The character trap


MY FATHER is the most forgiving man I know. He finds the good in people, even if it takes a hunt. If I am critical of some cold, aloof relative, my father will remark that he's a "handy" fellow who's "good with his hands." I have never heard him speak angrily of anyone in business affairs, including those who seemed to deserve a little private scorn.

His inclination to emphasize the silver lining in the darkest cloud can even be exasperating. "If Hitler passed you on the street," one of us once chided him, "you'd say 'Adolf, how's the family!' "

I am not nearly so immune to emotions of vengeance. But I have no doubt that I am quicker to forgive than I could be because I am my father's son.

I mention this because of the ongoing debate about "character education" in the schools. I am reminded that I am not quite as indulgant as my father because my patience evaporates when people suggest that schools must do more to instill in children proper "values."

Or, when I read in the paper that parents in a privileged suburb are shifting their kids from some of the state's best public schools to private schools, reasoning that "they will be better human beings -- taught the right values and behavior."

Or, when I hear President Clinton and the First Lady talk about it "taking a village," or when Maryland's Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend announces a new, bureaucratic "Office of Character Education," rather than using their bully pulpits to admonish people to assume a greater passion in teaching their children right from wrong.

They are correct in one sense: Non-related adults -- coaches, teachers, clergy -- do make invaluable contributions to shaping children. I will be forever indebted to people in those roles who encouraged me and who have taken an interest in my own children.

Surrogate moms and dads

But society should not expect those outside influences to do the job a parent should, nor should a parent expect that. Teachers themselves say their jobs have become more difficult as they are relied upon more and more to play surrogate moms and dads.

"Character" can't be taught, like algebra. It is absorbed. It is observed. It is lived. How your parents or those who raised you deal with others, and one another, goes a long way toward molding your own view of relationships.

The Associated Press recently reported on an experimental school program in Africa for a handful of boys from one of Baltimore's more desperate neighborhoods. A caretaker said that what seemed to impress the students most weren't the primitive conditions or wild animals in their midst, but the way the pair of spouses who operated the school interacted in a positive manner.

For those boys, half a world away from their broken homes, the caretakers provided a lesson as their guardians that a 8-to-3 school in the city never could.

What makes character? Carl Jung, the Swiss psychologist, said the family is "the model of the greater world" for the child. James Baldwin, the author, observed that "children have never been good at listening to their elders, but have never failed to imitate them." Anne Frank wrote: "Parents can only give good advice -- but the final forming of a person's character lies in [his] own hands."

All this is true. The apple does not fall far from the tree, but sometimes it rolls one heck of a distance. Parents can't guarantee the path their children will take, but they have no greater calling than pointing them in the right direction. To shift that burden to schools is a mistake, even a dereliction. My father would not say it so harshly, but our leaders should.

Andrew Ratner is director of zoned editorials for The Sun.

Pub Date: 4/19/97

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