Friday, January 08, 2010

Building character

"I believe school really builds kids character. For example, I felt lonely and "on the fringe" in school and grew to be a very compassionate person for the underdog."

I disagree. I think people become strong like plants become strong -- by starting with deep roots. I think that childhood is a time to grow deep roots. Later you can challenge the seedling with wind, drought, and deluge and it will probably do just fine because it will have the firm grounding necessary to weather the hardship.

Much of what gets labeled "character building" is actually emotional trauma that kids, as thankfully resilient as they are, gradually get over. But I don't think that "getting over" happens without a cost -- often the result is a subtle emotional guardedness, a "hardening", a wariness, a fear of being hurt, a reticence to commit, a tendency to look to others for approval, to try to please peers or avoid attracting attention rather than stand up for what one believes. Growing up tough enough that you can shrug off others' hurts sounds like strength of character, but I think it's hardness of character. True strength of character comes of knowing deep down who you are, and knowing that you are supported and loved for who you are, so that hurts don't damage your sense of your true self.

Many of us view the traumas we went through as kids is something ultimately worthwhile because they made us stronger. I confess I used to believe that myself. But now I think we like to believe that because the alternate interpretation is to awful to contemplate -- that the traumas we went through were entirely useless and unnecessary and wrong, that they should never have happened, that we would have been emotionally healthier people if we'd been protected from those things. That's saying "I went through all that for nothing?!!!" It's not a very welcome conclusion, but I think it's closer to the truth.

Two of my kids are now teens. As youngsters they were very much protected from hurtful comments, abusive friendships, exclusionary social tactics, bullying, anxiety-provoking social situations, aggression, power-plays and such. They've grown into very strong people with strong senses of who they are. They shrug off the hurtful language and behaviour of others with little difficulty. They navigate the minefield of social relationships with confidence and matter-of-fact good sense. Strong roots, I think.


  1. I really enjoy your thoughts on child development, school, etc.

    I think you're right when you say much of the hurt kids encounter in some school settings in needless. There just aren't many adults in life -- none that I encounter -- that are cliquish and cruel the way kids and teens can be. So if a child comes out of a school experience stronger (though I think you're right; there's a difference between strength and hardness), what is the real benefit? "Preparation for real life," people like to say... but 'real life' is much, much better than jr. high!

    (I was homeschooled K-12. I surely appreciate the chance I had to grow some deep roots and build close connections with the people in my life who love me unconditionally - my family.)

  2. You are so right on with your comments! Ahhh so happy to be homeschooling!

  3. as someone who grew up with more trauma than most people can imagine. this is a very powerful thing to read and is something i very much agree with. thank you miranda for this post.


  4. I agree so much with you. I am very glad my kids that did choose to go to school didn't go until they were high school age. I have lots of scars and barely healed wounds from school and I am 50 so that was a long time ago. I swore that my kids would never have to put up with what I did and they didn't. Three of mine are now 20+ and the other 2 are teens. They are all turning into wonderful adults. I firmly believe that homeschooling has played a large role in that outcome.

  5. Anonymous8:34 am

    I don't have any problem with home schooling, each to his own I say. But the common thread that I see with alot of homeschooling families is " the them against us mentality". It seems to me that those of us who are sending our kids to a regular school are doing our kids a disservice, thats the impression that I get from some of my homeschooling friends, what they are doing is better and I am failing my kids somehow is the feeling I get from them.
    Yes school can be a cruel place, kids can be mean, but I do have to agree with the quote from the beginning of your blog entry, it does help to build character, but is only a facet of what builds a child's character, other things in their lives contribute too. Whether they are the death of a family member, a move across the country, a sickness and many other life issues, it all contributes.
    I spent my teenage years travelling around Europe with my parents in a camper van we brought from Canada. I did grade 11/12 by correspondence courses. Yes I had a fabulous time, and experienced many wonderful places and things that I otherwise wouldn't. But looking back at that experience, it was not the greatest thing for me as a teenager. I was very shy and when I came back to finish my grade 12 (i was short 4 credits for my graduation,) I could not relate to the kids around me, I was much more mature and had not done any of the typical things that teenagers do and spent the next ten years of my life very unsettled and had a hard time putting down roots. Even today almost thirty years later I still have problems with being settled.
    I guess what i am trying to say is if your kids have never gone to a regular school you have no right to knock it down or comment on it either way. I have experienced both and can say that each had its own merits and shaped me to be the person (good or bad) that i am today. School is not an evil place and kids can learn much about life and how it works from the experience.
    Kootenay gal

  6. Kootenay gal, the original quote that I responded to in this post was from someone on a message board. It wasn't something I made up. The defence of homeschooling you're reading isn't an attempt to create an 'us vs. them' mentality. It's a response to that sort of stance from a non-homeschooling parent.

