Was It Character Building?

Character Building

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 misused the expression, or used in once too often, or something.  Because, today, character building seems to have become something we wouldn’t wish on our worst enemy. These days the expression rears its ugly head in moments like:

Uncle: “How was that sailing trip you went on with your parents?” Teenage nephew: “Character building.”

Girl Friend: “How was your honeymoon?” New Bride: “Character building.”

Father: “How was your first geology class?” Daughter: “Character building.”

These answers often come with a grimace or a smirk of some sort, and our response to the response is a nod of sympathy and a look of vicarious disappointment. I was hoping you would “have a good time.”

And what do we really wish for our children? I usually hear, “I just want them to be happy,” and though I rarely hear, “Successful,” it is nearly impossible for loving parents not to want both.

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.

How is it with you? Was there a moment, or did it come upon you gradually that life is about hard as much as happy? Was it a falling out with your boss that ended badly? Was it disillusionment with your job? Was it the second child? When did the frustrations and disappointments mount upon each other to convince you that not even you could do it all? Or has that happened?

If you faced that moment, how did you rally? Has that changed what you wish for your children?

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16 thoughts on “Was It Character Building?

  1. My parents raised me to believe that life would be a trial. A constant uphill battle that could never be won. While ultimately, if you met them, you probably wouldn’t believe me, it’s true. “Life isn’t fair.” and “Offer it up to God.” were oft heard phrases in my house. Perhaps it would have been nice to know that “it builds character….”

    I take these lessons and look at my small daughter and we work to make life fair (not always possible, but we should always try.) We work together to try to learn new things and focus on the lesson that if we just keep trying we might be better at it (I can now make a french poodle with a balloon and she can draw a princess with a fancy dress.)

    Stock phrases are trite because they have some truth and get used often because of that small kernel of truth. I try not to use them and like to think that I take those moments of character building unfairness that might be offered up to God and help my small, wonderful, smart, delightful, bundle of possibilities see that we might be able to work with it and we can all “live happily ever after…”

    So far, so good.

  2. Thank you, Anne Marie. Terrific! …and was your parents’ method flawed? You turned out all right. Right?

  3. I remember a lot of “character building” experiences as a child from the Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts, athletic teams, and other high school groups, plus a lot of church, to being tested with various ethical dilemmas as a young adult. All of that and my parents continual guidance and instruction influenced and shaped my character – the values, beliefs and moral qualities that I hold dear. And there isn’t a day that goes by when they aren’t called into use.
    As for my kids, and their kids, I have hope that they have learned, and are still learning, from their own experiences, how to make thoughtful, intelligent, sensitive, caring and moral decisions. Happiness vs success? Those aren’t mutually exclusive and so, yes, I hope for both. I’ve had mine and now it’s their turn. Onward!

  4. Thanks, Gary. But today it seems that often parents in the interest of happiness and success try to protect or rescue children from character-building experiences, no?

  5. anonymous shy person by email:
    Me? The expression I always use with Elijah employs a similarly poorly defined term: “be a gentleman.” the meaning has evolved over time. Cultivate deeper and deeper sympathy for the situations of others. Do a better and better job of telling the truth. Take the initiative. Don’t waste time.

  6. Dear Rick and Friends,

    Another tight, meaty and provocative post, I love it!

    “Character Building” and my experiences? … Phooey about me, I’m history already; what matters is what I’ve learnt that I can pass on to my children in these their foundational years (13, 12 and 4), and what I can implant in their minds to pass on to their children and to all the others who they’ll be influencing throughout their lives.

    “Character Building”? … As Anne Marie reminds us, this is yet another stock phrase based on some truth. Like all the others – Attraction Parenting and that Time Magazine cover comes to mind right now – this is what I derisively call “verbal graffiti”; an overused oversimplification that looks pretty and may contain a grain of truth BUT misleads because the words are not reliably workable.

    Of course we all want our child to have character, not any old character but good, positive, Grandpa-will-be-proud-of-you character. But, as we’ve seen on the pages before, like knowledge, skill, empathy et al, character cannot be injected with a syringe:

    Whatever’s gonna be, is gonna be from inside (the child)!

    Gary expressed it well, “I have hope that they have learned, and are still learning, from their own experiences, how to make thoughtful, intelligent, sensitive, caring and moral decisions.” Never mind just ‘hoping’ for what he wants, I’m sure that Gary, like any good shepherd, has observed in his children what he seeks and what he disapproves of, and has and does shepherd his charges towards the good and away from the rest.

    Anne Marie and Gary are not distracted by the prettiness of the Character Building graffiti, they influence in the direction of Character Self-Building. (Ugh, here’s me adding to graffiti pollution!)

