SALT LAKE CITY — Beyond the question of whether or not Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh has been honest about sexual misconduct and excessive drinking in his teens is another question: Does it matter if it happened when he was that young?
Some people have argued that what Kavanaugh, 53, did as a teen has no bearing on who he is an adult. Others say the way a person behaves as a youth is predictive of how they will conduct themselves later in life.
It all comes down to an ill-defined concept called “character.” Whether one's character is considered good or bad depends on the collection of virtues or vices that we have acquired and that other people perceive in us.
Elizabeth Vozzola, a Connecticut professor who studies the development of morality in children, believes that character develops throughout our lives. “Your character is an ever-changing canvas,” she said.
That said, research has found that empathy, a major factor in the virtues that comprise character, develops in early childhood. And the older we are, the more our character becomes entrenched and harder to change, said Vozzola, who teaches psychology at the University of St. Joseph in West Hartford, Connecticut, and is the author of the scholarly text "Moral Development: Theory and Applications."
For parents struggling with a "terrible two" or a rebellious teen, that may be discouraging. But because there is no developmental period in which character becomes entrenched or fixed, that means there's plenty parents can do to raise children of good moral character, developmental psychologists say.
Stages of moral growth
Neuroscientists say there is no moral command post in the brain; we call on different parts of our brain and its circuits and chemicals when making moral decisions.
But, according to neuroscientist Jean Decety of the University of Chicago, an area of the brain called the ventromedial prefrontal cortex seems to be especially important in moral development. If a child suffers damage to this area, such as from a blow or a lesion on the brain, he's "more likely to break moral rules or inflict harm on others and less likely to feel empathy or guilt," wrote Decety and Jason Cowell of the University of Wisconsin at Green Bay in the journal Frontiers for Young Minds.
The late American psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg posited six stages of moral development. The first two are considered “pre-moral” concepts — the understanding of punishment and obedience, and what Kohlberg called “instrumental exchange” — giving to others as it benefits ourselves.
The next level is marked by conformity to the standards of one’s tribe, whether it be a family or social group, and then by conforming to societal rules to maintain safety and order. Most people arrive at this stage in adolescence and remain there until at least middle age.
The final stages of moral development are rarely achieved, and even then, not until after middle age, Kohlberg maintained. They are the protection of moral principles and other people’s rights and freedoms, and the acceptance of universal ethical principles.
Psychologists say that to change a person’s attribute most effectively, it should be done during the period of its most rapid growth. There is no period of moral development akin to a physical growth spurt or a “word spurt” of language development, Vozzola said, but there are sweet spots during which children are more inclined to absorb a parent’s moral teaching.
Adolescents, for example, are just beginning to understand the golden rule (Jesus' teaching to "do unto others what you would have them do unto you") and parents can initiate conversations to help them apply the concept in their own lives, and in world events.
“That’s a big developmental leap,” Vozzola said. “The drawback during the teenage years is that it’s still pretty tribal. The sense of what's right and wrong is often determined by your peer group."
Adolescents feel a greater loyalty to their peer groups and are likely to make decisions — not only about practical matters, but about morality — that benefit the group. Teen years are an exploration of identity, and teens often "try on" different identities during this time to see what is comfortable. A nice kid who works hard in class might also be a teen who parties hard on the weekend, she said.
"What I see in the Kavanaugh case, and also in teenagers in general, is if you understand what their social pressures are, you can understand them a lot better.
“You can be blown away by how kind some kids can be to each other, and then turn right around and be horribly cruel to people who aren’t in their tribe, aren't in their group,” Vozzola said.
Christopher Nave, associate director of the master of behavioral and decision sciences program at the University of Pennsylvania, has researched the link between personality traits in childhood and adults, and found that some qualities are predictive of later behavior.
“We remain recognizably the same person,” Nave told a reporter for Live Science. “This speaks to the importance of understanding personality because it does follow us wherever we go across time and contexts.”
One’s personality is not necessarily representative of one’s character, however. The late Stephen R. Covey developed his book “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” around the idea that a “character ethic” is morally superior to a “personality ethic.”
But a person’s character might be a combination of personality traits, such as honesty and humility, Nave said in an interview with the Deseret News.
“There’s a lot of evidence that suggest personality traits are quite stable across the lifespan. If you are high or low on one particular trait as a child, you have a tendency to remain at that level,” Nave said.
For example, a child who is highly conscientious and moderately agreeable at age 6 will likely show growth in both traits as she matures, but the ranking of the two will be similar in adulthood, he explained.
Personality is partly genetic, but the nurturing we receive as children and the environment in which we grow up affects these traits as well, Nave said. The genetic component keeps things stable over time, but major life changes can alter our personality as we age. To do so deliberately requires a lot of determination and work, he added.
“I still think the jury is still out on how easy it is to change your personality. And I think it’s much harder than people think,” he said.
Raising kids with character
Vozzola, at the University of St. Joseph, agrees with others in the field who believe there is a “significant biological underpinning” to moral judgments.
But she also says there are things that parents can do to better the chances of raising children who become adults with exemplary character.
One thing is to think deeply about whether to encourage your child to play sports.
“The thing about being an athlete is it puts you into the popular group,” she said. “That’s often where the drinking is heavier, the drugs are heavier, and it’s more of a social norm of intense partying.”
That doesn’t mean all athletes will do this — “some kids stay firmly attached to the morals of their parents, but with other kids, the peer group dominates.” Coaches with strong morals can also be a good influence on their players.
Vozzola said that children who have particularly close relationships with parents, and teens who are religious, tend to hold to the norms of their church and their parents, and withstand social pressure of the teen years, she said.
And parents can help instill character in young children by giving them hands-on opportunities to help others, such as the "Red Wagon Food Drive," in which kindergartners and first- and second-graders from Morley Elementary School pull wagons for over a mile to donate food to the local food bank each November in West Hartford, Connecticut.
Similarly, researchers at the Flourishing Family Project at Brigham Young University have found that adolescents who have the opportunity to help strangers have stronger family relationships and are less likely to get in trouble and engage in risky behaviors like substance abuse.
Vozzola recommends that parents make an effort to have thoughtful conversations with their children about the virtues and moral code they embrace.
"Parents and teachers tend to spend a lot of time talking about rules and conventions — how long your skirt is, and did you get to class on time. But we also don’t have enough of those conversations where we share with kids our deep, core moral values."
And don’t overlook the value of books and movies in instilling values in children and teens.50 comments on this story
“Literature and great stories are one of the most wonderful ways to help your kids. It’s easy for all of us to care about only people who are like us. And in stories, you go to worlds with other people,” she said, adding that Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” is an example of both a book and film that helped build character in people who read and watched it.
“Movies can be powerful; watch movies together,” she advised. “Sometimes we have profound things (happen) in real life, and sometimes our hearts open up when we see it in a film or movie.”