    I assume you're not a regular reader of this blog, because if you were you'd know that my eldest does go to school. And I went to school too. I feel I do have some basis on which to comment. I am not "knocking it down." It was the original writer in this post who brought up the issue of the emotional hurts and challenges inherent in school's social interactions and suggested that these were good things.

    I'm not saying these experiences don't change people. Of course they do. So does the death of a loved one, so does moving across the country and away from friends, so does prolonged illness. But to then turn around and say that these things are good or even necessary to build character? That doesn't work for me.

  7. Anonymous11:00 am

    I am a regular reader of this blog, and notice that you often take quotes from message boards and comment on them. In all fairness...we.. the readers don't have any idea what the context of the "conversation" was and it is hard to really get an idea of what the writer was trying to say. Its not really fair in my opinion. Its really only half the story. If you do this, you should give a little background into the virtual conversation.

    I just hope I never say anything on a message board that you don't agree with and end up on your very public blog!! I wouldn't like it a bit:-(

  8. KG, the reasons I used only a small quote and didn't give the background context are two-fold. First, I believe in preserving the anonymity of the original poster. I don't want to give any specifics. And I figure that unless I'm asking permission to use their words, I need to keep the quotes under the 50 - 200 words commonly used as a cut-off for infringement of copyright. The second is that I only blog my responses if I think they speak to a generalize sentiment that I've encountered many places, throughout the webiverse and elsewhere. I would never choose to blog a response to a specific, personal situation, or one that I didn't think other homeschooling parents were likely encountering on a regular basis. The quote was meant to be an example of a generalized anti-homeschooling argument that most homeschooling parents encounter regularly, not a specific disagreement I had with someone else.

    Perhaps in this case I should have prefaced the quote with "The following was written by a non-homeschooling parent as an argument against homeschooling." The large majority of my readers are homeschooling moms and I think most of them would have recognized that context without the clarification, because I'm sure most of them have heard this argument many times. But your perspective is obviously not theirs, and sometimes I forget that non-homeschoolers are reading here too. Your comments have been a useful reminder.

  9. "I believe school really builds kids character. For example, I felt lonely and "on the fringe" in school and grew to be a very compassionate person for the underdog."

    Is it better to be compassionate for the underdog when that compassion comes from your own victimization as a child and your resentment of those who made you an underdog or is it better to be compassionate for the underdog out of a general sense of compassion?

    Just a question to think about.

    I was the underdog in an extreme sense when in school. That is not why I homeschool. I think that because of my children's unique circumstances (one of those being attentive parents), they would not be the underdog as I was (because of my unique circumstances). I don't believe that my being an underdog instilled any more compassion in me for the downtrodden.

    Another example that wouldn't be stretching so far is female abuse. I have never been in an abusive spousal relationship, nor have I ever been raped as an adult or teenager. However, those are my specific areas of 'compassion', where I feel most compelled to help and serve. Glad we don't have to go through crap to want to help those going through said crap.

  10. Anonymous5:30 am

    From what you've been saying lately about how things were going with unschooling, one of the problems you were experiencing was a lack of cooperation and participation in some aspects of community life. Do you feel that the changes you have been undertaking in terms of structure at home will address / are addressing the development of character issue? What types of experiences, do you feel, develop character (and I am still not sure how we are defining it) in children within an unschooling setting? Is 'pitching in to help' or doing things that aren't 'all fun and games' part of building character?

  11. I'm not sure a string of comments is the best place to address your questions, but I'll make two short points.

    The first is that for all the navel-gazing and work-in-progress nature of our unschooling, much of which I've written about lately, there are a lot of things that have always worked very well. My kids are curious, exceptionally responsible when not supervised, honest, are empathic and very supportive of others' efforts and feelings. They all work very hard at their musical studies without reminders, quite independently and diligently, and do the necessary grunt-work even when it's not enjoyable in the moment. And they are very gracious in giving their time and energy to community endeavours. So even if they were staying up too late, uninterested in mopping floors and spending too much time on the computer, there's always been a pretty good basic foundation.

    The second point: I think what speaks most positively about the unschooling we're doing here is that when Chuck and I addressed the issues we saw and proposed some ideas for change, the kids quickly saw the value in most of what I had proposed and bought into it by choice. All it took was two parents bringing forth their concerns and expressing them honestly, and a nine-day trial of a somewhat different way. The kids were receptive and ultimately agreed with the solutions we proposed. We have a family "game" that was given to us by my sister at Christmas for igniting dinner table conversations and we've been trying it out for fun (not that we lack stuff to talk about, LOL!). The other night the card was "What family rule to you think is unfair? What would you change it to and why?" The kids were stymied. They said that all our rules are agreed to by everyone, so how could we end up with one that was unfair?

