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Does Character Count Anymore?

My mother has always been an advocate for the underdog. As a bilingual aide for Kindergarten she saw all likes of children. She truly found something special in all of them, especially those who other kids labeled as different often due to some mental or physical disability. She sometimes did yard duty at recess and if she saw my sister or me while she was talking with one of these kids shed always call us over to meet them. I remember how uncomfortable Id feel because I didnt want to leave my friends and have to play with a kid others didnt think fit in. But, there was no arguing with my mother on this point. Driving home after school she would always bring up the incident and remind us that it costs nothing to be kind and that we should always think about how a lonely child would feel if we walked away. She was the only adult I ever regularly saw reach out to these children and she was the only adult who demanded the same of me. While it was sometimes difficult for me, it planted a seed of tolerance that grew as I approached adulthood.

In college there was a mildly retarded young man who always sought me out if he saw me on campus. Hed give me a big hug and walk me to my next class beaming because hed made a connection. I remember seeing other students push him away when he approached them and I recall their looks when wed walk across campus together. Id be lying if I said I wasnt a little uncomfortable. But, I remembered what my mother said. If the hugging went on too long Id just tell him I dont want to hug anymore but Im happy to talk to him. It didnt cost me anything but I felt good about respecting him.

I had the chance recently to share this gift with my daughter when we volunteered at the Special Olympics. One of the athletes took a liking to me and spent most of his day at our booth giving me hugs and patting my head. Every time hed come over, my daughter would get a deer in the headlights look and back away. After a couple of times she asked me, Dont you think its weird that he keeps hugging you? This time I could truly say No, it doesnt bother me. I told her he clearly needs to feel loved and this is something I can give him while Im here for a few hours. She watched us closely that morning and by the end of our time there she was talking to him.


Will she become someone who reaches out to others in need? I dont know yet. Will I request that of her and continue to do my best to model respect for others? I think my own mother would expect nothing less. Ive been thinking about this issue as the nation celebrates Character Counts week, in promotion of the six pillars of character:

trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring and citizenship.

On Sunday, the Josephson Institute of Ethics released its Report Card on the Ethics of American Youth. What they found is disheartening at best. In the survey of close to 37,000 high school students, the study found that 92 percent of the kids were satisfied with their ethics and character while admitting to lying, cheating and theft. These admissions include the fact that more than 60 percent had lied to a parent or teacher within the past 12 months and/or cheated on a test at school.

What troubled me even more than the kids dishonest behavior and their general satisfaction with their ethics was their belief that this type of behavior is necessary to succeed in the workplace and in life in general.

Despite consistently expressing positive attitudes about the importance of ethics and character and the role their parents and teachers play in encouraging them to do the right thing, a very high proportion of young people reveal extreme disillusionment about what works and doesnt in the real world. More than 40 percent believe A person has to lie or cheat sometimes in order to succeed and more than one in five believe that People who are willing to lie, cheat or break the rules are more likely to succeed than people who do not.


It is these statistics that break my heart. These same kids, nearly all said, Its important for me to be a person with good character. They also believe In business and the workplace, trust and honesty are essential.

Their responses beg the question, Where did we go wrong? I say We not What went wrong? because I firmly believe this is a parenting problem. This didnt just happen, nor is this crop of kids an anomaly. This survey is done every two years and the findings this year werent significantly better or worse than in 2004. I believe most kids want to do the right thing but most will also only stretch as high as the bar is held. Today, that bar keeps getting lowered for reasons ranging from parental guilt, to concerns about kids self esteem to just plain ignorance about right and wrong.

In an article in The San Diego Union-Tribune , Michael Josephson, founder of the Josephson Institute of Ethics, noted that parents, teachers and coaches need to make integrity a priority and, he said, Parents cannot be docile about this. This is not a child problem, this is a parent problem. The childs failure is your failure.

One of the most jarring experiences Ive had parenting is realizing that right and wrong is not a black and white proposition. Many people see it in shades of gray and encourage their children to see it that way too. In my own experience Ive found children think its OK to lie, disrespect others, treat people unfairly or play dirty on the field because no one has called them on it before, parents dont expect them to stand up for whats right or parents dont want to believe they are capable of such behavior. And, all too often, the behaviors parents want their children to shun are the behaviors parents are unknowingly modeling.

Ive seen parents gossip about friends private lives while children listen in across the table and watched soccer games where parents call their own and other children names when they miss a play. Ive been told peer pressure makes it too hard for kids to stand up for their friends, even when its the right thing to do and that its unrealistic to shelter kids because theyll grow up and engage in reckless behavior (such as drug/alcohol use) no matter what we do.

The truth is these parents claims are correct. It is unrealistic to expect ethical behavior from your kids if you dont expect it. If you dont talk about it, request it, even demand it, they wont know any better.

At the Institutes Web site there are a variety of resources for parents, teachers and coaches to help teach integrity and character building. The Institute reminds parents to Continually reinforce the value of integrity and Do not be value-neutral. Think about how many times you had to remind your kids to wash their hands before eating or after using the restroom before they did it on their own. Teaching character is no different. It takes the childs lifetime of watching you expect and model behavior before they model it themselves.

Everything you say and do, and all that you allow in your presence, either reinforces or undermines the credibility of your messages about the importance of good character.

Children need to hear from their parents that it is very important that they are honorable and trustworthy. State unequivocally that no matter the pressure, no matter the temptation, you think cheating and stealing is wrong and you expect them to have the strength of character to be honest no matter whats going on around them. Look for teachable moments. Use news stories, TV shows and movies to highlight, discuss and comment on situations revealing the presence or absence of integrity.

In celebration of national Character Counts week, I encourage you to take a moment to visit the Character Counts Web site for more ideas. What youre reminded of might change not only your childs life, but your own as well.

Elena Seitz
October 17, 2006 at 10:54 PM
Excellent, poignant article. -----

Ena Newell
October 18, 2006 at 07:44 PM
Deanna & Entire Staff, I am so appreciative of your article. I think it is so important to stress inclusion of all members of society. People need encouragement and recognition of good character. I found many pieces of this article useful, professionally and personally. Thank you for all you do!

Janice McDaniel
October 18, 2006 at 10:34 PM
I work for Hewlett Packard. I have been ashamed and embarassed by the behavior of my company's executives and senior employees that have recently been exposed in the "Board Room Spying" scandal. I read and hear lots of people, especially the "marketplace" experts, say "eh, its no big deal, lots of companies do it, and it's nothing to do with HP's financial performance", etc. Well, I think it is a big deal, and it very much has to do with how we as an organization (HP) want to live and work every day. Just as paents have to model and set expectations of ethical behavior and character, so do all HP employees, but especially at the top. I intend to email this commentary to Mark Hurd, our CEO, and hope that as a parent, and as a leader, he gets something useful from it.