Reexamining Humility as a Spiritual Virtue

Growing up, I was frequently told that good girls should be humble. I was expected to hide my intelligence and avoid conflict because it wasn’t ‘becoming’ for a girl to debate ideas or express disagreement. I dutifully tried to conform to this version of humility, but I often fell short. Now my car sports a bumper sticker that reads ‘Well-Behaved Women Rarely Make History’.

Humility is a complicated virtue. Too often it is used to try and keep certain children ‘in their place’ so that others can more easily retain social privileges. Yet recent research suggests that the right kind of humility can be transformative, providing kids with psychological security, positive relationships, and effective leadership skills.

The version of humility I grew up with emphasized making oneself smaller. But social psychologist Daryl Van Tongeren has found that true humility is about being the right size for the moment. Humble people recognize both their strengths and their weaknesses. They know how to share praise and also refuse to accept misplaced blame. They care about both their own and others’ needs.

This view of humility emphasizes three social-emotional skills: knowing yourself, checking yourself, and going beyond yourself. Learning and using these three skills requires modeling by parents and caregivers, as well as ongoing effort and practice.

Knowing yourself (aka self-awareness) develops when children are taught to stop and reflect on their feelings and actions. To facilitate self-knowledge, you might adopt a family practice that encourages children to set attitude and behavior goals and then assess how well they’ve adhered to those goals over the course of a day or week. You can also invite children to reflect on emotional experiences and explore what they are feeling and why. And you can share some of your own self-reflection, such as disappointment over a poor choice or frustration when someone else takes credit for your efforts.

Checking yourself requires children to learn how to reduce their defensiveness when they receive feedback they don’t like. You might start to teach children this skill by admitting your own limitations. Talk about what you don’t know as well as what you do understand. Share how valuable the perspectives and advice of others have been and the ways you seek out diverse viewpoints. Suggest that a good strategy is to listen to others’ ideas and experiences with curiosity, wondering what we might learn from them that we don’t already know.

Going beyond yourself is about cultivating empathy. Help your child become more attuned to others’ ideas, needs, and emotions by stimulating their curiosity about diverse perspectives. You might wonder aloud about what their friend or a neighbor is thinking and feeling and suggest asking for input. You can also point out diverse emotional reactions in movies, shows, and news coverage. And if your child struggles with their inability to identify others’ perspectives and emotions correctly, remind them to practice self-compassion. Even better, talk about times when you struggle to appreciate another view and how you push yourself to be open to learning even when you disagree.

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