    About character. I see character as a multi-faceted thing which is the result of the internalization and integration of numerous values, things like friendship, honesty, integrity, diligence, responsibility, persistence, empathy, charity, graciousness and so on. I think that character is best developed when children have over the long term a variety of experiences and situations in an environment where those values are consistently and thoroughly modeled, discussed and supported by their parents and the other significant adults in their lives.

  12. I think Gordon Neufeld's description of the "Flight from Vulnerability" well-describes how many kids end up coping with the social dysfunction that can occur in school settings. It is truly a different ball of wax than true self-confidence.

    As a homeschooling parent I would just like to say that I enjoy these posts of yours that are in reply to comments found elsewhere, because they are always of the sort I encounter in response to our choice to homeschool and I so appreciate the eloquent responses you give.

  13. Anonymous6:12 am

    The only thing I think we can say for sure about trauma, like every other action and event, is that it changes things.

    I have 2 boys ages 3.5 and 21 months. My 21 month year old was diagnosed last month with leukemia The cancer is one thing, but the treatment is very traumatic.

    While he is very attached and has some strong roots, he really hasn't had the luxury of developing strong roots in every useful direction. Also, regardless of age, you cannot always be prepared for the type of hardship you will encounter. We all have weaknesses and vulnerabilities and we all have trauma. Galaxies collide and it truly is the stuff of life.

    I always use the plant analogy in terms of the time, care, consistency of teaching and raising children, but when it comes to trauma, we need to look at a bigger picture. Plants have evolved because of trauma. (Ok, I only took Bio 102 in college so I'm kind of making that up.) Some have big wide leaves, others thorns, others taste bitter or develop mechanisms to spread seeds far and wide, etc. With plants, it's not so much about the individual plants as it is about the species. With enough trauma, the species either evolves or becomes extinct.

    So, to say that strong roots protect you from trauma or that trauma builds character, I think, ignores the complexity of humans as individuals and as a species. It also may set us up for disappointment. Something one runs into often is the "tyranny of positive thinking." I think there is a book called "Cancer is a gift." I think it's fine if someone finds this to be the case, but to try to teach us to react this way or that someone relapsed because their attitude wasn't good enough does more of a disservice than anything else.

    I think the best we can do is to live in the moment, feel the hurt, recover, shrug it off, patch it up, grow stronger, learn, control the festering and bleeding (figuratively) then work on it later (when, say, language and logic skills develop more), if possible, plan a response for next time. And, to share resources (between individuals, families, communities, humankind).

    My 2 cents. Love reading your comments. Love parents and teachers. Best of luck to you all raising happy, healthy and strong kids!

    Ingrid T.

  14. Anonymous11:00 am

    This was interesting. Not because I am remotely interested in whether to home school or unschool or go to school but because, no matter what the issue, people always feel the need to justify. Especially when it comes to parenting. Why do you feel the need to defend your position? Or to counter someone else? If it is what is best for you and your family and you are confident that it isn't harming them but offering them a better chance to be successful as adults in the world then do it. If not, then do what makes sense for your family.

    Life is too short for all of this navel gazing and arguing. Live and let live. Why should we defend our choices? Let's stop judging others and justifying ourselves and begin accepting and celebrating our differences.

  15. Interesting for me too, Anonymous, because your comment made me feel like I was being judged for being reflective ("navel gazing") and for choosing to defend homeschooling.

    Perhaps it would cast a new light on it to know that the message board thread that generated my response was a request for input. That's why I wrote it. The mom wanted to homeschool and felt it was best for her kids educationally and in many other ways, but someone had told her that schooling was good for building character and she wondered if they had a point -- perhaps she should reconsider her choice.

    I obviously made an error in judgement re-posting my response here, since out of context people like you are seeing it as argumentative and defensive. But heck, it's my blog. I'm not writing it in order to make others feel good. I just put in it what I want to and others can judge as they see fit.

  16. Anonymous3:17 pm

    It is your blog that is correct. However a difference in opinion never hurt anyone, and makes for interesting reading and musing. None of the posters who differed from your opinion wrote anything unkind, they were simply trying to offer an alternative viewpoint.

    nothing wrong with that.

  17. "None of the posters who differed from your opinion wrote anything unkind, they were simply trying to offer an alternative viewpoint."

    True, but you weren't offering an alternative viewpoint on the issues raised -- you were suggesting I shouldn't be raising the issues in my blog at all.


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