Building A Character

At 45, I can now claim to being somewhere in that amorphous zone of “middle-aged” where one is no longer the puppy-faced young adult, but hasn’t quite slipped over to the realm of the white-haired elders. By this point I have had enough “character-building experiences” to go from Having Character to at times Being A Character.

Character-building experiences are usually the sorts of events that push you to go beyond your usual boundaries. Sometimes they are single events that require extreme effort or pushing past fears, and sometimes they are ongoing events that require tenacity and adaptability. In any case, the “character-building” part means that you have expanded your positive self-image, and realise that you can do more than you thought you could, and that you can be resolute in your efforts in future difficulties.

Not all character-building experiences are heroic in scale; some of them come from periods of quiet desperation where the efforts are on the inside. Other people cannot see the amount of work required in the soul-searching, and overcoming the wavering to just give up, but that hardly negates the importance of the experience, and the sheer amount of bravery it involved.

Many people misunderstand what is meant by “bravery”. Being brave does not mean that you aren’t scared. Rather, being brave means that you do what you need to do, even when you are scared.

However, not all “adversity” is the same. Teaching and parenting involves providing people with tasks that are a bit challenging, but not beyond their abilities. It’s our job to help teach them the tools they need, and to scaffold them up to the next level. If we give them tasks that are way beyond their abilities or dump them into situations without the right tools or guidance, then we are setting them up for a lot of failures.

There’s also a big difference between challenging someone, and simply making things unnecessarily difficult for them. I’ve had more than my fill of the latter, thank you. (Clue: they don’t build character, they just make me annoyed!)

Making things unnecessarily hard often involves adding problems that are really not needed, and have no direct bearing on the ultimate purpose of the task at hand. Making a child learn how to tie shoelaces in order to participate in sports is an example of this. Although a player may need to wear a uniform or protective equipment, being able to tie shoelaces should not be a stumbling block to the benefits of sporting activities, such as getting exercise, having fun, learning to work with team members, and being a part of a group that shares goals and experiences.

Another example would be grading a poster done for a school assignment on penmanship in addition to how well the content of the poster fulfilled the requirements for factual presentation and layout. It’s much more sensible to let students type out their labels and descriptions, rather than let them get frustrated over their slowness or difficulty in handwriting.

When we go from making things challenging to merely making things difficult, we don’t help people expand their positive self-image. Instead, we create situations that too easily add more to the burden of negative self-image. Here the student or child does not learn what we set out to teach.

What we learn from the “school of hard knocks” depends very much upon what we bring with ourselves in the way of skills and attitudes. But in any regard, my goals do not include teaching people that life’s a bitch and people are bastards, even if those are sometimes true.

I’ve yet to meet anyone who has not had enough of those kinds of experiences in their life. And everyone I have met has needed more of the kinds of experiences that help them learn how to overcome their own self-doubts and how to deal with problems in life.

7 Comments

  1. 5 February 2008 at 0:02

    Interesting post. It brought to mind a quote: “Life adversity will either make us bitter … or better.” Possibly cliche but I’ve met people who went through “hell” in their youth, who amaze me with the grace they freely give to others. That is how I would like to be.

  2. 1 June 2007 at 23:06

    […] with the unmotivated student can sometimes create further problems. We also have to be careful to distinguish between challenging our students, and just making things more difficult for them. Distinguishing between cause and […]

  3. Sharon said,

    12 February 2007 at 14:08

    One of the objections some people have to home education, is that in school, children often have to deal with bullies and adversity and these people believe this will ‘toughen them up for life in the real world.’

    I’d far rather that no child, no matter where or how they’re educated, should have to face bullies. And like you said, is there anyone out there who thinks they’d be a better person if they’d had to deal with more adversity?

  4. 9 February 2007 at 22:25

    As a graduate of the school of hard knocks I think to myself am I stronger because of adversity or did I survive adversity because I am strong.

    Well did I survive? is the next question beyond that particular koan and you ain’t seen nothing yet is the probable answer for the terminally doomed.

    At least I still have a landrover even if I can’t afford to get it repaired cos the tax has come up first.

    If I don’t pay the tax they will crush it, so there you are. But if that were the worst that life has to offer I should be smiling.

  5. houkhouse said,

    9 February 2007 at 5:41

    “Many people misunderstand what is meant by “bravery”. Being brave does not mean that you aren’t scared. Rather, being brave means that you do what you need to do, even when you are scared.”

    I love that! Bravery is usually found in those situations that you weren’t sure you could get through, but you just kept keeping on- and somehow you did. That is the kind of adversity we learn from and where we find strength we didn’t know we had. Once through those situations, I’m able to look back and regard them as opportunities – not glad they happened, but an opportunity to continue to grow, nonetheless.

    Creating difficulties, as you point out, is in a whole different class. I think most would agree that life is simply hard enough without other folks feeling they need to prove it.

  6. mcewen said,

    9 February 2007 at 1:05

    Too true. I have to watch that I don’t ‘up the pressure.’ My guys are doing to well that I tend to forget how hard everything is for them. What seems like a tiny step of no great significance to me, more often than not, is a huge hurdle for them. Thanks for reminding me.
    Cheers

  7. 8 February 2007 at 23:21

    “However, not all “adversity” is the same. Teaching and parenting involves providing people with tasks that are a bit challenging, but not beyond their abilities. It’s our job to help teach them the tools they need, and to scaffold them up to the next level. If we give them tasks that are way beyond their abilities or dump them into situations without the right tools or guidance, then we are setting them up for a lot of failures.”

    Absolutely. This is the thing that Vygotsky was on about with the Zone of Proximal Development, and which Bruner and the neo-Vygotskians turned into the whole scaffolding thing. The ZPD is the difference in levels between what the person can achieve without assistance (in any skill area) and what the same person can achieve with minimal assistance. It’s when tasks are presented that are beyond the further limit of the ZPD that things go unstuck for the person doing the learning. And it is the responsibility of the person doing the teaching (formal or otherwise) to make sure that the skills to be taught are not taught for a level outwith that limit.

    “There’s also a big difference between challenging someone, and simply making things unnecessarily difficult for them. I’ve had more than my fill of the latter, thank you. (Clue: they don’t build character, they just make me annoyed!)”

    That’s the bit where the teaching person places the task outside the distal limit of the ZPD. Not clever, and not good.


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