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By Dr. Arthur Schwartz 

I love leading workshops on how to emphasize and model character. Although each convening is different, at some point, I always strive to hand out a 3×5 index card and ask everyone to write down a question or concern that has been swirling around in their mind during my presentation. Critically, I ask everyone not to put their name on the card because I believe there is deep wisdom in the expression, “anonymity is a shield from the tyranny of the majority.”

Several weeks ago, I gave a workshop to teams from 23 children’s museums across the United States. Each museum had recently received a planning grant from the Lilly Endowment to develop a full proposal to design their own unique museum program to “encourage the development of character in children and youth.” I was asked by the Association of Children’s Museums to provide these museum leaders with an overview of the current perspectives, strategies, and approaches to character formation. 

Right before the final break, I handed out the blank 3×5 cards and asked everyone to write down their one question or concern. Most of their questions focused on implementation, ranging from how to authentically engage their museum staff in their initiative to how they could creatively engage parents and caregivers.

Three questions, however, focused on the very notion of character formation. 

Here are the first two responses:

“[Character formation] feels so judgment heavy. The whole idea of what is a “good kid” feels prescriptive, like they are expected to fit into a specific box. I know that’s not the intent, but that’s how I react to some of this discussion.”

“What are the least judgmental and preachy ways to use this work with parents (not at them)?”

These two responses highlight one of the most relentless myths about character formation, the notion that being a person of character somehow takes away a person’s uniqueness or individuality. Character is paternalistic and preachy, nothing more than students staying in line and following the rules to stay out of trouble. Character = Be obedient. 

But that’s not what character formation is about, at all. Rather, our aim as parents, caregivers, and educators is to equip and inspire children and teens to do the right thing because that’s the kind of person they want to be. Character formation is about student voice, an opportunity for young people to say to themselves, “I am making this choice because this is who I am.” 

Here’s the third response:

“Character is not universal in terms of what is important or valued. How do we navigate this in the current landscape?”

The author of this question suggests that “character is not universal.” Rather, families and communities emphasize different beliefs or principles. Simply put, there are no values that illuminate our common humanity. I disagree. I believe there exists a wide range of beliefs and principles that transcend religious, cultural, or ethnic differences. For example, I can’t imagine any family, school, or community thriving without teaching the importance of honesty and integrity. Ditto for the core values of caring and compassion. Gratitude. Responsibility. Fairness and respect. These are universal principles that — when modeled, emphasized, and practiced — produce goodness in action, whether we live in North Carolina or Nairobi.

Author’s Note: In the spirit of humility and an eagerness to learn, I invite you to share with me below a question or concern about character formation that’s a “pebble in your shoe.”

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