Character as a Differentiator

As a young person, you want to stand out from the crowd? Is an extra 0.1 on your grade point average going to achieve that? Will one additional extra curricular activity on your biodata make the difference? In this day, it’s all pretty unlikely that your academic and other activities are going to make you significantly discernible from the mass of students applying for University places, or later for internships or jobs?

No, but as this well-written New York Times article makes clear, what will always make a young person stand out from the crowd is character.

New York Times – Check This Box If You’re A Good Person

It’s vitally important that our response, or that of our children, shouldn’t be to carry out altruistic acts for show or to tick boxes/ have others perceive us as empathic, kind and sensitive. It has to come from a genuine desire to help others, to treat others with respect and equality.

One question that will inevitably come to mind – can we teach this? How can we increase the likelihood of empathy in our children? This is a highly relevant and important debate in our schools as “compassion” is one of the values highlighted within the mission of the Tenby Schools, along with integrity. High empathy, caring and kindness won’t happen just because we tell our children that it’s right or the appropriate way to think and be towards others.

Firstly, I believe the likelihood is increased significantly when we, the adults, model empathy – in other words we show ourselves to be warm, kind, caring and compassionate to others – especially where there is difference. We need to show our children the mental processes of being understanding, thoughtful of others/ other-centric.

Over the last 15-20 years we went through a situation where, in education and in parenting there was so much emphasis placed upon building self-esteem. This led to adults stressing specialness, uniqueness and feeling good about oneself. Regrettably, as the children impacted move in to adulthood we’re seeing massive shifts towards narcissism and away from empathy, caring and compassion. The child brought up in the high self esteem environment is more likely to be seeking verification of themselves, endorsement of their feelings of self-worth. However, the child brought up to see being empathic to others will, more likely, find their self actualisation in acts of kindness and positivity towards others.

In schools, I believe there’s been a lot of good and positive work in this direction that can help us to move further. One example is the scope for using tools like Jenny Moseley’s Quality Circle Time with children of all ages. These processes allow children to be more reflective of the effect of their actions and behaviours on others and how they feel according to how others act. In this way, the children learn for themselves and guide each other to be more understanding of what others need and expect from them.

It’s positive that we’re seeing more interest in schools putting a focus on social and emotional development. I’m particularly hopeful for programmes like the Ashoka Foundation’s “Start Empathy” Changemaker schools. It’s vitally important, though, to not treat empathy as just another subject area in school, to be packaged as a set of lessons or even just parceled as part of PSHE to be ‘delivered’ to children. Rather, it has to be built in to the ethos of the school, an integral part of everything from discipline policies to approaches to sports, learning and play time.

There is much work to be done. We have to do more for these children. Schools and education systems or societies that turn out predominantly narcissistic, self-absorbed children are going to find that they haven’t served them well to live their lives most effectively. They certainly won’t have prepared them well to be leaders of others in their lives. All this will, increasingly, make it likely that their university selection chances will be less.

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