It seems that everyone and everything in our world is obsessed with personality. Your personality type (of which there are many), Donald Trump’s personality, crafting a personality that will help you succeed in business or at cocktail parties. People are deemed desirable or undesirable on the basis of their personality: he’s weird, she talks too much, she’s desperate, he’s awkward. On the surface, it seems like cultivating a likable, cool, nonchalant personality is the ticket to success in life. Everyone wants to have a just-right personality and be with other people who have just-right personalities.
So it’s tempting to want to shape your child’s personality into something “the world” will approve of. Say this, wear that, play these sports, do those hobbies, like these things but not those. Be outgoing, but not too outgoing. Be confident, and preferably funny, too. But ultimately, personality is a superficial collection of traits that is not related to a person’s true character. Someone could have a great personality but a horrible character, and vice versa. We’ve all known charming people who are selfish and dishonest, or people who were hard to get to know but are kind and giving at heart.
Clearly, Stoicism is focused on character rather than personality. Personality doesn’t matter for virtue and eudaimonia, but character is crucial. You could say that desirable personality traits such as being charming and funny are preferred indifferents, in the same way that being attractive and intelligent are preferred indifferents. There is only so much you can do to cultivate them, and they are not necessary for happiness. That means someone could be socially awkward but still lead a virtuous and eudaimonic life. Actually, I imagine the great Stoic role models Cato, Diogenes the Cynic, and maybe even Socrates lacked certain social skills. (Many people found them annoying.)
With that in mind, I think it’s safe to say that as parents, we should focus on building our child’s character rather than personality. It’s not that we shouldn’t teach social skills, but I think we should teach social skills in the context of being a good person. For example, we can teach our kids to be cheerful and agreeable because this is part of virtue, not because it’s part of a good personality. If character-building traits also lead to a good personality, so much the better. But there may be some times when good character comes at the expense of a good personality; for example, going against the grain of social convention because it’s the right thing to do. Socrates and Diogenes were not the most popular guys on the block, but they were probably the most content with their lives.
Focusing on your child’s character has many benefits. Here are just a few of them:
- It sends the message that this is what really matters in life. Our kids will learn to value virtue for its own sake, not because it makes you popular. They will be more likely to judge other people based on their character, so that they choose their friends and future romantic partners wisely. Being a good judge of character is an extremely valuable skill, one that I think we can help to cultivate in our children.
- Our children will have an inner confidence that does not depend on external approval. Personality traits often depend on other people’s opinions. If someone is “charming,” it’s because other people judge her to be charming. Or if someone is considered “weird” or “shy” or “outgoing,” those are judgments made by other people, with reference to other people. In contrast, character traits depend on your own inner judgment; you don’t need to rely on other people’s approval.
- As a parent, you won’t be constantly trying to change something you can’t control: your child’s personality. We were all born with certain temperaments. Some people are quiet, others are boisterous. If you constantly bear down on your child and try to change their natural temperament, you will both be miserable. You will be constantly disappointed, and your child will either be extremely anxious or will rebel. (Or both.)
- Most important, a virtuous character leads to eudaimonia. This is one of the basic principles of Stoic philosophy, and it’s important for us to remember as we guide our children in life. If you seek to live in accordance with nature, personality is irrelevant. Only character matters.
I believe you can and should shape character by teaching appropriate thought and action. But personality is different. if you want your child to be an athlete and he doesn’t like sports, that’s a recipe for great unhappiness. Or if you want your daughter to be a doctor but she wants to be an actress, something’s got to give. I think we have to accept our kids’ natural preferences and stop trying to control their personalities.
You might think that shaping your child’s personality is for her own good. For example, you might want your quiet and sensitive daughter to learn to speak up for herself. This is a very noble intention. However, in my experience, if you really want your shy child to speak up, then you should help her become confident in who she is. If you keep telling her to be more outgoing, she will get a very loud and clear message that she is not good enough, that there is something wrong with her for being shy. But if you love her for the quiet person she is, she will learn to be confident in herself. Being confident in her inner character will give her the ability to speak up for herself when necessary. Being insecure about her personality will only make her less confident and more anxious or shy.
Our kids get plenty of messages from the world (friends, classmates, tv shows) about what their personalities should be. What they need from us as parents is an understanding of what their character should be. People of any personality type can be happy, so this is not an important factor in the art of living. But only people with one type of character (a virtuous character) can find eudaimonia. When you look at it that way, it seems clear that personality is irrelevant for living a good life, but character is crucial. Which one do you want to give your child?