A View from Glen Hill: Building character in our youth

The Biggest Job We’ll Ever Have is the title of a book co-authored by educator Laura Gauld, director of family education programs for the Hyde Schools. She spoke last month before an audience of 50 under the auspices of the Joint Youth Ministries of St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, Wilton Presbyterian Church, and Zion’s Hill United Methodist Church.

That biggest job is instilling character in children in an achievement-driven world. In her book she writes, “A person’s character is more important than his or her innate abilities” and adds that in her work with parents, she has observed that, ironically, “sitting before me are men and women who are confident, highly competent, and very successful professionals yet are uncertain, perhaps even frightened, parents.”

Those who help their children cultivate character in an achievement-driven world engage in what Ms. Gauld terms “exceptional parenting.” Ms. Gauld notes that we live in a culture that values achievement to the point that the implicit message received by our young people is too often that achievement must be accomplished whatever the cost, including the corners cut: cheating, lying, bullying, whatever it takes. In that no-holds-barred sense, achievement and character can have a troublesome perceived-by-our-young antithetical quality, and it takes exceptional parenting to be able to help a child navigate such tricky terrain.

Exceptional parenting, she says, begins with parents getting on the same page so that they are not routinely whipsawed by their children.

“Kids read our hearts.” So she advises, “Be prepared to go to the wall” on key issues where there should be no give, but do so jointly and with calmness and respect. Most of all, don’t engage in acceptance of children’s excuses/retorts, such as “Every other kid does it,” “You don’t get it,” “You don’t love me!” Parents should not feel guilted, as can so easily happen. In fact and to the contrary, parents need to be ready to support each other in raising the bar, so that, for example, the consistent response becomes “That’s unacceptable, and there will be consequences.”

She believes that exceptional parenting is greatly facilitated by having family meetings regularly once a week with mandatory attendance by all, parents and children alike. She recommends using these sessions to build honest communication among family members and to “clear the decks” of the kinds of matters which, if not addressed and left to fester, only grow into bigger problems. Such discussions value “truth over harmony” but ironically can facilitate greater long-term harmony as real or perceived issues are brought to the fore and discussed openly. In fact, it is the fear of addressing issues which can often be the biggest handicap to parents in their efforts to enhance character-building in their children.

She also encourages parents to be honest with each other and with other parents and especially with their children about what they’re struggling with as well as what’s going well in their own lives. She finds that such discussions often facilitate genuine communication that is fruitful on multiple levels, ranging from addressing common problems with combined wisdom to sharing the reality that it is rarely if ever the case that everything in one’s life is going 100% well. Our kids really want to be inspired by us, and sharing with them some of our struggles and exchanging thoughts on subjects of concern can often be a major part of that inspiration, perhaps even more so than sharing our triumphs.

Character is built, in Ms. Gauld’s experience, by “sowing an action that reaps a habit.” Exceptional parenting in that context requires attentiveness: understanding what is going on, being attuned to listen to what our children are communicating, and being prepared to sort out with them courses of action that carry them forward in a character-building way.

That can often mean not taking the easiest course, and it always means being a good and attentive listener. She calls the resulting state of mindful calm “canoeing,” connoting a placid movement forward, nonetheless always attentive and ready to move swiftly when necessary.

Most of all, we should openly discuss our values with our children: hard work, taking responsibility for your actions, and especially loyalty to your own “best self.” There will always be someone who is better in some specific achievement, but in terms of character, you are unique: there is only one you, and your objective is to make yourself the best you there can be, to achieve your unique potential. Not bad advice for any of us, whatever our age!

Mr. Hudspeth lives on Glen Hill Road.