Should we set rules or teach values to help build character?

As parents, we all expect our children to develop a good character and virtues so that they can grow to become responsible adults and good citizens. While our expectations are clear, what doesn’t seem so clear is the effective method to do it.

Most of us set rules for steering our children in the right direction for building character. We set rules like ‘never lie to parents or to anyone’, ‘do not steal’, ‘do not use abusive words’, ‘do not hit other children’, ‘wash your feet before getting on bed’, ‘homework first, play later’, ‘don’t touch my mobile’ and so on. The list can go on and on. We either set a rule for ‘doing’ or ‘not doing’ something. But the question is, does this build character?

Let’s look at the adult world. We live in a world of rules and policies- travel policy, incentive policy, traffic rule, tax rules, customs rules, investment rules, gender equality, fair play, equal opportunity and so on. Do these rules make us any better as a person or help build/improve character?

An alternative approach is to focus on inculcating values or virtues and making them see their beauty and realise their importance. This means that we adopt a virtue-based ethics method to build character. Virtues are internally applied while rules are externally applied. They are opposite approaches. It requires us to work on our children’s inner world and not their external world.

As a parent, I have come to believe that only virtue-based ethics can build lasting character not rule-based. Rule-based ethics can only be enforced externally on the child and it doesn’t do much to change the child internally. It is very easy to set rules and reward/punish children based on whether they followed/disobeyed the rule. It may help get a desired behaviour temporarily, but it will not make a mark on their character.

How will they act if we take this reward-punishment system away? And most importantly, how will they act when they do not know the rules of something! This is something to think about.

So then, if you see how I see, new questions arise: ‘How do we adopt virtue-based ethics? ‘Can values be taught?’ And ‘How can we teach them virtues like non-violence, courage, temperance, justice and wisdom?

This is something I am learning myself and experimenting with now. I will share more about this journey in further posts.

Until then think about it. 😊

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