Growing Character in a Child

I was asked to write an article for the MWEI Newsletter in Perth in the 1st quarter 2003 and later it was also published in Nurture Bahai in May 2003. Reading it again today I am so so happy because I see that my work with leadership, teams and individuals continues this key dynamic of empowering my self and others to grow and be the person we are meant to be. There is little that I have needed to add to the context of the story. Today, I remain as inspired by this empowering approach to life, identity and evolving the Self. I hope this blog inspires you to continue your conversation as your Life adventure journey unfolds.

Exploring the Culture of Character with Virtues and Values

A while back I was on an outing with my Lower Primary 6-9 year olds from Riverlands School. We were visiting the New Maritime Museum in Fremantle, a double story building with giant, curving structures like sails, reminiscent of the Sydney Opera House. When we arrived on the second floor and stood in front of a giant window that stretched from floor to ceiling, I was surprised to see a boy holding back from the window. His Mum whispered to me, “Scared of heights”. Later, the guide led the class across a decking section directly below the curving, sail-like roof. The boy stood back, alone. I knelt down beside him and said, “It’s the way you think about it you know. Your fear of heights is real, but so is your knowledge of science. You know the builders would have made the floor safe for all the visitors to walk across it.” He nodded silently. Then I asked, “Which part of your brain is going to win? The fearful part or the part that trusts in science? You can take my hand if you like and see how it feels”. But I needn’t have worried for he took a breath and strode off alone. It was a wonderful moment to be able to say to him, “I see your courage virtue has won my friend. You must be feeling really proud of yourself”.

Later in the week I gave the boy the opportunity to pick the Virtue of the Week. He picked ‘Tact’. This was quite amazing for there are fifty-two virtue cards and it was the third time in a month that ‘Tact’ had been picked. The class discussed again how important tact is, for it’s the way kind leaders include others and build trust in the group. The boy then picked another card from the virtue pack. It was ‘Consideration’. Later, after discussing these virtues the boy came to me and expressed his wonder and appreciation. He was amazed that he had picked the two virtues that I had demonstrated earlier in the week to help him find courage and confidence. “Yes”, I said, “In the past people may have teased you about your fear, but now we don’t shame or frighten children when we help them overcome obstacles.”

When we examine our own character and those of our intimate relations, we find that the more we were shamed and undermined in our formative years, the more scars we carry into adulthood. These scars are part of our conditioning. They shape the way we handle our relationships. They can manifest in undue jealousy, unwarranted anger, blind clinging and attachments or, at worse still, insecurity and an inability to build trusting relationships. Character is what you bring to a relationship, and that is true for the most intimate as well as the most distant relationships. The movement to build a culture of character in schools and communities has been given great impetus by the work of Linda Kavelin Popov, who started the Virtues ProjectTM with her husband Dr Dan Popov and her brother John Kavelin. Along with other titles, she is the author of The Virtues Project Educator’s Guide: Simple Ways to Create a Culture of Character. This universally human approach to education affirms and extends the Montessori Peace and Cosmic Curriculum. Linda has developed five simple strategies to awaken our virtue seeds and grow them into a lush and beautiful garden within. They are (1) speak the language of virtues (2) recognise and use teachable moments (3) set clear boundaries for yourself and the environments in which you function (4) honour the spirit within all human beings and (5) offer companioning through deep listening and acknowledgment. When we explore these five strategies we find practices which balance, harmonise, affirm and open. We realise our potential as assertive, clear thinking and emotionally intelligent human beings.

One of Linda Popov’s most cherished practises is ‘ACT with TACT’. I am thankful to have been able to act with tact in the situation with my student, for it certainly was the tact and respect I offered that made the difference. What was important was the way I communicated, not the outcome. And it is this subtle but powerful teaching that carers of children can bring to their interactions. It awakens inner gems which flourish into a garden of virtues, in which the complex laws of trust and confidence are safe to flourish without fear of undermining, teasing or bullying. For it is these manipulative behaviours which quickly alarm sensitive people to retreat behind the walls of hardened hearts in protection of their delicacy and beauty.

This kind of communication is an attitude, a way of thinking which is deeply embedded in the beliefs and values of a person. It is an awakened approach to relationships for it challenges us to affirm our values with great care. Some of the factors which will result in success include: reflection on the context of the situation ; empathy for those involved ; consideration of how to respond and communication with clear language. All this happens in an instant. It is the quality of the questions we ask and how we reframe the problem, that helps the children resolve their difficulty. Since each situation is unique and cannot simply be resolved by applying formulas from the past, it can be a difficult process and even emotionally draining. Each situation demands deep listening so that appropriate responses can be found. It is not simply an instinct we all have. It is a complex process through which our awareness is developed, an attitude and an approach that requires a conscious affirmation of our values and a continual refinement of our communication skills. In the example of the child who found their courage, there was a complex mix which included the five strategies of the virtues project:
1) the recognition of a teachable moment
2) knowing the child from the context of our previous two years together
3) beliefs about human potential
4) values about respect for another’s circumstances
5) remembering to act with tact
6) using the language of virtues and spiritual companionship
7) patience and having the time to resolve the challenge
This kind of situation helps develop the character of children in ways which empower them to act from within, without being imposed on by the force of authority. This approach develops effective self esteem and confidence. The understanding that these children develop equips them to handle difficult situations in the future. And this results in a growth of respect for the differences in others as well as their own personal dignity.