    Have a great rest-of the week, all!
    Parent Peter in Toronto,
    (aka Peter Holleley)

  7. Many experiences in life, as you observe, are inherently character building. While often these are adverse experiences, they can be positive as well. What I object to is experiences that are deliberately designed to be “character building” and justified as such. These invarably build little more than resentment, suspicion, and distrust. I don’t think we teach kids how to handle adversity by creating artifical situations–we do better to watch for the opportunity to help them work through the inevitable but organically legitimate situations that will unavoidably arise in the life of a child.

  8. I procrastinated in posting the response I gave directly to Dad, and he did me the favor of posting it annonymously. I have now gotten the chance to see how well everybody has drilled down on this one. It’s kind of cheating in a way (like holding onto the last puzzle piece).

    I woke up this morning thinking about a homonym: character, in the sense of a part in a story. “The author was able to construct a multi-dimensional character.” “The whale becomes a central character in the novel.” “With that one word, the actress was able to tell us so much about her character.”

    I too initially reacted to Dad’s question with the easy dodge that it’s a cliche onto which we project whatever standard fits the rest of what we believe about what it means to get parenting and teaching right, but there is probably a reason why we contemplate fictional characters so deeply, and why we demand so much of them. We want them to reflect a sympathy for the situations of others. We want them to constantly strive to do a better and better job of telling the truth. We want them to take initiative and drive the story forward. We want them not to waste our time.

  9. Thank you, Peter; you’ve contributed way more than a last puzzle piece. I see in your words a glimpse of the Big Picture; the importance of character and characterization in everyone’s life throughout history and across all of the communications media – print, TV, movies, theatre, visual arts, music, newspaper columnists, et al – both fiction and non-fiction.

    I get the feeling that, in today’s busy world, if it isn’t a character – a quality of communication, a degree of artistry – that resonates with me, then it passes me by, under my radar, without impinging. This reflects the caliber of ‘character’ that I wish to see in my children.

    If I may presume to edit an Ackerly, here’s my two cents worth:

    Your last paragraph is simple and workable, and thus a ‘keeper’, but can we replace the words “a sympathy” with “an empathy”?

    Your last sentence, “We want them not to waste our time”, is controversial. As reflected in Rick’s post ‘Can Teachers Make Mistakes?” of May 9th; mistakes, time wasting, are a part of life, an essential ingredient in the creation, development and evolution of all that we value in life. With empathy, we can recognize and understand a mistake and wasted time as necessary to “drive the story forward.”

    Respectfully offered by,
    Parent Peter in Toronto,

  10. The term happiness is just the by product of the total life experience. Every child experiences the good, bad, beautiful, ugly, just and unjust throughout their lives. Happiness comes from having a positive self esteem and confidence to make sound decisions understanding and taking responsibility for the consequences whatever they may be.

    To set out to build character is to miss the point. The character develops continually from the time we’re born until the moment we cease to exist. Everything we experience whether induced to “build” character or that occurs naturally will be processed, sorted and reflected upon both consciously and unconsciously based on the totality of our experiences at that moment of time and subject to change at the next moment of time.

    I see the role of any person when confronted with a younger persons experience is to help them define in their own terms what that experience means to them. I would try to help them understand both the positive and negative consequences of that experience. In the end, I would hope that the child has a core bank of experiences to reflect on when making future decisions and the confidence knowing that they are prepared to handle the consequences whatever they may be.

  11. Sean I read your comment and said to myself, “Who is this guy?” So I googled you. Do I have the right Sean Benward?
    A core Sean Benward message: “People often don’t realize the abilities they have inside them.”

  12. Warmest thanks for your work, Sean, and congratulations on your award!
    Good sleuthing, Rick!
    Can either of you gentlemen point us to anything more on Bridges; the what, why and wherefore? …

  13. Thank you, Sean; an impressive website and clearly a vital bridge that you provide.
    I also pinged Nat asking for an introductory phone call.
    (I am a stutterer, part of a couple of stutterers’ support groups here in Toronto; maybe there’s something we can learn from Bridges? …)
    All a great day, all!

  14. This is really a rich series … I am glad I found this blog. As to characters and character building, I would add something else to examine, and that is the story we (characters) tell about ourselves, others, life, etc. I have a friend who is a linguist and programmer, and he has shared with me his view about narrative. We all fit in our own narrative … we are the central character but may not realize that we are writing our story as we speak and act. It appears that we automatically act consistent with our character in our story. But much of our story has been handed down, or handed to us as we grew up. Like “life is hard,” “you can’t trust rich people,” and even what we heard about learning. I remember when my youngest daughter (now 24) realized and then told me something she learned when she was about eight: ‘I make a difference every where I go, all the time. The only question is, what is the difference I am making.’ Whew. As a dad, I’d love to take credit for that but the only way I can was that it was important to me for my girls to meet and participate with adults who were passionate about what they do, treated others (including children) with great respect, and were enjoying life. And weren’t so focused on what is right and what is wrong …

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