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Growing Character: The Value of Practice

Published on: January 09, 2013


Practice isn’t the thing you do when you’re good. It’s the thing you do that makes you good.

― Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers: The Story of Success

Family timeIn January, that time of new year’s resolutions-making, many of us look to create positive change by committing to “improvements” — by setting goals to change ourselves, our lives or the lives of those in our care. It is also a time when we may also contemplate our perennial concerns as parents: How can we raise our children to have strong character, to be moral?  How do we teach our children to do the right thing, even when no one is looking?

It’s great to work towards goals and ideals — but in our culture we often do so from a place of not feeling “good enough.” Daily we are given the message that we are not thin enough, fit enough, happy enough, rich enough or smart enough through all sorts of media messages about how to get thinner, fitter or happier.  But rather than starting from a mindset of who or what we “aren’t,” it is far more helpful to start from a place of knowing who we are. We are born with the capacity to learn, to grow and to do the right thing. Doing the right thing, like so many other pursuits, takes practice and some encouraging support.  Deliberate practice is most fun when we do it together, when we make it playful and when we know we can make mistakes without being ashamed or feeling a sense of failure. The point of practice really isn’t to make anything perfect.

Over the next year, ParentMap will be collaborating with Sound Discipline and a number of other parenting experts to host an ongoing discussion about the essential qualities of character: those virtues and values we hope to model in our own behavior and foster in our children so that they grow up with a sense of “doing the right thing, even when no one is looking.” We invite your family to join us in this dialogue and practice, to follow along and share with us some of your ideas and definitions, your best “practices” and successes, your challenges and yes, even your mistakes.

We are going to start and end the year with a focus on gratitude and connections from a variety of perspectives.  Between March and October we hope to explore other virtues like resilience, respect, courage, play, citizenship, integrity, fairness and inclusivity, and mindfulness. Come December, we’ll look back and celebrate what we’ve learned, what we’ve put into practice!

Notice how different this approach is from a resolution. A resolution has a goal and the intent is to “make the goal.” At the end you will have succeeded or failed.  This exploration is just that: an exploration.  The intention behind it contains a sense of curiosity and a desire to learn.  What can your family learn from this experiment?  There won’t be a sense at the end that you “made it” or that you didn’t.  You can choose to follow along and participate as much as you like. The exploration is intended to be fun and interesting, and we hope you will learn some powerful yet simple ways to more deliberately dialogue about and practice character skills at home and within your communities.

Virtues in practice

Gratitudes jarTo get in the swing of things, let’s start with two simple gratitude practices for your family to try:

  1. Share appreciations for each other. Once a week at a family meal, take a few minutes for each person to share something that he or she appreciates about himself or herself and about each other person in the family.  Self-appreciations can take the form of “I’m proud of_____” or “I appreciate that I______.”   In some cultures acknowledging oneself feels wrong or boastful; if you like, substitute the words above with “I’m grateful for _____.”   Appreciations to other family members might sound like: “Mom, I’d like to compliment you for _____” or “Mom, thank you for_______.”
  2. Start a gratitudes jar. Each week at your family meeting or at a certain meal, reflect on the week and write down on slips of paper one or two things to remember and be thankful for and add them to the jar.  What delighted you this week? What will be a good story later? There is no need to overdo it — keep it simple to start with by committing to adding one or two things a week. All you need is an old Mason or rinsed-out spaghetti sauce jar.

The value of practice

  • The reason we practice is to establish patterns.  Practice can initially feel awkward, but gets easier and more fun as you go along.
  • Brain scientists tell us that when we are starting something new the brain uses more energy and that sometimes the pain centers in our brain are activated. It can literally hurt to learn until some of those new neurons finish growing.
  • Our children often expect things to come easily. (We help them develop that belief by doing things for them!) Starting a new challenge as a family and noticing that it gets easier with practice is a great life lesson.

We’ll be practicing along with you! 

Jody McVittieAbout the author
Jody McVittie, MD is the executive director and cofounder of Sound Discipline. After working as a family physician in both California and Washington, she shifted her focus to addressing broader community issues that impact all of our health, including education, parenting and land use. She currently consults with school staff, trains parent educators, teaches parent education classes and provides coaching to teachers and parents. She is a lead trainer for the Positive Discipline Association and co-author of the Positive Discipline Workbook, Positive Discipline in the School and Classroom: Teachers Guide: Activities for Students and BRIDGES, Building Relationships for Improved Discipline, Academic Gains and Effective Schools.

Sound Discipline is a Seattle-based nonprofit dedicated to teaching people to do the right thing — even when no one is looking.  Sound Discipline works with schools and families.

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