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Does Character Count?

November, 2012
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Does character count? Can it be taught?
These were the key questions raised by Dr. Hardin Coleman at a speech to a group of teachers and parents on October 29 at the Western Academy of Beijing (WAB).
The speech was one of the latest in the WAB Distinguished Speaker Series, whose theme is “Connect, Inspire, Challenge: Make a Difference” and which involves a wide range of topics from different speakers.
Dr. Coleman is Dean and Professor at the Boston University School of Education. Throughout his professional career, Dr. Coleman has been interested in the mental health needs of adolescents and their families. He has focused on meeting those needs within educational settings and community mental health agencies.
“I think it (character) counts a lot. And the better character you have, it serves the world… it becomes a better world. People that demonstrate good character will help their society,” Dr. Coleman said in response to the first question he raised, citing failures of character ranging from the bank crisis to school cheating.
According to Dr. Coleman, character has multiple definitions and types. One important type involves interpersonal ethical imperatives, ethical behavior and moral behavior, while the other involves skills that regulate thoughts and actions, as well as achievements of excellence. The first type is simply “something one has” and the second “something one does,” said Dr. Coleman in his speech.
He listed some of the key characters that are important for children to become useful to society and the world: caring, thoughtful about others, perseverance, diligence, and being able to be a critical thinker.
“For those who live in a multi-cultural environment, such as international school students, the key is to have empathy and good communication skills. The ability to see the perspectives of others. Being able to talk to people, and ask good questions,” he said.
The primary factors that have an impact on children’s character forming include the way the children get treated by the adults in their environment, the expectations adults have about them, and the type of conversations adults have with them about being an effective moral agent. Dr. Coleman said: “What do they see us do, what do we expect of them, and then how do we talk with them about their aspirations to be moral?”
If parents or teachers want their children or students to bear good character, Dr. Coleman suggests that: “The biggest thing for them to do is to be empathic. Being able to take the child’s perspective, and have high expectations for them but also understand what they need to do to acquire them, and being more focused on building the child’s skills.”
Parents and teachers also need to be explicit about what they want. “Claim it… what I expect you to do, and how you could do it,” added Dr. Coleman.
And once children do achieve, acknowledgement from adults is very important. “I am proud of you” should be generously said to such children and adults should point the way that works for the children and how it helps them.
What if children represent unexpected characters?
“Just respond,” said Dr. Coleman, “Identify them… respond. Help the child find different ways of acting.”
By Qin Chuan


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