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By Dr. Arthur Schwartz 

Years ago, the field of character education mainly focused on developing strategies and curricula aligned with the belief that character is taught and caught. In short, as parents, coaches, and teachers, we needed to be intentional about teaching our children a wide range of core values (honesty, caring, respect), but we also needed to be sure we were consistently modeling those values. 

More recently, the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues opened our eyes to the critical notion that character is not only taught and caught…it also needs to be sought

This is especially true during the high school years. Current research shows that teens are developmentally ready to form their own moral identity. Cognitively and emotionally, they’re able to make a moral decision based on the kind of person they are striving to become rather than simply complying with a rule, an expectation, or to avoid being punished or getting into trouble. 

Yet it is not easy for teens to form their inner compass. 

Some teens have yet to develop the attentional ability to recognize that a particular situation has moral implications. Some teens may realize they’re in a moral situation, but they haven’t yet developed a strong commitment to live by a set of moral principles (e.g., honesty, respect). We also know that many teens may want to “do the right thing,” but they too often succumb to a range of pressures (selfishness, peer pressure, parent pressure, among others). They fall into what scholars call the “intention-action” gap. 

Research shows the intention-action gap is especially prevalent when it comes to high school students lying, stealing, or cheating related to academic work. 

So as parents and educators, how can we help our children and students develop their inner compass? Here’s what we know:

  • Strong convictions require strong sources. Research tells us that teens who have developed strong “self-guiding” narratives are more likely to make moral decisions that align with those narratives. The sources of these narratives can range from a deep connection to a particular family member, teacher, coach, religious beliefs, or even a powerful experience (usually one that was not so positive). We store these narratives and somatic markers in our hearts and minds and when a moral situation arises, these deeply anchored sources give us the strength to align our convictions with our behaviors and actions.
  • We can strengthen our ethical muscles. Rare is the teen who is by nature ethically fit. We all need moral exercise. Learning about different moral principles (respect, fairness, compassion) is not enough. Teens also need opportunities to strengthen their moral reasoning, empathy, and perspective-taking skills. We know from military training – whether it’s building resilience or courage – that training is essential. As parents, coaches, and teachers, our challenge is to design and implement opportunities — perhaps using a gamification strategy — for students to discover and practice optimal cue/action response patterns for situations that ooze with ethical tension (if X, then Y). For example, can we imagine a future where students consistently practice what to say to a friend who asks them to lie, steal, or cheat? Aristotle got it right when he wrote that “we are what we repeatedly do.”
  • Coaching can make a difference. There is new empirical evidence that explains why teens tune out their parents. Neurologically, they are primed to pay more attention to new voices. Based on these findings, can we imagine a future where every teen has found a mentor – whether a counselor, older student, youth pastor, neighbor, coach, teacher, or aunt – who can provide a safe space for them to reflect on their inner compass? Ideally, someone the teen trusts who would also hold them accountable to follow their inner compass. 

James Arthur, founder of the Jubilee Centre, has written that at some stage in life the actions of students should be “internally motivated.” Scholars aligned with Self-Determination Theory tell us that during the teen years, students strive for autonomy

As parents and character educators, shouldn’t our collective challenge be to develop new tools and strategies to inspire all teens to build their inner compass?

Note: Professor Avi Assor has penned an amazing article titled The Striving to Develop an Authentic Inner Compass as a Key Component of Adolescents’ Need for Autonomy. In the article, he includes a number of statements students and “coaches” could use to spark reflection and conversation. Below are five that fired up my neurons.

Statements about our inner compass

  • I have (something like) an inner compass that helps me to know what is truly important.
  • I have principles that usually enable me to know what is the right thing to do in difficult situations.
  • I know what kind of person I definitely do not want to be.
  • Too often I act in ways that do not represent who I really am.
  • My decisions too often contradict my most important values and feelings. 

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  1. mike park

    Fantastic read – “sought” – brilliant additive to strengthen one’s understanding


    This essay sites the need for the deepening of strategies used by those of us in modern character education. It also recalls the phrase often cited by Tom Lickona and Kevin Ryan of our need to teach our students the knowledge of the good, love of the good, and ability to do the good. We are stronger at knowledge of the good and SEL has helped us teach about doing the good, but love of the good is a hard to model and teach and Dr. Schwartz is pointing us to the necessity of loving the good for our commitment to character.

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