Hope for Children Foundation invites you to think about how to ensure progressive growth in the moral life.
Know Our Strengths, Progress, Faults and Failings
We believe, we must first know our individual selves. We must know our particular faults and failings, as well as our strengths and progress in trying to lead a good life. We gain this self-knowledge by continually examining our behavior and reflecting on the kind of person we are and would like to be. Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” When we examine our life can we improve it. Besides knowing ourselves, we must also make a sincere effort to become a better person—more patient, more sensitive to the needs of others, quicker to forgive, more willing to admit when we’re wrong. We must persist in this effort even when we fail, as we surely will. Finally, we must ask, are we carrying out our good intentions? Are we making gains, however small, in practicing the virtues? Know our long term gains. Know our virtues? These three things, then, are essential for developing our character and becoming the best person we can be: (1) self-awareness; (2) efforts at improvement; and (3) evaluating our progress. When students and adults in a school, or at home, do not think about the kind of character they want to possess and don’t work on developing it themselves, a character education program will fall far short of its potential. Know our goals when helping others build character.
Personalize Character Building
It will feel like an uphill battle, something you’re pushing at people. The behavior of individuals and the ethos of the school and/or at home, won’t improve as much as they should. We have been involved with character education now for about twenty years. I think we need to do more to personalize it. Those who teach character building, must do everything possible and make a personal commitment of trying to improve their own character. It’s true that part of our character is “caught”—absorbed from positive role models and the experience of being treated with love and respect. But beyond that, improving our character is a matter of intention, effort, and often struggle. We don’t become wiser, more patient, more self-disciplined, more truthful, more courageous, more forgiving, and more humble persons automatically. We do so by deliberately striving to be that kind of person. Know our character traits, which traits are lacking and which are present.
Teach Why Character Matters
This, along with the next several Posts will review many strategies for helping all learners, adults as well as young people, undertake the vital task of improving character.
TEACH WHY CHARACTER MATTERS
Why bother to develop a good character? Why be good? If we can’t answer those questions for students, young children, teenagers or adults, or engage them in reflection that will help them arrive at solid answers, we’re going to have trouble getting them to care about character. When I talk to young people, here’s how I make the case for character: Why is character important? Look around. Good character is the key to self-respect, to earning the respect of others, to positive relationships, to a sense of fulfillment, to achievements you can be proud of, to a happy marriage, to success in every area of life. But don’t take my word for it. Interview people who have lived most of their lives. Ask them: When they look back, what are they proud of? What gives them fulfillment? What would they do differently if they could live their lives over? All human beings have a deep desire to be happy. We should invite young persons to consider: “What does it mean to be happy? What leads to happiness—and what does not?” Unless our children are challenged to think seriously about such questions, many will adopt the media culture’s definition of happiness: material comforts and pleasure, especially sexual pleasure. And if that becomes their definition of happiness, they won’t see the point of developing character qualities such as self-control, sacrifice, and service.
Sharing Cross-Cultural Research
We should share with students what cross-cultural research tells us about human happiness. The book Cultivating Heart and Character by Tony Devine and colleagues reports that cultures around the world affirm three life goals as sources of authentic happiness: 1. maturity of character—becoming the best person we can be 2. loving relationships, such as marriage and family 3. contributing to society—making a positive difference in the lives of others.
When we pursue these life goals—which all require leading a life of virtue—we are living in harmony with our deepest selves. When we neglect or go against these goals—show bad character, act unlovingly in our relationships, take from others without contributing to their good—we make ourselves unhappy. Especially when they enter adolescence, our children need to find a purpose for their lives. Many teens, lacking a sense of purpose, seek escape in drugs, alcohol, sex, and endless consumption of electronic media. Growing numbers take their lives. They need help in resisting the seductions of a media culture that tells them that life’s purpose is maximizing their pleasure. Even those teens who are working toward worthwhile near-term goals (getting into a good college, getting a good job) need a larger vision that will help to sustain them in the face of life’s inevitable disappointments and sufferings.
Is This All There Is?
Many people achieve their dreams and find themselves asking, “Is this all there is?” We can, by holding up the three universally affirmed life goals—maturity of character, loving relationships, and making a difference—offer our children a framework for living that can bring lasting fulfillment. For many of us, this won’t be the whole framework—we might add a relationship with God in this life and the next—but the three life goals represent something that all world views can embrace and all schools can teach.
TEACH, “NOBODY CAN BUILD YOUR CHARACTER FOR YOU”
The next step in encouraging young people to take charge of their character is to help them understand that they are in fact responsible for the kind of person they become. Here’s the message we want to get across: Nobody can build your character for you. Parents and teachers can’t build your character. They can teach you right from wrong, provide a good example, set and enforce rules, and encourage you to be the best person you can be. But they can’t reach inside you and build your character. You have to do that. Character building is an “inside job.” It’s a personal responsibility—one that lasts a lifetime. Everybody’s character, yours and mine, is a work in progress.
TEACH, “WE CREATE OUR CHARACTER BY THE CHOICES WE MAKE”
We create our character by the choices we make. Good choices create good habits and good character. Bad choices create bad habits and bad character. How can we persuade young people that they’re making choices all the time—choices that affect the habits they’re forming and the kind of person they are becoming? A High school teacher told his students: “Life is a series of choices you get to make.” You get to choose how to treat other people. You can put them down—or build them up. You get to choose how much you’ll learn. You can loaf your way through school—or work hard and make the most of your education. You get to choose how you’ll handle adversity, the inevitable misfortunes of life. You can let adversity crush you—or you can look for a source of strength and deal with whatever life hands you. You get to choose your belief system and purpose in life. You can wander through life aimlessly—or you can search for the ultimate meaning of life and then live according to it. Finally, you get to choose your character. You can become less than you’re capable of—or all that you’re capable of. If young people see themselves as making choices, they’re more likely to take responsibility for their choices. If you own the choice, you own the responsibility.
Hope for Children Foundation