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(Excerpt from Secrets of the Third Little Pig: Seven Steps to Build a Child’s Inner Strength.)

One of the most subtle aspect of parenting is instilling positive virtues. We know we need to teach children basic life skills such as appropriate hygiene and good table manners. The hardest lessons, though, have to do with building character. Values are passed on from one generation to the next, either deliberately or not. Through activities and most of all by example, we transmit lessons about what we care about. Why not make a conscious decision to teach a child higher-level values? By helping children focus on caring about themselves, their family, and those around them, we help them feel happier and more satisfied with their lives.

It is intriguing that authors with different backgrounds and outlooks show so much overlap. For example, what one person identifies as Fidelity, another may term Loyalty; what one calls Hospitality, another may call Helpfulness or Caring.

Classic philosophers taught that virtues and values are not abstract concepts but personal ways of acting. These habits and practices then determine how we turn out and how we impact our world. Plato, Cicero, and Aquinas [for instance], all believed that moral life was based on four key virtues: Courage, Prudence, Temperance, and Justice.

The Reverend James F. Keenan (1996) believes that what we do determines what we become. His four key virtues are: Justice (treating everyone equally), Fidelity (regard for family and friends), Self-care (regard for self), and Prudence (discerning and balancing life).

My personal list is of course biased by my profession as a psychotherapist with children and by my own experience as a parent. Given that, I’ll share my “Top Three Virtues.”

1. Compassion

This quality is in fact a combination of many virtues including Empathy, Helpfulness, Caring and Tolerance. Compassion is knowing that everyone has past wounds and that we all suffer in some way. Compassion is accepting others’ shortcomings with tolerance. It is giving unconditionally to help others. It is patience and nurturing and trying to see the other person’s side of things.

Much of the day-to-day behavior to teacher and model Compassion comes from lessons already covered in this book. Remember that the single greatest predictor for a child to feel empathy for others is a sense of attachment to at least one adult. When children make mistakes, we focus on the behavior not their “badness.” We discipline in a fair, consistent way. We listen, listen, listen. We express our feelings (“I messages”) rather than accuse. We set boundaries by labeling behavior and giving fair warnings. We limit television and spend time genuinely interacting. We praise, not shame, our children.

Help others, expecting nothing in return. Compassion means going beyond our own needs to think of others. Compassion truly is one of the times to do what you say, not just say it. It may helping at your child’s school or mowing the lawn for your church. Consider volunteering time at the YMCA, and AIDS center or a homeless shelter. Children can donate their used toys to charity or run favors for friends or relatives without expecting to get paid. In our home, compassion for abused and abandoned animals is a value that is demonstrated by donating time and money to the Humane Society and similar organizations. (This also explains the ridiculously large pet population at our house.)

Avoid practicing prejudice or criticism of others. Watch what you say about others’ color, weight or clothing. Vicious thinking can become a life-long habit that does not one good.

Look for opportunities to show children other perspectives. For example, the grumpy cashier at the check-out counter may indeed by a person with a negative disposition...or she may be worried about a sick child at home...or how to get her car fixed with few funds. Help children see that “being different is OK.”

2. Optimism

An optimistic attitude is priceless! Optimistic children bounce back from adversity rather than wallow in it. They learn how to persist when things get tough. Caregivers can tech children as young as kindergarten to be optimistic, to look for the “silver lining” even on a dark cloud. If all else fails, we can always tech children “This too shall pass.” We can also focus on what lessons they have learned about life that will help them in the future – or what things they can do or think to make themselves feel better.

Listen to your self-talk. Our inner dialogue affects our outlook! The things we say and think throughout the day sink into our subconscious and affect the way we feel and act...and the way others feel and act toward us. People with a negative outlook tend to feel depressed and dissatisfied with their lives. On the other hand, upbeat SELF-TALK is a powerful took for instilling Optimism.

Experts used to believe that it was necessary to explore the origins of feelings in depth before they could be changed. Now we know people can change the way they feel by changing the way they act first! For example, children who were taught to deliberately smile at other people (even when they did not feel like it) significantly increased their positive outlook and self-esteem over another group of children who were told not to smile unless they felt like it.

