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

Author: William 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.


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:

  • ·         Neurobiology and the Development of Human Morality: Evolution, Culture and Wisdom, published last year, has drawn attention to her observations among philosophers and theologians, as well as scholars in psychology and other fields.
  • ·         The Association for Practical and Professional Ethics has invited her to speak—and face a panel of philosophers assessing her book—at their annual convention Feb. 19-21.
  • ·         A personal website Narvaez launched last year reaches out to a variety of audiences who have heard about work through various channels. She combines personal history and reflections with a look at upcoming activities and an invitation to “Ask Me Anything.”
  • ·         Her interactivity with a vast lay audience includes the “Moral Landscapes” blog she writes at the Psychology Today website, which has 5 million page views since she started blogging in 2009.
  • ·         Narvaez is co-director of a $2.6 million grant project called “”“>The Self, Motivation, and Virtue,” funded by the Templeton Religion Trust. Her editorship of The Journal of Moral Education also speaks to her interest in moral development.
  • ·         Her engagement with the teaching profession includes a series of Nurturing Character in the Classroom publications for the Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE). She has taught numerous workshops on moral character education and talked about the approach at a 2002 White House conference on Character and Community hosted by Laura Bush.

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.                              

Originally published by William Schmitt at on February 20, 2015.