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.

The Narcissism of Selfies

I think most of us intuitively know that the near obsessive selfie-taking habits of many youngsters today is far from healthy. However, here’s a writer who sums up the problems with it very neatly;

New York Times Blogs – Well – Is Selfie Culture Making Our Kids Selfish?

Dr Michele Borba has just published her 23rd book, this one particularly exploring the unintended aspects of the selfie culture and what it’s doing to children. In this interview promoting the book she makes some excellent points about the impairment of emotional signal reading when children are having an increasing proportion of their human interaction online where they don’t get to see, read and interpret body language and other non-verbal cues.

She highlights the loss of empathy and caring for others when things become ‘all about me’, when narcissism and the desire to be centre of attention is at the forefront of a child’s actions and their thinking.

Finally, she makes a very strong case for emphasizing kindness and, maybe more important – building the child’s belief that – “I’m a kind person.”

Developing Habits – Good or Bad

Every child, in fact every person, is going to develop habits. One of the keys to a good life (or a good community, society) is the development of more good habits and less bad ones! Now, in a number of articles I’ve written here on the blog earlier I’ve made very clear that I’m not one of those educators who believes that everything important to be learned must be ‘taught’. However, I do believe it is a fundamental part of our work to ensure that when we create learning climates/ environments in schools we create climates within which the likelihood is that more of the students will develop more of the ‘good habits’ more of the time.

If we have schools within which children are developing habits such as aggression, greed, selfishness, bullying, cynicism then I believe we are duty bound to look at the practices, habits, ways of working of the Institute and all the people in it to determine whether these are, in some way, contributing. I fully acknowledge that school doesn’t exist in an isolated bubble. Rather, it exists as one element in the lives of children along with the family, home and the wider world (including all the media they are exposed to). Nevertheless, this shouldn’t tempt us to wash our hands or excuse ourselves. Lots talk about educating ‘the whole child’ or holistic education, but can be slow to really apply deep thought to how this is done. If school routine sets children in competition with each other, where they develop in an environment of ‘zero sum’ game mentality, then we should not shy away from acknowledging that we are ‘part of the problem, contributing to habits in children/ character traits that will reflect belief in a ‘zero sum’ world.

By ‘zero sum’, I mean a climate within which people see resources and ‘good things’ as being finite and limited. If we see them in this way, we will believe that there is only a limited amount to go around and that therefore we need to do whatever it takes to get more of that resource for ourselves. This can relate to something as simple as attention from a teacher, marks, praise, recognition, or fun. If a child believes unconsciously that there is a finite and limited supply of these things, then they will develop habits that reflect those beliefs. They are more likely to ‘fight’ to get what they want, to adopt aggressive behavior or put others down (your weakness = my strength).

It was a result of thinking about such issues that I found the following two articles really interesting. The first is a report from the BBC that details some simple experiments with positive results – children who practiced specifically carrying out random acts of kindness were both happier and more popular with their peers: BBC Report – Kindness

In addition to taking up approaches such as this where we encourage children to deliberately and consciously carry out random acts of kindness and diarize them, I believe most schools would also benefit from introspective processes that engage all stakeholders to question and analyze whether or not the school climate and environment is conducive to kindness and altruism, or whether there are hidden messages that actually inadvertently steer children in the opposite direction.

The second article comes from Scholastic and takes a broader look at the benefits to be achieved by developing a habit of giving. Scholastic Article – Children Changing the World

Here in India I’ve been an enthusiastic supporter of the Design for Change (started out as Design for Giving) initiative started by Riverside School, Ahmedabad. I believe that if schools combine these two aspects – specific projects and initiatives related to giving and regular small scale development of habits of kindness – then, we can improve our chances of developing a generation of children with positive habits towards others who are far less likely to develop unproductive habits in their relations with others. The chances for a world within which more people approach kindness, generosity and positive social behavior with a sense of abundance are worth working for.

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