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Between 12 and 20

In Character

by Erin Chianese

Jimmy is sixteen and has been working every Friday the past few months at a delicatessen. He receives the annual flyer in the mail announcing Homeschool Day at Six Flags Magic Mountain. He loves roller coasters and wants to go just as he has gone every year since he was five years old. The event is on a Friday in one month. Does he decide to talk to his boss now about taking the day off, or does he decide to call in sick on the morning of the Homeschool Day? The latter choice would ensure getting the day off while the former may not.

Character will determine Jimmy’s decision. We each use our character to deal with situations both mental and ethical. Big and small dilemmas arrive in our paths daily. Our personal sense of integrity, honesty, ethics, sincerity, and kindness, among many other qualities, determines our own character. The stronger our character, the easier our decisions are to make and the gentler their affect on our inner being.

Teenagers are notorious for knowing “everything” by the age of seventeen. They are pining for independence as they develop their own beliefs and opinions. They are solving their problems using their judgment. Any mistakes they make, they must own and learn from. Independence requires responsibility. Their character will be tested and amended at every turn and it will determine their choices in how they think and act. As English philosopher, John Locke, reassured in the late 1600’s, “Character consists of what you do on the third and fourth tries.” Now is a perfect time for teenagers to be aware of the make-up of their character. Sometimes parents can engage in discussions on character by sneaking in their two-cents or retelling an old story of heart or integrity from their own lives. I like to recount certain short stories from the radio.

As a harried driver in Los Angeles, I listen to KNX radio to hear their frequent traffic reports. As much as I denounce sound bytes, which make up most of KNX’s broadcasting, I try to catch one in particular: Michael Josephson’s daily essay. He always brings to light a social or personal dilemma that requires a judgment call to solve or ponder. The essays point to how hard it is to actually do the right thing but the importance of it, however small it seems. Michael Josephson is the author of Character Counts! a nonprofit educational program which you can download for free (www.charactercounts.org ). The site has a great two-page definition of character, listing his “Six Pillars of Character” and elaborating on each. Michael Josephson’s radio essays are also on this website, both today’s and those from recent weeks.

Therapists nowadays talk about finding one’s authentic voice. This is being able to speak with true honesty and integrity, not only to the recipient but to the self; it is saying what you really mean. However simply put, we all know this is harder than it sounds. It can be difficult to respond when you are unsure what the other person is saying or if you feel put on the spot. In a job interview, have you ever feigned eagerness or stretched the truth to fit an image you want to impress upon the employer? Oftentimes it is tough to be honest with one’s self in a given situation that is moving fast or out of control. How many times in high school did you go over and over what was said and what you wish you had said? Being aware of what an authentic voice is can help teenagers with personal difficulties such as these common ones:

A girl no longer wants to be friends with someone she used to be close to. Whenever the friend calls, she gets off the phone as quickly as possible promising to call the next day, but having no intention of doing so.

A boyfriend keeps putting off talking with his girlfriend because he wants to break up. For one month he does not call her and avoids her calls. Finally the girlfriend confronts him to find out the truth.

No one benefits from ignoring a conflict or avoiding an issue. One person is confused as to what is going on and the other is tormented by what they should be saying. A teenager is learning what their responsibility is in such a situation and what that means. Realizing responsibility, and honestly being in touch with beliefs and feelings, a teenager can contemplate and call upon the authentic voice. The more practice, the easier it will be to know and use. Of course, the authentic voice represents a person’s character, so that while saying something truthfully and with intention, appropriateness and kindness is included. This is especially helpful to remember when another person’s feelings are involved.

Forgiveness is a part of the authentic voice. It is interesting that your belief system knows you should forgive before your emotions are ready. For this reason, forgiveness is a difficult but necessary attribute for well-being. If teenagers can understand and allow themselves to forgive, they will be less angry or plagued by pent-up feelings. Forgiveness is not giving up your own power in a situation or relationship. It is the letting go of another’s behavior and the hurt or damage it has brought. Three years ago a very good friend of mine told me what a horrible friend I was because I did not call her enough during and after her divorce. I was shocked and crushed by her lashing out, but I eventually empathized with her own painful situation. This helped me to let go of her words and the behavior behind them. I did not condone her action in hurting me nor did we end up maintaining our friendship even after we tried to discuss what had happened. Forgiveness helped me to recover from the pain and disillusionment I felt, both from her words and from losing a good friend. Going through such experiences do carry over into new experiences to make them easier or clearer.

