As my eldest child ran off the soccer field after another bruising loss, I prepared to console her and her teammates. I gave her a hug and asked how she was feeling. Her response surprised me. “I’m feeling good,” she said. “We worked together and tried our best. The other team was just better than us.”
In that moment, my daughter was demonstrating what some experts call ‘virtue’. Educational psychologist William Damon says that virtues are essentially expressions of a person’s good character. They represent practical strengths that children are developing in relation to their values. Compassion, fairness, humility, kindness – these are just some of the virtues (character strengths) that children are learning from birth.
Sometimes we talk about virtues as if they are innate characteristics. We might think that people are just born ‘good’ or ‘bad’. But research shows that character strengths can be cultivated. That’s because most of our actions are based on habits, and habits can change. So if we want children to be honest, curious, or just, we need to help them develop habits that express that virtue.
Damon explains that strong character development requires both commitment to virtuous goals and practical actions that support those goals. We need to talk with children about family values and even post those values on bathroom mirrors or the kitchen fridge. We might even purchase or make motivational posters that highlight virtues our family considers important. And then we need to identify ways that family members will practice those virtues at home and in our community.
One way to begin actively working on virtue development is to take a family inventory of each person’s character strengths and weaknesses. Research shows that adults and children who don’t deny their shortcomings are much more likely to change than those who believe they do everything well. So share with your child some things you do well (e.g., treat others fairly, share credit for good work) and some things you need to work on (giving generously, courageously standing up for your beliefs). Then invite your child to do the same.
Once you and your child identify particular character traits in need of attention, the next step is deciding how to work on them. Damon says it’s more effective to concentrate on changing behavior in one context rather than across every aspect of life. For example, if your child wants to become more humble, suggest that they focus on acting with humility either at home, at school, or while hanging out with their friends after school. Then, when they see improvement in that context, they can work on shifting their more virtuous behavior to other contexts.
Remind your child that developing virtues takes time and involves missteps. It’s okay to forget to be patient with a sibling some days, or to fail to call out an injustice among friends. Acknowledge the feelings of discouragement that children may feel when they ‘mess up’. At the same time, encourage them to rely on their memory of what they intended to do as a prompt for the next time. And emphasize that doing the wrong thing doesn’t make them a bad person. It just means they need to start working on building their character trait from where they left off.