March 2, 2020

Building Character

All over North America there are thousands of summer camps that intentionally grow childrens’ commitment to their religion. Embedded in that religious acculturation there is always character building – simply because most religions speak to the question: What is a good person and what is a moral life?

For the rest of us, this raises a question: When we send our kids to camps and programs, do we want them to  do character building… or just teach our kids to kick a soccer ball or paddle a canoe?

We might say no to that question because, like sex ed and religion, lots of parents want those subjects kept in the home and under parental control. My kid, my choice about how much of that sensitive info (and when) to give. And my moral code, not yours.

We might say yes to that question – if we figure that our kids need all the help they can get growing character in the digital age, thanks to the crazed values and norms of their overwhelming social media world, and the way its immediate gratification affects them.

We might also say yes to that question because we so desperately want our kids to develop grit, compassion and confidence. My personal definition of character. Which includes having a robust moral code.

If we do say yes to that question, how can programs and camps do it, build character in kids? Usually not so well by telling them who to be and how to be in the world. As adults we do like to lecture kids, and we  often fail to resist the impulse to pontificate. As a friends said the me recently: “It’ll be a miracle if you keep your mouth shut.” I find that so challenging because I usually believe that experience has taught me enough to know better than my kids, and I’m too impulsive to remember that they rarely listen to me even when we both know I’m right. Because it’s in kids’ DNA to need to figure stuff out for themselves, and learn from their experience – not mine.

Which suggests that to build kids’ character, programs and camps need to create opportunities for learning, experiences that grow them. Like a canoe trip with long muddy portages. (Yes, bring on the rain!) Those clouds come with two silver linings: The first is the actual experience, which is hard for everybody. Just getting through it grows grit and confidence. Helping your friends who stumble – which is guaranteed to occur – grows compassion.

The second silver lining comes from reflecting on the experience. All good coaches foster reflection because they know that’s where you mine for gold. Let’s say it’s a soccer game they lost. The kids who flubbed it end the game feeling humiliated, awful about themselves, embarrassed in front of their team-mates, not sure they’ll come back for the next game. The smart coaches sits the team down and gets them talking about it. The smart coach, whose intention is to build character, asks the leading questions that get the kids on that road: What was hard for us in that game? What caused our fumbles? How can we do better next time? How could we support each other to do better?

Simply by getting the kids to address those questions out loud, the smart coach gets them on the road to strengthened character. Listening to other kids’ challenges builds empathy. Venting about their own challenges, being respectfully heard and offered support builds their resolve to stay in the game. That’s grit. The entire experience of reflecting grows their confidence because they have an experience of a supportive community problem-solving with them, so they feel more personally able.

Add it all up: Grit, compassion and confidence. Throw in a pinch of moral code. That happens because trash-talking thrives in dark corners. When kids as a whole group talk out and problem-solve their failures together, it’s harder to play the blame game. Compassion grows. And from that, what we as parents so badly want for our kids: A moral code.

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