Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Naming Virtues

I have decided to focus, in 2009, on naming virtues when I see them.  Life is not fair. It is one of the great virtues of humanity that we try to create systems of fairness, even justice, in this world but the natural world is often unjust.  One seed falls upon a barren rock and another in a fertile meadow. The lightening strikes the barn of a kind farmer while the barn of a tyrant down the road is spared.  It is one of the great mysteries to me and many others no doubt, that life can be so unfair. Even worse, instead of being fair, human beings often behave unjustly toward one another. We console ourselves and each other with stories of righting wrongs, as best we can, and stories of overcoming adversity--no matter the source.  Striving, often against the events or people in life that seem unjust, we develop Virtues

We name virtues because they are precious to us--because we have a sense that virtue is what matters most.  We often start out giving a child a name that is a virtue, like Asha, meaning hope, or Sandy meaning, defender of others.  In the end, we name the virtues that we have seen in a human being as a measure of his or her worth and accomplishment in life in a eulogy. Along the way, we sometimes forget to name the virtues that we see and talk more about what is wrong with one another.  In my work, in fact, we are experts at naming deficits in children.  I am not only charged with naming what is wrong with a child, I am supposed to quantify it--which magnifies the sense of reality and importance of that deficit.  For example, I might write in a report that a child's receptive language skills are two standard deviations below the mean or that a child has a vocabulary that is similar to that of a two year old when she is seven.  As a profession, based upon a system that we have imposed upon the natural diversity of all things in human beings,we set a largely arbitrary "Good Enough" point for children's language development and then discusss how far a particular child's language skills are from that point. Despite the fact that parents ask us to do this very thing, it is hard to overstate the pain it causes a parent to receive this evaluation. As for the child, it can be very painful for a child to be seen in this way as well.  To be just to a child, we must see that child's virtues and clearly communicate this view to the child. I need a counter weight to the deficit view of children that is part of what I must do in my profession and the counter weight that I have found is Naming Virtues.

Let me give you an example of Naming Virtues:  Very reasonably, Schuyler, is reluctant to go far from his mother or father.  He is four years old and has learned to communicate his needs much much better in the last six months but his experience has been that things go better when he has a parent next to him.  We have been helping him learn that he will be successful even on his own now that his language skills are so much improved.  When we were playing last week, the batteries ran out on a little plastic drill that we were using as we reassembled a little plastic airplane.  Jan has batteries, I told Schuyler, go ask her for new batteries.  Schuyler looked immediately at his dad for support.  Dad said, I will wait here, Schuyler.  Schuyler got up, looking back at his dad several times (which his dad ignored) and went by himself to ask Jan, our office manager, for new batteries and then came back with these installed.  You are becoming CONFIDENT, I told Schuyler.  When you are CONFIDENT, this means that you feel sure of yourself.  You were a little bit worried but you went.  You went all by yourself to ask Jan for batteries because you were CONFIDENT that you could do this.

When I am able to name a virtue in a child, I am able to show that child his or her own gift.  It is not difficult.  Every child has virtue and every child is developing new virtues day by day.  I am witness, in my work to demonstrations of PATIENCE, GENTLENESS, COMPASSION, KINDNESS, DETERMINATION, CREATIVITY, HOPE, SINCERITY, FRIENDLINESS, COURAGE, JOYFULNESS...the list goes on and on.

Consciously naming virtues is an idea that I got from the folks at Virtues Project.  I often use a set of cards that I bought from this website and these cards name and describe virtues, helping me remember to see virtues in others and to use the language of virtues. Just as they suggest, I name the virtue when I see it and tell the child or adult what behavior I saw that I felt exemplified this virtue.  

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