Our lives are full of opportunities to use the value of deep respect. While reflecting on the interaction I had with the child in my class, I found a clear definition of values in the West Australian Curriculum Framework’s (WACF): Values are determined by the beliefs we hold. They are the ideas about what someone or a group thinks is important in life and they play a very important part in our decision making. We express our values in the way we think and act. And more specifically, WACF affirms two values which were the basis for my actions, ‘self acceptance and respect of self’ and, ‘respect and concern for others and their rights’. Yet, when we explore the difference between values and virtues we see an interesting distinction. Linda Popov clarifies the main one, stating that values are culture and group specific but ‘Virtues are much more elemental than values. …virtues are universally valued by all cultures’. So the values and beliefs of different cultures, for example Christian and traditional Aboriginal, Mafia and Bohemian will effect the way people treat each other. In our example, a different culture might have prioritised respect and obedience to the teacher above all else. Thus when handling the situation, one can imagine how the fear of heights of the child could have been ignored by a teacher’s command to the child, to follow the group. The child’s feelings and needs could so easily have been overlooked. Yet all human beings, no matter what culture they come from, have the virtue of tact, but we vary in the skill with which we use it. It is quite conceivable that a culture which prioritises obedience to adults, has teachers who use tact, consideration, assertiveness and understanding in the way these were used in our example. Unfortunately it is equally true that in a culture which affirms the values of respect and concern for others and their rights, there are still many domineering and authoritative adults. Thus we are faced with the challenge of how to educate people in general, so that they feel, think and act in ways that express their values.

In Dr Dan Popov’s fascinating lecture on character he quotes Plutarch stating that, ‘Character is destiny’. Apparently Dickens first laid out his characters then wrote his novels. When we think of the people in our family, we know they each have different characters. Each human has a virtue mix with strengths and challenges that are reinforced, or undermined, by the values of their culture. We seem to have a genetic predisposition, a leaning which gives us a unique style, quality, temperament, make up, traits, inner potential. Character is personality. We have the opportunity to help develop the character of our children by awakening the building blocks, strengthening them, guiding and protecting our children from threats and dangers. Virtues are the building blocks which can flourish into personal honour, dignity and esteem. Environments which are degrees of chaos encourage children to retreat behind defences of the heart. Environments which are safe and trustworthy allow children’s personalities to manifest, but environments that are creative are exciting, challenging and have an ordered chaos which encourages investigation, exploration, discovery and wonder. Creative environments are most effective in presenting challenges which awaken, strengthen, guide, protect and also prune the character of our children. This is our challenge, to craft high trust creative environments in which children’s virtues manifest the potential of their character, in ways that affirm and demonstrate the values of our culture. We want to be able to say about our children, ‘They have character’ and know their strengths and the way in which they are flourishing in the community. We want to know their challenges and how we are helping them to face them with confidence and trust.

There are many ways to achieve this. We can analyse literature and film by exploring the virtue mix of the characters and how their character influences their actions. We can analyse interactions in class and understand the strengths displayed and the virtues needed. We can explore history and current events in terms of the values and virtues of the participants. We can use cooperative learning in groups with different roles for the participants, for example doing experiments, following recipes, completing daily jobs. We can write, talk and do art, drama and dance in response to the following questions:
a) What makes a good leader?
b) What are the virtues of a good friend?
c) What are the characteristics of a bully?
d) How can we use assertiveness to stop conflict and establish safe environments?
e) How do people feel when they are teased?
f) What are the values of inclusive groups?
There are so many opportunities in our learning to develop verbal, written and viewing literacy through this approach. We know that life will bring challenges no matter how far we have developed our character. Let us approach these challenges with a curious not a furious attitude. Let us move from retributive justice to restorative justice. Let us build conscience by naming virtues, setting clear boundaries with opportunities for reparation and acknowledgment of effort. We can be mentors with an educative leadership style, kind counsel, wise guidance with the authority to protect and preserve the growing buds that are our charges. It is when we have environments where trust predominates that the flourishing of human potential can be realised. May our ideals gain strength, our ideas find wisdom and our hearts grow the tenderness to proceed in our quest for excellence and enduring transformation.

By Nodi Nigel Ipp – Change Facilitator and Virtues Project(tm) Master Facilitator (see website:

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2 Responses to Growing Character in a Child

  1. Margaret says:

    thanks for this Nodi, will share this with my group of facilitators in training this weekend


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