Forgiving ourselves can be harder than forgiving others. My daughter is like many teenagers in that she is a perfectionist. When she does not complete something perfectly or does not try her hardest, she becomes moody and upset. She continues to put herself down until she allows it to take on less significance so that she can let go of it. Last spring she was in her first recital and she was determined to smile on stage. She was naturally afraid and did not feel like smiling, but she knew it was part of the role. After each rehearsal, she beat herself up for not smiling. But on the day of the recital she relaxed enough to be able to enjoy herself and the show, and she smiled on stage.

Our independence-loving teens have to now seriously deal with their relationship to their world. They have to take on responsibilities like driving, college attendance, or employment. They have to be reliable and follow through with commitments. I have always thought it ironic that so many teenagers procrastinate when so much thought needs to go into their decision-making process. Perhaps processing is going on during this procrastination time. My seventeen-year-old procrastinates when she is afraid, or when doing something new, or when she is unsure of herself. She assists a dance teacher at an elementary school during the school year. The teacher offered her a summer job at a dance camp. Her job would be to watch the kids between classes and teach one or two classes if enough children enrolled. My daughter was very interested in the teaching opportunity but did not want to work solely as a babysitter if it turned out there would not be enough students. She did not know how to tell her boss this; she did not want to appear ungrateful or not supportive. Five weeks later she finally told the teacher the truth, even though she knew this was not what her boss wanted to hear. The teacher appreciated the honesty and my daughter did not work at the summer camp, but she was hired on the following autumn as a teacher’s assistant.

I do not understand the attitude of entitlement I have encountered from some teenagers that have jobs in my locale. I am often frustrated in the local music store when the cashier is too busy filing CDs to take my money at the nearby register. I feel sneered at for interrupting a task. I have tried to empathize with these young workers. Is it contempt for my money, my age similar to their parents, or their low wages? But then I think that it boils down to their choices and, ultimately, their character. Entitlement is a weakness in character, just as bitterness shows a rift from forgiveness and white lies show deviations from trust. Entitlement attitudes point to responsibility not fully taken.

Social responsibility brings up one disagreement I have with Michael Josephson in his definitions of character. Josephson unobjectionably lists citizenship, but among other valuable contributions as a citizen says obedience to someone in authority is required. Of course, we must follow rules and laws as a matter of our social existence. However, I disagree with this as an absolute. This goes hand-in-hand with being a homeschooler who does not believe in a law and its enforcers who insist my child go to institutionalized school. The saying, “Question Authority,” is promoted in my household. I do not find this in opposition to character building and social responsibility, but rather in accordance. Character is the part making this judgment for me, as I believe in respect and trust of each person in a society. For the most part, authority can rule for the greater good, and herein lies the judgment call. It is analogous to the subject of civil disobedience and its place in our society. I feel it is a part of our democratic system of checks and balances. And that it is the duty of each citizen to be aware and to speak out against injustices by authority figures.

That said, I love that someone is emphasizing character out there on a conventional radio station and asking for more of it. I am grateful that Michael Josephson has established the Institute of Ethics, which produces programs for school children as well as training programs for businesses and city administrators. In our world of “dog eat dog” and marketed ignorance and apathy, we need enthusiasm to approach becoming a more just, respectful, kind, and caring society. We need to redefine success and bring back ethics. Our children are the future and this may certainly be part of their role. Running gleefully away after receiving too much change from a candy purchase, or lying about a child’s age to get into a movie for less money are common daily occurrences that can abruptly bring character to light for our children, and thus for their future.

Developing strong character traits is a lifelong endeavor. As adults we are still trying to cultivate character in our own beings. Our own struggling can nurture a bond with our teens. When I ask for advice from my daughters, their clarity and sense of fairness amazes me. Their wisdom reminds me how close they are to becoming adults. May we all keep in mind this quote by Heraclitus, the Greek philosopher from 400-500 B.C.: “A man’s character is his fate.” ■ E.C.