Narvaez Gathers Diverse Insights into Moral Character from Students' Early Life

February 20, 2015William Schmitt

To use an academic term, “multidisciplinary” certainly describes the lives of educators in Catholic K-12 schools. One related vocation may demand even more areas of knowledge, along with common sense, virtuous behavior, practical skills, and habits of the heart. That vocation would be parenting.

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Darcia Narvaez, professor in Notre Dame’s Department of Psychology and a fellow in the Institute for Educational Initiatives, draws on diverse experience and enthusiastic study to offer expert navigation in that busy multidisciplinary intersection. Her new book and website testify to the bridges she’s building between academic research and crucial questions that arise in everyday life for parents, teachers, and children.

Here’s some evidence of the connections Narvaez is making:

Narvaez recently posted videos of presentations from “Pathways to Child Flourishing,” the 2014 edition in her series of biennial symposia assembled at Notre Dame through the William J. Shaw Center for Children and Families (affiliated with the Institute for Educational Initiatives). Her students recently posted a blog series based on the symposium presentations by interdisciplinary, international star researchers. Books from prior symposia include Evolution, Early Experience and Human Development and Daniel Lapsley, chair of Notre Dame’s Psychology Department and an Institute for Educational Initiatives fellow who holds the title of ACE Collegiate Professor of Psychology. He is also ACE’s coordinator of academic programs.

She’s already at work on a 2016 symposium, which will reflect her growing interest in the wisdom that many indigenous peoples have brought to the work of raising children from infancy and living well on the earth. As with earlier conferences, speakers will come from a range of disciplines and contribute to a volume of papers on the topic

“This is my sixth career, so I’m interdisciplinary myself,” says Narvaez, who earned her Ph.D. in educational psychology from the University of Minnesota and joined the Notre Dame faculty in 2000. Prior to her doctoral studies, she was an organist and choir director, classroom music teacher, Lutheran seminary graduate, business owner, and middle-school Spanish teacher. Her early experiences living in Latin America and comparing that to life in the much wealthier United States reinforced her interest in morality and ethics. Her longstanding interest in children’s wellbeing drives her advocacy for parents to do what is best for babies and her research, which shows that experience in the early years influences thriving and morality.

Many of the issues encountered in childhood, such as bullying and “the poor social skills some children come to school with,” often have their roots in how parents raised them in infancy, according to Narvaez. Babies’ brains “are still finishing themselves” in the first months and years of life, so deprivation from a nurturing calmness can begin a path toward anxiety, depression, or disagreeability.

“A lot of social awareness capacities are developed in the early years and move forward through the rest of your life,” she says.

These are among the topics addressed in Narvaez’s new book. “It’s not the book I intended to write,” she says, crediting the Holy Spirit with guidance along the way. The book includes insights into societies geared to nurture babies “in a supportive place, with a lot of social richness.” Many children and adults today need to relearn “the joy of being emotionally present to others,” with a bold imagination and what she calls a broad “circle of concern” that includes the natural environment.

Narvaez is married to Daniel Lapsley, chair of Notre Dame’s Psychology Department and an Institute for Educational Initiatives fellow who holds the title of ACE Collegiate Professor of Psychology. He is also ACE’s coordinator of academic programs.