Formation of Character
Character strengths are built over repeated practice.
Does one's character influence one's behaviour? Or does one's behaviour influence one's character? Many will tend to agree with the first statement. It is true that our character (which includes the way we think, and our attitudes and values) does show itself in our actions and behaviour.
But can it also work the other way around? If I am used to telling the truth, but for whatever reason tell a little lie today, it make me feel uncomfortable. But, I will get over the discomfort, and doing so will make telling a second little lie easier. Over time, it is possible telling lies would become bigger and more frequent, and I could become a habitual liar. Hence, in this regard, behaviour does influence character.
As parents, we need to be mindful of this. Character is the sum total of certain habitual qualities or strengths in a person that could be built through repeated practice. The character strengths (prudence or sound judgement; justice and responsibility, fortitude and courageous persistence, temperance and self-mastery, magnanimity of heart) are habits of right living, and all habits are built by repeated practice.
In fact, children are acquiring both good and bad habits all the time. If they are encouraged to read every day, they become readers. If they say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ often, being polite becomes second nature. If they absorb large doses of TV every day, they become couch potatoes. If they always get their way, they never learn self-mastery. Whatever they practice over and over again, whether virtue or vice, gets formed into a lifetime of habits.
So directed practice (what children are led or made to do repeatedly by parents, despite their resistance) is an important way to help your children acquire character. For instance, if you help your children to become responsible by assigning them certain roles – to do their assigned household chores, to do their homework to the best of their ability, to clean up after their own mess, you help your children learn fortitude by encouraging and helping them to persevere in a tough task. Don’t do their work for them; show them what to do and suggest ways for them to complete tasks independently. Step in only after they have given an earnest best effort. This is parenting – making the patient sacrificial effort daily to develop your children’s character strengths.
Every day, children are forming lifelong habits. What habits do you want your children to develop?
John Ooi is a father of six children. He writes regularly at It takes a Village to Raise a Child e-newsletter. Article is reproduced with permission.