To say these are disorienting and disturbing times is an understatement.
The combination of a spreading virus and the virality of social media — with all its misinformation, grandstanding and rancor — makes it hard to get your bearings, physically, emotionally and intellectually.
I have found myself thinking about what we as a country — divided by political and cultural issues — can find in common. What standard can we aspire to hold ourselves, our communities and our leaders to?
In other words, what values are fundamental to a functioning society? When you cut through all the policies and politics, what really counts?
I came up with one thing: Character. How did I come up with that elementary quality? I harkened back to elementary school, not mine, but my sons’.
Our two sons attended Robinson School in Manhattan Beach in the mid-‘90s. While they were there, the school district adopted Character Counts, a values-based framework for teaching students how to be good people and good citizens.
According to its website, the program was created in 1992 based on “six pillars of character” identified by “a nonpartisan, nonsectarian (secular) group of youth development experts as core ethical values that transcend cultural, religious and socioeconomic differences.” Thousands of schools around the world use materials, curriculum and training offered by Character Counts, which is based at the Robert D. and Billie Ray Center at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa.
To be honest, when I first encountered Character Counts at one of my boys’ school assemblies, I was skeptical. I agreed with all the principles, but I considered it my job to instill values in my children the same way my father did: succinctly, and not necessarily politely.
My father’s expectations for his three boys could be boiled down to four words: Don’t be an (expletive noun starting with “A”). Given the power and simplicity of this message and how it governed my own behavior growing up, as a parent I was suspicious of a formal values and ethics program and its potential to be doctrinaire and dogmatic.
But now, with our boys grown into fine adults, I am thankful for whatever positive influence their Manhattan Beach education had in the outcome. While I still think the rooting of values starts at home, the vitriol and divisiveness of our national conversation (if screaming virtually in each other’s faces can be called conversing) prompted me to go online to see what common ground Character Counts could offer today’s adults.
Here are the pillars of character the program promotes and the qualities that define them.
TRUSTWORTHINESS: Be honest in communications and actions. Don’t deceive, cheat or steal. Be reliable — do what you say you’ll do. Have the courage to do the right thing. Build a good reputation. Be loyal — stand by your family, friends, and country. Keep your promises.
RESPECT: Treat others with respect and follow the Golden Rule. Be tolerant and accepting of differences. Use good manners, not bad language. Be considerate of the feelings of others. Don’t threaten, hit or hurt anyone. Deal peacefully with anger, insults and disagreements.
RESPONSIBILITY: Do what you are supposed to do. Plan ahead. Be diligent. Persevere. Do your best. Use self-control. Be self-disciplined. Think before you act, Be accountable for your words, actions and attitudes. Set a good example for others. Choose a positive attitude. Make healthy choices.
FAIRNESS: Play by the rules. Take turns and share. Be open-minded; listen to others. Don’t take advantage of others. Don’t blame others carelessly. Treat all people fairly.
CARING: Be kind. Be compassionate and show you care. Show empathy. Express gratitude. Forgive others and show mercy. Help people in need. Be charitable and altruistic.
CITIZENSHIP: Do your share to make your home, school, community and greater world better. Cooperate. Get involved in community affairs. Stay informed; vote. Be a good neighbor. Obey laws and rules. Respect authority. Protect the environment. Volunteer.
That’s it. Hard to find anything to disagree with, right? And yet, when I think of my own life, I know I haven’t always lived these values. I aspire to, and I hope most people would as well.
What’s more, think of how we could improve society if these were the qualities we expected in our leaders and wanted reflected in the policies they pursued. The pillars of Character Counts read as personal directives, but that doesn’t mean they can’t infuse politics as well.
And lest you dismiss this thinking as the passive aggressive ramblings of a proud liberal, consider that the White House issued a proclamation this week praising the Character Counts program and its ideals.
Given the cacophony of this political season, I don’t expect that a lot of people noticed that proclamation or looked into what Character Counts means, but even before it was issued, I visited the place where I first heard about it.
I made my way over to Robinson School and stood in the school’s little quad the multipurpose room. It was the first time I had been on the campus since our sons went to school there. I was pleased to see that the Character Counts pillars are still painted on the low wall surrounding the quad.
Twenty years or so ago, when I first saw those words, I dismissed them as both self-evident and pie in the sky. But now I look at them as profound challenges to be pursued with our hearts, our heads and our votes.