Character and Virtue – Creating a Positive Identity in Children

By: Michael G. Conner, Psy.D

Positive psychology is a new an exciting field that offers a great deal of insight and proof as to what can help adults, parents, children, educators and families. I like to think of positive psychology as a Zero To Positive science. In contrast, clinical psychology is a Zero To Negative science. Clinicians are more focused on symptom elimination and reduction. This focus is sometimes referred to as a negative psychology in which the outcome, at best, is Zero (i.e. No Symptoms). That is after all what health insurance pays for. We go to the doctor to get well, not healthy. Health insurance does not pay for psychologists to build character strengths and virtues that can protect children from depression, anxiety and other forms of peer, family, school and social stress.

There is now a great deal of evidence to support what has been referred to as the Six Pillars of Virtue. Two psychologists, Martin Seligman and Christopher Peterson, published a book based on a comprehensive examination of nearly two thousand years of literature on various subjects such as religion and philosophy. The six virtues are Wisdom and Knowledge, Courage, Humanity, Justice, Temperance and Transcendence. Each of these virtues as based on a number of strengths. These define what is right, best and valuable in all people. A book by Martin Seligman entitled “Authentic Happiness” is a wonderful resource for people who want to live a happier, rewarding and meaningful life.

There is a very powerful and important way that we can use this knowledge of character strengths and virtues to help our self and others. One of the most valuable things I have ever done was to memorize the Six Pillar and their strengths. My life changed dramatically as I began to see strength and virtue all around me. Instead of being focused on weakness and dysfunction, I began to see that we all have strength and virtue. Even more exciting was my discovery that recognizing and express my top strengths leads to greater happiness and success in y life.

The problem, as I see it, with society today is that our children have strengths and virtues but instead of expressing this, they try to be what other children and even adults value, reward and want from people. I have great example. An adolescent was referred to me who was depressed and did not want to go to school. Instead of encouraging him to think positively and change his views, I gave him a strength and virtue questionnaire. I also asked him to tell me a story about a time when he was happy. From this I discovered that his top five strengths were Forgiveness, Kindness, Modesty, Playfulness and Appreciation of Beauty and Excellence. Now these are not very popular or cool qualities in high school. So the challenge for this child was to embrace his strength and virtues rather than try to be something he was not. Trying to be something you are not generally does not lead to greater happiness and success in our life. It can lead to rewards and pleasure, but these are often not lasting and can become addictive. People who seek pleasure and reward usually need more and more and can become desperate for attention and approval.

One final suggestion. Watch your children. Watch you self and friends. Ask yourself, “What is the strength and virtue I see in this person. Take your time. Think about them. Remember something they did and what you discovered about them. When the time right, tell them a story about something they did and the strength that you saw in them. A list of strengths are provided below. People don’t always respond well to complements like “You’re smart”, “You are creative”, “You are a good person.” This sets an expectation and they often don’t believe you. So many compliments are shallow.

The greatest compliment you can give someone is to make an effort to remember them, describe something right and good that you saw them doing, and finally, tell them what that says about them. You need to create a picture so they can see why you see something good and right about them. My number one strength is Perspective. So naturally, I love to write and help people see what is best, right and good about them. I hope this perspective, and my example, has helped you.

Virtues and Strengths

Wisdom and knowledge - Mental strengths that entail the acquisition and use of knowledge

  • Creativity: Thinking of novel and productive ways to do things
  • Curiosity: Taking an interest in all of ongoing experience
  • Open-mindedness: Thinking things through and examining them from all sides
  • Love of learning: Mastering new skills, topics, and bodies of knowledge
  • Perspective: Being able to provide wise counsel to others

Courage - Emotional strengths that involve the exercise of will to accomplish goals in the face of internal or external opposition

  • Authenticity: Speaking the truth and presenting oneself in a genuine way
  • Bravery: Not shrinking from threat, challenge, difficulty, or pain
  • Persistence: Finishing what one starts
  • Zest: Approaching life with excitement and energy

Humanity - Interpersonal strengths that involve “tending and befriending” others

  • Kindness: Doing favors and good deeds for others
  • Love: Valuing close relations with others
  • Social intelligence: Being aware of the motives and feelings of self and others

Justice - Civic strengths that underlie healthy community life

  • Fairness: Treating all people the same according to notions of fairness and justice
  • Leadership: Organizing group activities and seeing that they happen
  • Teamwork: Working well as member of a group or team

Temperance - Strengths that protect against excess

  • Forgiveness: Forgiving those who have done wrong
  • Modesty: Letting one’s accomplishments speak for themselves
  • Prudence: Being careful about one’s choices; not saying or doing things that might later be regretted
  • Self-regulation: Regulating what one feels and does

Transcendence - Strengths that forge connections to the larger universe and provide meaning

  • Appreciation of beauty and excellence: Noticing and appreciating beauty, excellence, and/or skilled performance in all domains of life
  • Gratitude: Being aware of and thankful for the good things that happen
  • Hope: Expecting the best and working to achieve it
  • Humor: Liking to laugh and tease; bringing smiles to other people
  • Religiousness: Having coherent beliefs about the higher purpose and meaning of life

Dr. Conner is a psychologist who completed a research and training fellowship in graduate medical education and health education. He provides training, evaluation and intervention services for adults, families and youth. Dr. Conner's practice includes clinical, medical and family psychology. He is a Board Certified Expert in Traumatic Stress, Emergency Crisis Intervention, and Emergency School Response. This article is also available at www.CrisisCounseling.Com. Dr. Conner’s practice is located in Bend Oregon and he can be reached at 541 388-5660