The Conundrum of Adulthood and Character Development

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by Elizabeth Wright

Character education is important, but is education really the end of the story when it comes to character development? Once we leave school, are we then expected to be the most morally upright of citizens? Adults make moral mistakes all the time, celebrities scandalous stories hit the tabloids, corruption that has bought down businesses and communities (the 2008 financial crisis is an example of this), and we all commit social misdemeanors, such as telling white lies. If we want to create a world that is built on morals and ethics, love and compassion, then building character should be a lifelong community-wide endeavor where core ethical values are the foundation (Principle 1). But how can we build lifelong, community-wide character development?

A few months ago I created Character Club, an online portal for adults to take part in regular discussion and activity on developing their character. Recently I had a chat with one of my Character Club members, a teacher, who uses the VIA Character Strengths in her classroom; let’s call her Lucy. Lucy was just as interested in developing her own character, as that of her students, but she was facing a difficulty with her journey. Lucy was telling me how it wasn’t just her students struggling to recognize their character strengths, but that she was struggling to recognize her strengths, and her colleagues were as well. This inability for adults to recognize their character strengths doesn’t surprise me, I have seen it in many workshops I have run, and it is this inability to recognize our character traits and strengths that stunts our ability to explicitly develop our character. Just as children need intentional and explicit character intervention (Principle 3), we adults do to, the question is how do we do this? 

What Lucy said next helped me understand how we might come to encouraging adults to continue character development. I asked Lucy what she liked most about being a part of Character Club and she said “the stories you share about people showing character during the most mundane and normal of moments, that is what is helping me see and recognize my own character strengths in my day-to-day life.” Ultimately, as adults we are busy and stressed and we struggle to stop and even think about, how we might be being kind to our co-workers, or showing self-regulation by making it to the gym every second day, or being patient by not complaining about the line at the supermarket. We expect character to be big – that to be brave means having a go at sky diving when in actual fact it could be something as everyday as going to the dentist despite your extreme fear and phobia. Character can be as small as showing creativity by coming up with a new recipe for dinner, or as big as persevering during a marathon. Character can be sacrifice, where we show immense altruism by donating a huge sum of money, or it can be small moments of love where we hug our child after they scraped their knee. Character is more than you think it is and deeper than you are consciously experiencing. The question then is how can we ensure that adults can see and develop their character in every aspect of their life?  

In an article by Michael D Matthews, in Psychology Today, he stated that a systematic approach is needed to cultivate positive character strengths in the context of organizations, where a passive approach to character is failing individuals and their character potential. Along these lines we need structure and interventions within communities, a language that we as adults understand, and spaces to have discussions about character and tell our character-full stories. This is why organizations like Character.org and global events like Character Day, are so important for the wider generational character discussion, and it is why I have started Character Club for adults. We need to make character more explicit in our communities, organizations, and wider global experience; it is through story, sharing, and accessibility to character that will empower adults to be the best moral and ethical version of themselves.    

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