Before the war (as my parents used to say) “character building” was a good thing. In the ‘50′s and ‘60′s when something was hard, educators could say to us students, “Just do it. It’s character building.” They must have used this expression once too often, or misused it, or something, because today, character building seems to have become a tribulation we might wish on our worst enemy.
These days the expression rears its ugly head in moments like:
Girl Friend: “How was your honeymoon?” New Bride: “Character building.”
Father: “How was your first geology class?” Daughter: “Character building.”
Uncle: “How was that sailing trip you went on with your parents?” Teenage nephew: “Character building.”
These replies often come with a grimace or smirk, and our reply to the reply is a nod of sympathy and a look of vicarious disappointment. (“I was hoping you would have a good time.”) These days when parents talk about their kids, I often hear, “I just want them to be happy,”…and of course successful. (It is impossible for a parent not to care about “successful.”)
Happiness and success are the unexamined goals both for ourselves and our children, even after (maybe sometime in our mid thirties or so) life confronts us with the reality that much of life is going to be “character building” whether we like it or not, and that Churchill was right when he said: “Success is going from failure to failure without losing enthusiasm.”
What is “character building” to you? How do you apply it in raising your children?
I posted these questions on my blog two years ago and got a dozen responses. In the discussion the word character bounced back and forth between two definitions: (a) moral quality, and (b) a person’s unique nature.
For example, character as morality:
“I hope my kids are learning how to make thoughtful, caring and moral decisions.”
“A parent tells her children what she likes and what she disapproves of, and shepherds them towards the good and away from the bad.”
“Of course we all want our children to have character, not any old character but good, positive, Grandpa-will-be-proud-of-you character.”
But character has another meaning:
“I woke up this morning thinking about character in a story as in ‘The author was able to construct a multi-dimensional character.’”
“Yes, a real character resonates with me—a quality of communication, a certain unique artistry–as in “she’s a real character.” I want to see this ‘character’ in my children.”
Then Sean brought both sides together:
“Many experiences in life are inherently character building. Educators watch for opportunities and help children define what these challenging experiences mean to them in their own terms, helping them understand and learn from the consequences, thus building a core bank of experiences they can reflect on when making future decisions. Thus they learn the skills of becoming themselves, skills like thoughtfulness, courage and humility. To set out to mold character is to miss the point.”
In other words, building character is both doing “the right thing,” and being true to your character, and being true to your character includes being true to others. We cannot “shape” another person’s character. Helping others grow is helping each other to continue to create the person we are meant to be. We all participate together in the lifelong process of character building.
In the now-popular How Children Succeed (2012) Paul Tough makes the compelling case that success has more to do with traits of good character than with intelligence or test scores. He’s right, of course. But we have always known this. It’s not new. “Character education” has been around for a while. There are character education programs and even character education worksheets.
It keeps coming up and keeps going nowhere, because we don’t know how to teach it. The reason we don’t know how to teach it is that it can’t be taught.
What’s missing is the understanding that character is not a set of moral traits; character is who we are. Each of us has a kharakter—the imprint that the gods put on our soul at birth—and it is our life’s work to keep building it. What we keep calling “character traits” are the disciplines we find useful in building our character—and we can all make a pretty good list. They are learned in the process of making decisions and noticing the results.
Building character is education itself, not a course of study.