character traits

February 25, 2010

Character Development

If you read child development articles and ages & stages content on the web or anywhere, most of it is organized around Language, Cognitive, Physical, Social and Emotional development. This is traditionally how educators and researchers have thought about our babies’ growth; however, there are major new developments that suggest we need to think beyond just these skills and competences. Take Character development, as mentioned in the earlier 3Cs post (12/22/09), there has been a renewed emphasis on its critical importance; but we as parents may ask ourselves what the heck does the development of good character traits look like at the ripe young age of 0, 1 and 2.  Lucky for us there is a whole new field in cognitive science research called Positive Psychology, dedicated to catapulting character development and character strengths to the forefront of our educational and parenting agenda. This group of prominent researchers argues, persuasively, that character strengths are the key to living a rich and fulfilling life and need our utmost attention.

The Positive Psychology movement has defined 6 core virtues (eg Humanity, Courage, Justice, Temperance, etc) with a number of strengths for each of these core character traits (eg for Courage—persistence, integrity, vitality, bravery). They explain that although each of us is born with a natural profile of these traits and strengths, each can be developed and nurtured just like any competence. So for us parents we not only need to nurture things like language development but also the development of persistence and intergrity. Let’s take a closer look at the core virtue of Humanity; how might it be nurtured from birth to 3 years.

The core character trait of humanity is defined as the interpersonal strengths that involve tending to and befriending others. It draws on strengths such as kindness, love, and empathy. The seeds of which are all sprouting in the years 0 to three. Who has not seen a toddler bring a blanket or favorite toy to a sibling or friend in distress. Although under recognized and under appreciated, our little ones, like our daughter Whitney, demonstrated her budding strengths in humanity on a regular basis (see video at www.RaisingWhit.com, 21 Mths).

Displaying affection by offering a blanky

Displaying affection by offering a blanky

A toddler’s pleasure in doing the right thing can be nourished.  Empathy co-evolves with our little ones emotional development and their personal experience of emotions & feelings. Our little ones have a rich palette of feelings and can identify those emotions in others.

There are two basic tendencies we want to help our little ones exercise. The first is identifying and managing their own personal feelings and emotions and the second builds off the first in helping to recognize and empathize when those same feelings and emotions are playing in others. This can be done in specific ways for each age and stage of development.

December 22, 2009

Working with the 3Cs- Character, Competence, Concepts

All children are born with vast potential for valued character traits, diverse competences & intelligences, and the ability to understand complex concepts. Our understanding of these capabilities has been fundamentally altered over the last several decades because of the explosion in cognitive science research. No longer do we think that people are born with a single general and static intelligence that can be simply measured by IQ tests and remains the same throughout life. Instead research in neuroscience reveals that the brain is comprised of many separate modules that give rise to strengths or weaknesses across an array of competencies… And how we  put these competencies to effective use can vary depending on the specific situation.

How do we get to know and cultivate the individual minds of our children? How do the 3 Cs of Character traits, Competences and Conceptual understandings reveal themselves at the different stages of our children’s lives so that we can best nurture them?

Anyone with 2 or more children knows that every child is different and engages with their world in unique ways. Some minds are wired to create symphonies; others are disposed to build bridges or computers; and still others are inclined to alleviate suffering and cure medical ailments. Although hard to imagine while they are babies, different kinds of minds and hearts are destined to lead different adult lives.

The first step is to be aware and identify the different aspects of a child’s growing mind. In the past, competences or skills such as language, logic and more recently social & emotional development received most of the attention. However, today there is much more awareness of how a child’s character traits (dispositions) provide the critical foundation for the realization of the broad range of competences and conceptual understanding.  Research is giving us a much greater appreciation for these other aspects of a child – such as the disposition to make sense of experience, to theorize about causes and effects, to hypothesize explanations to account for observations, and to analyze and synthesize whatever information is available.

Carefully watching your child as they play and investigate the world around them will help you figure out what the chiild’s dispositions are. Children need to be put in situations where they can express their dispositions and see that their disposition was effective. All the dimensions of learning and development are intertwined and can positively or negatively affect each other. For example, the risk of early instruction in reading skills is that the amount of drill and practice required for success at an early age seems to undermine children’s disposition to be readers. It is clearly not useful for a child to learn skills if, in the process of acquiring them, the disposition to use them is lost. On the other hand, acquiring the disposition to be a reader without the requisite skills is also not desirable.

Each child brings a different blend of character traits (dispositions), competences (skills), and concepts (knowledge) to any experience. Our job is to first tune into our specific child and see if we can figure out who they are and what they are working on. We adults in their lives can make a big difference in what children take away from all of their experiences. We are not and cannot be perfect; but we can start wherever we are and take it one small step at a time. With desire and practice, we can become more aware of all the rich learning that is taking place. Over the next several posts, we will explore important areas of development and learning in our children.