To Know, to Love and to do the Good
By Dr. Philip Fitch Vincent, Director of the Character Development Group
Let us consider the following scenarios. Your daughter or son makes the A/B honor roll at school. Your child’s name appears in the school newsletter. A neighbor notes your child’s name and remarks to you that you must be proud of your child’s academic achievement. Being modest as possible, you agree that you are.
A week later another neighbor tells you that your child is so respectful and responsible. She states that you can always count on your daughter/son to do the right thing. “Your child simply has a good character!” the neighbor says.
Now ask yourself, what gives you greater satisfaction—the academic or the character recognition? It is always the second one that warms parents’ hearts. It validates your efforts as a parent and offers to your child the skills and attitudes that will make a difference in life. Although you may make straight A’s in school, you can still flunk life. Our character more than our academic aptitude will determine our success, socially and morally, in life.
How is this respectful, responsible child developed? By the child’s first and most important teacher: the home. Or perhaps a child learns more about being a person of good character in a church or synagogue. Or maybe a child is involved in social and athletic organizations that teach or model good character. Finally perhaps a school is involved in helping a child develop his best self. It is quite clear that the family is far more involved in helping shape the character of the child. Still it is much easier for groups outside the home to work with a child once the child has had solid role modeling and instruction within the home. This allows the outside organizations to reinforce and to structure additional character building activities on a solid base the parent(s) have helped develop.
Yet, this is not easy stuff as any parent can readily testify to. There are so many demands on us. Sometimes we take the stress of our jobs and daily lives home to our children. When this occurs, we sometimes do not teach or model the attributes of respect, responsibility, and civility to our children. What parent hasn't regretted an action or some words directed at a child or another adult? The good news is, we are allowed to fail sometimes. We are not perfect, much like our children. Our overall efforts are what are learned and remembered by our children as well as others in our life. We pass on the values and virtues that we model and feel are important in helping a child develop his/her good character.
How might we do this? Perhaps we can glean some insight by referencing Plato who, through a dialogue involving Socrates and Meno, address how virtue or good character is acquired.
“Can you tell me, Socrates—can virtue be taught, or is it rather to be acquired by practice? Or is it neither to be practiced nor to be learned by something that comes to men by nature or in some other way?” (Meno 70a)
With this, Plato asks the question that we are still, as parents, trying to answer: “How do I help my child become a good person?” Will she become good through the development of good habits that are learned via repetition? Will she learn to be good and kind through discussions within the family? Is she born good or is goodness innate? Is it a combination of all three? Two of three? These are not simple questions but they are questions worth considering.
Let us begin by considering whether we can develop a sense of goodness through the development of habits. Reflect on how you have raised or are raising your children. Do you consider it important to develop basic habits of civility? Do you expect your children to say “please” or “thank-you?” Do you expect them to wait their turn and learn to hold the door for those walking behind them? If so, you are like most parents. We want our children to develop habits of basic civility. To do this we model for them and have them practice saying “thank-you,” and “please” over and over when the situation demands it. We are not asking the child if he or she wants to say, “thank-you.” We are modeling and demanding this to help the child develop the habit of being polite towards others. As an adult, do you think and then say “thank-you” or “excuse me” based on an exercise in cognition or is it based on habits that you developed years ago? You will probably answer that you do this based on learned habits.
We know that habituation in habits of civility is perhaps the building block of intellectual activity that allows a child to recognize and understand the important role that civility must play in a society. My wife and I modeled for our daughter and expected her to develop habits of civility towards others throughout her early years, and apply these habits as she got older in arenas outside the home. Several years ago she came home and remarked to her parents that, “Old people(!) really do like for you to be polite. A lady just told me that I am such a polite girl.” She was excited about the compliment and we used this as a catalyst for a discussion about the role that civility plays in a good society. Our modeling combined with the habit of civility that we insisted she develop resulted in a greater intellectual understanding of the importance of civility.
Perhaps as parents we need to be cognizant of what we are modeling to our children. However we must also insist that they develop habits of civility that we can then use to engage them in a greater intellectual understanding of why they should be civil towards others as well as expect civility from others. The modeling and development of good habits will grow the intellectual development. But modeling and habits must be developed first.
Over the next year I will include some thought on what parents can do to help children learn to “know, love and do the good.” I will try and include practical suggestions as well as providing some rationale for some of the strategies I will advocate. The beginning point is to remember that we must model for our children what we want them to be. Only then can we teach and develop habits of civility for our children.