Speaking the Language of Virtues

“Virtues are what’s good about us.” 6-year old girl (from The Virtues Guide by Linda Popov)

When my children were babies, I was a ferocious consumer of parenting books.  One of the early lessons I learned from one of them was to tap into the power of words to transform the way I parent, by using the language of virtues with children. There is an entire book written on the topic, so I won’t go into too much detail, but here is a taste of it.

Shaming and labeling versus Empowering

  • Instead of “You are so being greedy,” say “You need to practice moderation, how can I help you with that?”
  • Instead of “Stop whining!” say  “Be patient.”
  • Instead of “You are being so rude,” say  “Be polite.”
  • Instead of “Stop hurting Johnny,” say “I need you to be gentle or play peacefully with Johnny”
  • Instead of “Stop hitting your sister,” say  “I need you to be gentle and kind to your sister.”

One focuses on the bad behavior or on what not to do, the other on the expected behavior. Of course the tone of your voice can reflect the seriousness of what is expected. Young children are not always sure what to replace the unwanted behavior with; they need us to spell it out for them.  If we want them to be careful, polite, loving, peaceful or patient, then we should communicate that to them.  With time, they learn what these virtues look like. Modeling the behavior we expect from them is very important.

Acknowledging children using the language of virtues:

  • I acknowledge your courage.
  • I honor how brave you were when dealing with ____.
  • I see that took a lot of courage on you part.
  • You are being kind, polite, loving, etc.
  • Thank you for being helpful this morning to put away the plates (be specific about what they were being helpful with).

 DO NOT use virtues to shame or lecture

  • You never play peacefully.
  • Why can’t you remember to be kind?
  • Stop being inconsiderate.
  • You are so impatient.

Alternative statements:

  • What would help you to be peaceful?
  • If they are not being kind after being asked, ask them if they need help to figure out what the right action is.
  • If things get out of hand, remove the child from the situation, but give him the opportunity to return when he is ready to be peaceful or kind or whatever the requested behavior may be.

The Virtues guide is a simple and well-written guide to using the language of virtues. When I was home with my children together, we used to read a virtue and day and discuss it with them.  What does kindness, or compassion, or peaceful look like and we would role play — they love that!.  My seven-year old daughter once told me I was not being tactful and she was right!  Actually, they often call me on the virtues I am not reflecting.

Reference: The Virtues Guide:  Simple Ways to Bring out the Best in Our Children and Ourselves by Linda Kavelin Popov.

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