How To Raise Wise Children

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This article originally appeared on the website of our friends and colleagues at the Center for Scholars & Storytellers and was originally created to support the John Templeton Foundation and Baylor University in hosting its Technology Innovation Request for Proposal: Improving Character Strengths of Adolescents through Technology Innovation.

You may have heard the saying “Wisdom is something that comes with age,” and while there is truth to this, children and adolescents can develop wisdom, as well. According to Dr. Thomas Plante, a professor of psychology at Santa Clara University in California, wisdom involves the active process of reflection and discernment, two actions that anyone can take. We use reflection when we think about our lives thus far and consider if we are living in accordance with our values; we use discernment when we make decisions and judgments that guide us toward more meaning and purpose in our lives.

Research shows that our brains are hardwired to help us acquire wisdom by ensuring that we learn from our mistakes. In fact, there is a specific region of the brain, the anterior cingulate cortex, whose function is to alert us when we have made an error or when one is likely to occur. This region also ensures that we pay attention to and learn from our mistakes so that we are less likely to repeat them in the future.

Therefore, learning from our mistakes is an important part of development, especially for children and adolescents. In fact, Plante believes they are at a critical period in their lives for thoughtful reflection, discernment, and character formation because they are in the constant process of learning. Dr. Mark McMinn, a professor of psychology at George Fox University in Newberg, Oregon, agrees, pointing to research that suggests wisdom increases most between the ages of 13 and 25.

Research on Wisdom

Though it’s unclear why wisdom increases during these particular years, McMinn suspects that adolescents and young adults may develop wisdom by confronting age-appropriate dilemmas and learning from mistakes. Thus, recognizing the different ways children learn about behavior is key to understanding how they also develop wisdom.

In addition to learning from their own actions, children and adolescents also look to the outside world to understand norms about how to act and what behavior is appropriate. In one famous psychology study (the Bobo Doll Experiment), Stanford psychologist Dr. Albert Bandura discovered that children were much more likely to behave aggressively toward a large doll if they saw adults hitting and punching the doll first. Bandura’s research suggests that children and adolescents learn by watching those around them, and that children learn from authority figures, such as their parents and teachers.

Children also learn by comparing themselves to their friends. In this process, known as social comparison, people compare themselves to others and try to determine if they are doing better or worse in areas that are important to them, such as performance in school. If children and adolescents see their friends being rewarded or otherwise doing well for making good decisions, this will lead them toward the path of self-improvement and character development, as well.

Wisdom and Social Life

In addition to children being influenced by parents, teachers, and friends, Plante points out that our current culture is also an important source of influence. Children learn from popular media, such as movies and television, as well as from social media, apps, and games. Therefore, telling stories that showcase people learning from the consequences of their actions serves as a great example of wisdom development.

Wisdom and Technology

Apps and games that are interactive are also essential for the growth of wisdom because they allow people to receive real-time feedback about their actions and choices. Apps and games that incorporate decision making can help children and adolescents learn from their mistakes, especially if feedback is provided on how to improve.

This is not to say that an app in and of itself can lead to wisdom development; it might instead be a useful supplement. McMinn points out that we primarily use our phones to do things quickly; wisdom forms slowly because the learning process is gradual, and, as we’ve established, it relies heavily on one’s ability to learn.

McMinn has been most successful in helping others develop wisdom in the context of small in-person groups involving conversation, silence, spiritual components, and practice confronting various dilemmas with the support of “wisdom mentors.”

It’s important to note that McMinn’s research indicates that children and adolescents would benefit greatly from having mentors who do not rush to provide them with answers in the midst of a dilemma, but instead take on a supportive role and allow children to arrive at their own solutions. It also suggests that media that helps facilitate in-person conversations may be a way for content developers to assist in the process. The prefrontal cortex in the brain, which is responsible for problem solving, develops during adolescence and is not fully formed until the early 20s. Therefore, children and adolescents greatly benefit from adult guidance to support their learning process in acquiring wisdom.

Finally, wisdom is not just something to be applied to the self; it can and should be part of our interactions and relationships with others. When we turn wisdom outward, it becomes compassion. Compassion is simply having concern for other people and expressing care for them. It can be developed through learning about diversity and the value of people from different backgrounds, as well as from experiencing religious services and serving the community.

While wisdom is certainly something that improves with age, we know that it begins developing long before adulthood. Children and adolescents are full of unsuspecting insight, but targeting specific components of the mechanisms utilized in learning about behavior can help facilitate and support the development of wisdom and compassion.

Actionable Insights

  • Develop media that encourages children and adolescents to practice making choices.
  • Use media and apps to facilitate small-group, in-person conversations.
  • Help people reflect on the consequences of their actions.
  • Check that people are learning from their mistakes.
  • Provide feedback about how to improve on mistakes.
  • Use parents, teachers, and peers as role models for making good decisions.
  • Teach children and adolescents to care for others.
  • Portray cultural diversity in media to facilitate the development of compassion.

Author H. Wenwen Ni is a PhD candidate in social psychology at UCLA. She is passionate about using psychological research to improve well-being.

This blog was originally created to support Baylor University in hosting its Technology Innovation Request for Proposal: Improving Character Strengths of Adolescents Through Technology Innovation.

Tags: Education, Developing Skills & Character, Mentor

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