Be realistic. People who tend to look for the worst usually find it – even in their very attempts to change! Negative thinking can be as much of a habit as smoking cigarettes or biting fingernails. Unfortunately, when a child tries to “just be positive” and then blows it, he or she may end up thinking even more derogatory and negative thoughts: “I’m hopeless” or “I can never do anything right.” That’s normal. Just don’t’ stay with it – MOVE ON! Remember, you and your child are IMPROVING every day.

Set an example. One of the surest ways to build optimism and perseverance is to demonstrate that trait yourself. Do it openly. For example, if you have joined an exercise class, stick with it and notice small changes aloud instead of complaining about your weight. If you have cut down from one pack to ½ a pack of cigarettes a day, give yourself credit out loud instead of harping on how hard it is to quit.

Teach the 2 =1 equation. This means ti take two positive comments or thought to equal one negative one. If you find yourself blurting out, “She has a big nose,” quickly add, “but she has gorgeous eyes and a nice smile.” If your son complains “The beans are too salty,” help him find two good things he does like about the meal. The trick is to “jump start” the positive thinking without accusing or sounding like you are preaching. Negative thinking will take time and deliberate effort to change.

Label behavior out loud. Identify negative thinking and make a note to stop it. Every time you say a negative comment, tell yourself, “That’s a bummer (or killer or put-down), cancel that.” Then think of a more realistic comment. For example, change the “bummer” comment of “I never do anything right” to “I made a mistake.” Teach your child to change the negative comment of “No one likes me” to “Those kids are being rude.”

Utilize your subconscious. Einstein said we use only 10% of our brain. We can put some of the rest of it to work for us by consciously deciding to do so. [Use] VISUALIZATION as a powerful tool for change...five minutes of visualization can cancel out hours, day, even weeks of negative thinking or acting. Three five-minute sessions a day can change a habit that took year to form and reinforce.

Use visualization. You visualize whenever you daydream, remember a past experience, or think of someone you know. It’s a natural, largely automatic activity like breathing or walking. By practicing, you can improve your existing powers of visualization. You can harness this automatic activity and use it consciously to help keep yourself healthy, happy, and balanced.As I tell my clients, visualization is basically “seeing a movie in your head.”

First, you have to completely relax your body. Go someplace quiet where you will not be interrupted. Get comfortable and focus on your breath. Let your breathing become slow and deep through you nose. To get more relaxed, try slowly counting backwards from 50 to 1, or imagine you are on a long, safe stairway and stepping down, slowly, slowly, slowly (perhaps counting the steps from 20 down to 1)...Give yourself permission to take the time to be comfortable and relaxed.  At this point, you can create what you want to have happen. It is as if you are “programming your subconscious.”

In my office, I have had shy children visualize themselves gradually becoming more and more friendly. Children with quick tempers visualize themselves remaining calm instead of getting agitate. Poor students visualize themselves focusing, concentrating, and remembering as they study.  This technique is powerful, but it must be done repeatedly and in addition to other change agents. It augments and enhances everything you do, but it doesn’t replace anything. You will not prosper by mind power alone. It doesn’t work that way.

Building Character

3. Belief-In-Self

This is a hard value to label because, like Compassion, it has so many facets. It encompasses a variety of personal power virtues such as Resourcefulness, Autonomy, Security, Achievement, Self-motivation, Honesty, and Self-discipline.

Instilling these beliefs overlaps with much of what we have already learned. Self-discipline results from setting goals, being consistent and giving responsibility. Self-reliance develops from positive self-talk and from spending creative time mastering projects, schoolwork, or hobbies. Resourcefulness grows out of being LISTENED TO (not lectured) and GUIDED (not nagged) to make appropriate choices.

Problem solving is a path which leads to autonomy and achievement. We already explored this as a tool for coping (See Step 6, Page 266).

Integrity means more than just being trustworthy with others. It also means being honest with yourself. Teaching problem solving is a good start because children are more likely to think of various options and less likely to lie to avoid punishment or impress others. Model honesty yourself. Point out honest acts of other people. Connect honesty with rewards and a sense of self-satisfaction; show how dishonest leads to grief, not just in our own lives, but all around us (in the news for example).