What Is This Thing Called 'Character'?

ALICE STEINBACH

April 16, 1992|By ALICE STEINBACH

Children, I have found, spend a lot of time asking adults to answer questions.

And because adults usually answer such questions through thuse of words, children also spend a lot of time asking adults what certain words mean.

Of course, some words are easy to explain: Cat, cookie anchair, for instance, yield their meanings fairly quickly. But other words sometimes elude definition: Courage, conscience and character fall into this category.

In fact, that last one -- character -- remains one of the most elusive words of all. Even as adults we find it difficult to pin down exactly what character is -- although most of us think we know it when we see it. Or when we don't.

In the current political season, character has become a popular buzzword; more voters than ever before judge a candidate not only by his political views but -- to paraphrase Martin Luther King Jr. -- by the content of his character.

Take, for example, the case of Bill Clinton. Many people have expressed conflicts about voting for Clinton because they feel he lacks character. Their feelings seem to center around the issue of his honesty -- or to be precise, his perceived lack of honesty.

But, curiously, honesty as a trait doesn't always bring with it universal good feeling. Paul Tsongas, for instance -- who based his campaign on "telling the truth" -- was accused by some as being "too sanctimonious."

Still, most of us would cite honesty as one of the traits held by people of character.

But sometimes an honest person is just an honest person. And honest people -- as valuable to society as they are -- may not necessarily possess whatever it is that makes the person of character stand fast in his principles, regardless of the personal or professional costs.

What is the source, we wonder, of the character that flows into such people as Rosa Parks and Raoul Wallenberg and all the uncelebrated "ordinary" people who have put themselves in harm's way for the sake of a principle?

Is it learned from parents? From peers? From the community? Or does it spring from some inexplicable inner posture unique to certain individuals?

Psychiatrist Robert Coles has long been intrigued by the issue of character and in books such as "The Moral Life of Children" explores its underpinnings. Over the years, in interviews with children and teachers across the country, he's asked this question: "What does 'character' mean to you?"

His inquiry elicited a fascinating array of answers -- or more precisely, attempts to give answers -- to a question that lies at the heart of how each individual decides to conduct his or her life. And from his research, certain themes emerge enough to suggest, if not a list, at least an outline of what traits constitute character:

An inner set of principles, which actively directs a person in his or her outer life.

A sense of courage and individuality that allows a person to depart from the crowd and take a different or unpopular stand.

An ability to respect the integrity and individuality of others.

A commitment to inner and outer honesty.

Given such a profile of character, the next question would seem to be: How do you get character? And can we teach it to our children?

In past generations, it was considered important for parents to attend to the "character-building" aspects of a child's education. And while the success rate then was probably not much better than it is now, one thing was different: Parents then knew the difference between character and personality.

In fact, if you chart the sociological changes in America over the last century, it becomes clear that individual personality was not so valued in the first half of this century as it is now. Personality in the past took its place behind a long line of attributes, which included intellect, self-discipline and character.

Our enthusiasm for the cult of personality and self-expression began to unfold -- in a major way -- after World War II. And along with its unfolding came a decline in character-building; a decline in what our community asked us to do and what we asked ourselves to do.

In spite of this, we are surprised when we look at today's public figures and see that character is in short supply.

Not too long ago I talked about all this with an 80-something friend, a woman whose now grown children reflect her integrity and character. She compared building character in a child to constructing a new house: You start with a good foundation and you don't cut corners -- even on the detail that no one but yourself will see.

What she was saying about character, I think, was this: That if you build it, it will come.

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