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.