Character-Building

Lots of folks say that, while they can’t exactly define it, they know it when the see it. Character, that is. Few, though, would argue with author and talk show host Dennis Prager’s take on it: “Goodness is about character-integrity, honesty, kindness, generosity, moral courage, and the like. More than anything else, it is about how we treat people.”

Yes, indeed, and reminiscent of the Golden Rule we all repeatedly heard growing up: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” But since we don’t all abide by it, there’s been a history of character-building lessons in our schools.

Back in 1993, the Josephson Institute of Ethics proposed a set of universal values during a meeting in Aspen, Colorado which came to be known as the Aspen Declaration of Character Education. Among its tenets:

  1. “People do not automatically develop good moral character; therefore, conscientious efforts must be made to help young people develop the values and abilities necessary for moral decision-making and conduct.
  2. Effective character education is based on core ethical values rooted in democratic society, in particular, respect, responsibility, trustworthiness, justice and fairness, caring, and civic virtue and citizenship.
  3. These core ethical values transcend cultural, religious and socioeconomic differences. Character education is, first and foremost, an obligation of families and faith communities, but schools and youth-service organizations also have a responsibility to help develop the character of young people.”

Then the very next year, the Character Education Partnership (CEP) was formed to develop “good character and civic virtue in schools and communities across the nation… and benefit society through school reform that addresses not only academics, but also social, emotions, and ethical issues.”

Meanwhile, the No Child Left Behind Law of 2001 expanded the organization’s funding from $8 million to $24 million-and not one state opposes such school-based training.

Character.org says there should be “an intentional, proactive effort by schools, districts, and states to instill in their students important core, ethical values such as caring, honesty, fairness, respect, and respect for self and others… to develop students socially, ethically, and academically by infusing character development into every aspect of the school culture and curriculum, to help students develop good character, which includes knowing, caring about, and acting upon core ethical values… “

To accomplish all that, the myriad of programs available to schools generally fall into four categories:

  1. Cheer-leading: Includes posters, banners, assemblies, announcements, and possibly a fundraiser for a worthy cause.
  2. Praise-and-reward approach: Entails positive reinforcement when catching kids doing/being good with praise, privileges, and prizes. The award/reward, though, sometimes becomes more important than the behavior.
  3. Define-and-drill: Involves the memorization of lists of values and their definitions to help develop students’ capacity for making moral decisions.
  4. Forced formality: Insists on strict compliance of conduct, such as walking in straight lines, arms at sides, and formal forms of address as in “Yes, sir” and using Mr., Ms, or Mrs. The aim here, though, is quick behavioral results, not necessarily better understanding and commitment to core values.

None of that, however, discounts the fact that character-building begins and is reinforced on the home front. Enter Harvest Time Partners. This combat-veteran owned company was formed over 20 years ago to provide “resources to support and encourage individuals, families, and organizations to reach their full potential in an increasingly complex and uncertain world.” These include:

  • The Principles of Our World Children’s Books for parents and teachers addressing teamwork, sacrifice, courage, and compassion
  • Award-winning conversation games, both Abundant Harvest Kid and Teen editions, and Face-to-Face kid, teen and dinner party editions “to help families and educators open the door to more effective communication and encourage decision-making based on principles, such as honesty and loyalty… “

The author, David Esposito, dedicates each of his children’s books to his mother and father, Mabel and Anthony, saying, “Thank you for giving me the gift of a strong foundation. It has meant more than you will ever know.” Each then offers up a main character based on honesty, courage, teamwork, sacrifice, or compassion and invites the reader to call on him/her when in need of strength or encouragement. Stories follow that take place at home, school, and work.

Ultimately, each book ends with six “What would you do?” scenarios, such as:

  • “During lunchtime recess, you see the ‘new kid’ walking around alone on the playground. What would you do?” (Target: compassion)
  • “A big bully at school is really starting to pick on you. You are afraid and anxious about going to school. What do you do?” (Target: courage)
  • “After graduating from college, you decide to live with two friends, so you can all share the costs of food, rent, and utilities as you start working. One of your friends fails to find a job and has no more money to help share the costs. What do you do? (Target: teamwork)
  • “You have planned a great Saturday with your girl/boyfriend. Your brother calls and tell you he needs to move on Saturday and could really use your help packing and moving his stuff across town. What do you do?” (Target: sacrifice)
  • “After buying some candy at the store, you realize the store clerk gave you an extra $10 bill when giving you change. What do you do?” (Target: honesty)

Along with the resources of Harvest Time Partners, consider putting R.J. Palacio’s novel Wonder on your shopping list. Lessons in character abound in this novel about physically disfigured August and his struggles at school, offering teachable moments for all of us. Along the way, one of Auggie’s teachers, Mr. Browne, offers his students monthly precepts. These include:

  • September: “When given the choice between being right and being kind, choose kind.” ~ Dr. Wayne W. Dyer
  • October: “Your deeds are your monuments.” ~ an inscription on an Egyptian tomb
  • March: “Kind words do not cost much. Yet they accomplish much.” ~ Blaise Pascal