On character

I’ve been working my way through the ‘Bringing Up Britain’ series on BBC Radio 4. They have the last few seasons in their archive and it makes for interesting listening. The episode on materialism was an eye opener.  A mum was talking about how a friend of her son’s was bullied for not wearing brand name glasses so when her own son needed glasses they tried to pick frames that the bullies would find acceptable. Standing in Spec Savers trying on frames and asking “Will I get bullied in this?”.

What fraked up rabbit hole is society in when this is acceptable? When this is the best option? What lessons are we teaching our kids and those around us? If this is “mainstream” society and schooling then you can keep it.  Fitting in is vastly overrated.

Despite being a quiet kid I was always marched to the beat of my own drum, and felt perfectly comfortable sticking out. I dyed my hair every color when no other kid in my school dyed their hair pink or blue. I pierced my ears multiple times. I dressed in borderline goth outfits one day, and hippy cheese cloth the next. I strove to be different. I picked subjects that my friends didn’t take so I was thrust into unfamiliar social circles. I learnt to rub along. In fact when I went on my GCSE geography field trip (at 15 years old) the girls from a different clique said I was braver than them as they wouldn’t have had the guts to be the odd one out.

Was it easy learning to rub along? No, but getting along with people outside of your social circle is a valuable skill. Did my cheeks burn when I realized my field work group was the “leftovers”? Yes, the boys that the other boys didn’t want to pair with as I was the only “leftover” girl. But, I made the best of it. Stiff upper lip and all that.

My parents of course put this in perspective. It was 5 days. I enjoyed geography so would enjoy the trip. It would not kill me. I could always have conversations with the teachers on the trip. It was character building.

The phrase “character building” was bandied around our family a lot. So much so it became a punchline that I rolled my eyes at. Emptying the dishwasher was “character building”, making dinner was “character building”, sticking at flute was “character building” (I conceded to carrying on learning the flute but the compromise was that I didn’t have to play in the orchestra just take lessons, so I was the only kid learning an instrument who didn’t play in the orchestra despite the peer/teacher pressure to join), watching Star Trek was “character building”, a family road trip around Ireland was definitely  “character building”, etc.

I had the confidence to be different as a kid and a teen and an adult because I knew who I was (and am). I have character, I strive to have character, and if there is anything I can pass on to the Cylonettes it will be the pursuit of happiness and character. We will read books and comics about heroes. We will discuss the characters we see in TV and films. We will learn about what values are important to the survival of humanity, and what separates us from Cylons (can’t wait to introduce them to sci-fi). We will all strive to be the best we can be, and to treat others as we wish to be treated.

This week’s episode of ‘Bring Up Britain’ is on ‘Character’.   I had not realized that the building character had fallen out of favor. How is this even possible? I can’t wrap my brain around it. What would my beloved Greeks and Romans have to say on this? They were obsessed with virtues, and dissecting the characters of their heroes and villains in literature and life. During the program I was particularly taken with an interview with Dr. Anthony Seldon, and his view is that the “Our education system should help children to develop the character traits that underpin a happy and meaningful life – including empathy, generosity, resilience and compassion. Because the values that our children learn today don’t just shape their future lives, they determine the destiny of our society.” 

BRAVO, Dr. Seldon, BRAVO. Education is not about multiple choice questions and test scores. It’s just not, and we need to climb out of the rabbit hole we’ve fallen into.


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