Forging good character is largely a matter of overcoming our innate early narcissism and developing a caring, responsible relationship with others and the world around us. As young children we are inherently self-focused and believe everything in the world exists to meet our needs. And that is good and necessary for us in our infancy because our very survival can depend on it. One of the principal challenges of effective socialization is to guide a child beyond their primitive view of themselves and the world around them. Eventually, we must all be able to see ourselves as a part of a much bigger reality and become mindful of the impact we might have on others and the world around us. But there are many factors that can impede the learning of important life lessons necessary to bring us to this broader, healthier view. Sometimes, a child’s caregivers have such an excessive, unhealthy emotional neediness that they attempt to satisfy their own needs through their children. As a result, this caregiver might dote on the child too intensely and/or too often, and in so doing can reinforce the notion that the child is indeed the very center of things. Other times, caregivers can be too absent a presence in their children’s lives and/or too neglectful. This leaves the child overly “hungry” for attention and recognition as well as overly focused on their needs. Then, of course, some children seem to have certain in-born tendencies that complicate the character development process. Some may naturally tend to be empathetic or have a greater sensitivity to the suffering of other people while others may tend to be less sensitive, more uncaringly self-advancing, even daredevilish. Our natural inclinations and our experiences both influence the way we eventually come to see ourselves and our relationship to the world.
It was once widely believed that children naturally move toward positive growth unless they experience trauma of some type. But we now know that what doesn’t happen in the way of learning certain crucial life lessons is just as important to good character development as the tragic events that might beset a person and arrest or impede their character formation. And that’s what prompted me to catalog what my experience has taught me are the 10 essential “commandments” of good character development. Since first introducing them in my book Character Disturbance, I’ve refined both the content of these commandments and the explanations of their meaning. And over the course of the next several weeks, I’ll be discussing each of them once again and their pivotal role in character formation as well as providing some illustative examples. I consider these commandments as timely and appropriate for adults who’ve come to recognize their character development arrests and their need for further character growth as they are for youngsters still in their formative years. They are as follows:
The “10 Commandments”
- You are not the center of the universe. Be mindful of how you, your urges and desires, and most especially your behavior impact everyone and everything else that exists.
- You are neither an insignificant speck nor are you so precious or essential to the universe that it simply cannot do without you. Keep a balanced perspective on your sense of worth.
- Strive to earn respect and show gratitude. Always remember, you are not really entitled to anything.
- Have the utmost reverence for the truth. Be ever mindful of humankind’s incredible capacity to deceive, including oneself. Honestly and humbly acknowledge and reckon with your mistakes.
- Master your appetites and aversions.
- Think before you act. Be the master of your impulses.
- Strive to develop solidity, strength, and rightness of purpose, with regard to your will.
- Anger and aggressive behavior are not inherently evil. But fight only when necessary and fight fairly. Above all, fight constructively and with as much care as possible to make things better while respecting the rights, needs, and boundaries of self and others.
- Treat those you encounter with civility and generosity.
- To the best of your ability, be of sincere heart and purpose.
Two Important Helps to Character Development
Raising children to be mature, responsible adults is among life’s most challenging enterprises. And years of research and clinical experience has shown that for kids to develop both strength and integrity of character, two factors are of key importance: affection and approval. The manner in which children experience these two things during their upbringing can have a deep and lasting impact not only on their moral development but also on how well-adjusted and successful they’re likely to be in life.
Mental health professionals have long known that the most successful and well-adjusted adults come from homes in which love and affection were experienced both liberally and unconditionally whereas parental approval was bestowed quite conditionally. And when it comes to that conditional approval, it’s important that it’s specifically linked to behavior. Basically, a child has to get these messages loudly and clearly from their caretakers: “I love you thoroughly and no matter what, but when it comes to what you do, some things are simply not okay.” In the concluding articles of the current series, I’ll be expanding on this all-important principle (for more on this topic see the article: Affection and Approval: Two Things that Matter for Character) and how it impacts the teaching and learning of the “10 commandments” of good character development.
Once again, my sincerest thanks to all who have purchased or recommended How Did We End Up Here?, my latest book with Dr. Armistead.
My regular Sunday evening broadcast (7 pm EDT, 6 pm CDT, 5 pm MDT, 4 pm PDT), Character Matters, will be a live broadcast, so I can take your phone calls.