at home, you drink too much, and you seem irritated most of the time with your spouse . . . so why in the world should I walk down the same road you have??!"
Be a Good Role Model
Be Nurturing and Intimate
Help the Child Succeed
For example, be realistic about preschoolers in restaurants; sure, maybe you can punish that child intensely enough to get him to sit still for an hour, but is the collateral damage worth it? Or consider whether a tightly-controlled and buttoned-down type of school is really the best place for a child with a spirited temperament. Think about the nagging, sub-clinical health problems that seem so common these days, especially among boys, such as food sensitivities. Consider whether you've got a child who gets flooded and discombobulated by incoming sensory stimuli, and would be served by quieter environments and perhaps a formal assessment by an occupational therapist.
In sum, step back and consider, perhaps with your mate, what sort of measures you could take to set your child up with the best chances of SUCCEEDING at sticking with virtues and good values.
Caring about what others feel in general, and about our impacts on them in particular, depends a lot on sensing what their experience actually is. Consequently, we serve our children by drawing their attention to the inner world of others. For example, attuned to the age of your child, ask what he or she thinks a character in a story or TV show might be feeling, or wanting, or thinking about doing. Or a person in real life, from the nice old lady the child just helped to another child in school the child just insulted.
As appropriate, try to convey the notion that people usually have several feelings or desires at once, often pulling in different directions. And that softer feelings or more vulnerable desires are under the surface, like the way hurt and fear often underlie anger, or the way that a longing to feel of worth lies beneath a hyper-competitive desire to win a game. You can do this by sharing your own inner experience when that would be useful, by naming what might be going on inside your child, and by pointing it out in others.
Speak the Language of Virtue and Values
Both are good, and a combination is probably best. But notice that the first message, if it stands alone, bases moral conduct on how the child FEELS about the other person; it's individual and emotional, rather than a general, principled adherence to an abstract principle like non-violence or kindness.
Without shaming the child unduly, there's a place for clearly naming misbehaviors and virtuous conduct, adjusting your words to the age and nature of your child. Like: "It's plain wrong to hit your little sister." "Taking what's not yours is stealing, and that's a bad thing." "It's good to tell the truth." "People who try hard and don't give up are admired and respected." "It's right to be generous."
Help the Child Tolerate "the Healthy Wince"
But if that feeling is intolerable - perhaps because it triggers too much guilt, or shame, or sense of inadequacy - then we defend against it . . . by avoiding the knowledge that we have something important to learn. And that totally flattens our learning curve since it makes us less open to the world and the lessons it holds.
What helps a child (or adult) tolerate that healthy wince?
Arrange for Lessons from Others
Use Rewards and Penalties Skillfully
The same is true for children. Reasonable, potent rewards and penalties - and like most professionals, we discourage corporal punishment - focus the child's attention and become a basis for values to be internalized about what's right and what's wrong. Give consequences calmly, explain the reason why, be compassionate but firm, and typically remind the child of the underlying moral principle or value that's at stake.
Take the Long View
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Rick Hanson, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist, Jan Hanson, M.S., L.Ac., is an acupuncturist/nutritionist, and they are raising a daughter and son, ages 16 and 19. With Ricki Pollycove, M.D., they are the first and second authors of Mother Nurture: A Motherís Guide to Health in Body, Mind, and Intimate Relationships, published by Penguin. You can see their website at www.nurturemom.com or email them with questions or comments at firstname.lastname@example.org; unfortunately, a personal reply may not always be possible.