What is Good Character?

What do we really want as parents? We want to love a child, have a rich family life, be part of some bigger plan than just ourselves. Yet what do we want our children to be like? Well, perfect, naturally. We want healthy, bright, creative children. We want our children to grow up well and find a purpose of their own, a successful life's work, a family, happiness. We want them to be good people, the kind of people we would want as neighbors and friends. Few of us, however, know instinctively how to make all of this happen. There are no formulas, nor guarantees, for a perfect life, at least none that I've ever heard about or discovered.

Nevertheless, what I have often struggled with as a parent is my desire to have helped my child to become a good person. What do I mean by "good"? It's not that simple kind of good which really means "nice" in some loose and shallow kind of way. It is that other "good." I want my children to be people who know what doing the right thing means, who have the strength of their own convictions ... who have convictions ... and the personal integrity and wherewithal to act upon those convictions. In short, I want my children to have character.

Definitions of character use words like moral excellence and firmness or say that character is one of the attributes or features that make up and distinguish the individual. Character is the complex of mental and ethical traits which marks a person, a group, a nation. These definitions are helpful because that is exactly it; that's what I want. I want my child to have moral fiber, that sense of right and wrong which distinguishes one life from another. Like I said, I want to raise good people. In addition, I want my children to have integrity, the ability to practice what one believes in, to be who one thinks she is and wants others to believe she is. I want that wholeness that integrity can mean.

As parents, and as a society, we need to share our thoughts about character with one another and to stimulate others to talk about these things. We need to think about what character is, what it looks like in action, and what we can do to encourage it to develop. Wanting our children to be "nice" isn't good enough. We need them ... the world needs them ... to do the right thing because it is the right thing. Perhaps then our children will live out, for themselves of course, our hopes for them. To hold down jobs our children will need to persevere and value excellence; to sustain happy marriages they will need to recognize the value of compromise, forgiveness and benevolence; to become good parents they will need to find a balance between self-sacrifice, unconditional love and self-fulfillment.

[Parents] must conceive of parenting as an act of rebellion against culture. This is especially the case in America. For example, for parents merely to remain married is itself an act of disobedience and an insult to the spirit of a throwaway culture in which continuity has little value. It is also almost un-American to remain in close proximity to one's extended family so that children can experience, daily, the meaning of kinship and the value of deference and responsibility to elders. Similarly, to insist that one's children learn the discipline of delayed gratification, or modesty in their sexuality, or self-restraint in manners, language, and style is to place oneself in opposition to almost every social trend. But most rebellious of all is the attempt to control the media's access to one's children.

When I first read these words by Neil Postman I felt a warm glow of passion flare up in me. Perhaps I should describe it as a bonfire, roaring brilliantly against a night sky. Why? Because so often over the years that I've been a parent I've felt I've been struggling against some monolithic force which I felt powerless to defeat. When my children were small and I was navigating the check out line at the grocery store, and their small eyes and hands reached out for the deliberately and strategically placed candy bars, I thought I was struggling with the children. Gradually I realized that it was the deep disrespect with which my society treated me, a mother trying to feed and care for children, that I fought. It was so inconsiderate and disrespectful for the stores I had to use to care so little for the importance of the job I was doing. The need for commercial success was apparently more important than children. I dealt with my children's behavior, but a small campfire began to kindle in my soul. Why should I be put in this position? Now, after reading what Mr. Postman has to say, I realize that what I felt then, and what I feel now, is rebelliousness.

When everything and everybody around us tells us that our children will be fine, leave it alone, all is well, I need to remember what I want. My goal is to raise children with character. This cannot develop in a vacuum nor without planning and purposefulness. Often it seems as if the only way to ensure this will happen is to act rebelliously ... for the good of my children.

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