Most people have a difficult time explaining character.
It does have several different meanings. Some immediately think of an actor playing a particular part in a play; others might think of it as a specific written or printed figure representing a particular sound. Neither of these meanings pertains to the word so essential for us to examine.
The dictionary links the word “character” to one’s ethical and moral principles, that part of us that requires us to examine our values concerning the rightness or wrongness of a particular action.
Most of us have little awareness of the values that dictate our action, and many of our own values shift depending upon the circumstances.
Character is taught in schools only as a by-product of learning ways to behave, of rules to follow. Character seems not to be a vital part of most curricula. Students learn the rules cognitively—taken into the brain. As such, they fail miserably to affect behavior without the presence of the authority figure. Students seem to not adopt the rule as their own. It belongs to someone else. Because rules pertaining to character development are not measured in schools by any standardized state or national test, they are taught only as a function of classroom management.
Some churches do a little better. The preaching or teaching cognitive format, however, reveals examples in support of the teaching, and then, following the teaching, innumerable models live out the verbal message.
Cognition alone, however, fails as a satisfactory approach to character development. It must be accompanied by modeling by individuals living out their own positive values.
Young children develop character through attending to the modeling of their parents and other caregivers. Often, the family assumes this responsibility. Possibly, on occasion some other adult assumes a significant role: an athletic coach, a teacher, a caring pastor or Sunday school teacher can be important. Modeling, underlined by explanations of the rationale behind certain choices, remains the principal method.
People take on the characteristics of those with whom they choose to associate. In adolescence, character’s principal modeling comes from the peer group. The adolescent tests the appropriateness of the lessons taught by his earlier models. This child needs to be trusted that his choices between right and wrong rest on firm foundations.
These areas reveal character and need consistent modeling:
1. A commitment to ethical behavior—This concerns the notion that right action and wrong action reveal one’s morality. We are not perfect people. If God wanted us to be perfect he’d have made us that way. He wants us, however, to strive to choose what is right. Continue to evaluate your own trustworthiness.
2. A commitment to otherness—Self-centeredness betrays any goodness in a person. We need to commit to empathic behavior, to altruism, to the Golden Rule, which is seen within the writings of every major religion of the world. We need to recognize that cultures differ within a common bond of humanness. We need to respect those differences. Above all we must practice the love Christ taught us. Practice the title of this magazine. Caring!
3. A commitment to perseverance—Complete the job. Finish the work. Resist procrastination. Hang in. Show up.
4. A commitment to egalitarianism—Act on the belief that all people have equal, political, social and economic rights. Model it at all times. Be multicultural. Respect all people.
5. A commitment to living an operational belief system—Act on what you believe. Make your belief system interpersonal by sharing it. In this way, people will understand you. Confront doubt. Exercise morality. Confess it to others. Practice Christian love.
6. A commitment to a disciplined lifestyle—Know the rules of the common culture. Obey them. Teach them lovingly. Model them consistently. Model involvement in world affairs. Take a stand without being judgmental. Live with a commitment to health.
7. A commitment to personal growth—Work to improve every facet of your life: physical, mental, social, emotional, spiritual. Live holistically. You are a complete person, and you are responsible for your own growth. Model that commitment for those around you.