Featured on the Hong Kong Economic Journal (November 29, 2014)
I was recently at a conference that focused on Positive Psychology and character strengths. The speakers shared that people have character strengths such as love, self-control, perseverance, humility, sense of justice but each to differing degrees. So out of the 24 character strengths they highlighted, it was shared that everyone has all of them but some strengths will be stronger than others.
As they shared, one thing that impacted me most was the concept of ‘Shadow Side’. This is the concept that although all character strengths are in essence positive, to every character trait there is also a negative side, the ‘shadow side’. So for example, honesty is a positive character trait and we would generally all encourage our children to be honest. However, the shadow-side of honesty is that it could hurt other people’s feelings. For example, if a child brought an undecipherable scribble to proudly show you and asks you in an excited manner “Do you like this? It’s a Christmas tree!”. The painfully truthful and ‘honest’ answer might be “No I don’t like it. I can’t even tell it’s a Christmas tree” but that would be brutally hurtful to anyone, not least a child. So the character trait of honesty must be tempered with kindness. So in the same situation, a sensitive and honest response could be “I love the colours you used. Can you tell me more about this Christmas tree?”
Or another example is that we generally uphold the character trait of perseverance. Perseverance and persistence are traits that enable people to achieve challenging feats and overcome hurdles. However, the ‘shadow side’ of perseverance could be a stubbornness and a lack of flexibility. If a person is persistently pushing for his own idea, it could mean that he’s close minded to others and not able to be flexible to changes and other ideas. For example, I was recently in a discussion with a 8-year-old boy and he was telling me details of a movie he watched. I had recently watched the movie and told him that the details he was telling me were actually incorrect. In his persistent nature, he kept on standing by his point until a couple others in the class agreed with what I had shared. I admire this young boy’s persistence and perseverance but this character trait also needs to be tempered with flexibility.
The challenging thing about ‘shadow sides’ of character is that it requires wisdom and sensitivity to know how to strike the balance. And even as adults, it can be challenging! According to Kohlberg’s Theory of Moral Development, it’s only at the third and last stage of moral development that people are able to understand the flexibility of moral laws and that the world isn’t in so-called black and white. It’s important at the earlier stages to create the black and white structure of values for children so that they grow with a solid framework of understanding positive character traits. But as they grow older, critical thinking towards application of character traits becomes essential. So using previous examples, children should be taught the value of honesty and be actively encouraged to be honest but should also learn to temper honesty with kindness and sensitivity.
So, in my opinion, there is a need for role modeling and teaching when it comes to values and character. Even if an overarching theme of a positive character trait is taught (e.g. honesty), a child still needs to be led through the process of learning how to apply that in situations, how to be honest and kind at the same time, how to show tact when speaking and not to hurt someone’s feelings when being honest. There is a lot of need for adults to impart wisdom and experience with young people to teach them how to think critically about the shadow sides of positive character traits and how to balance them.