Read an Excerpt
Children are wonderful and complicated. Understanding these simple thingsis the starting point of all good educationintellectual, social, and moral. It is sometimes difficult to keep this in mind as children grow andtest out their strengths and values against the world. They do dangerous things, fall into and out of trouble, and invent preposterousschemes. But they also charm and move us by their unexpected insights into emotions and character and their passionate concern for others.Moral development takes place slowly. As parents and caring adults, we have to remember that our children's values are in the process offormation. And we have to acknowledge, when we look at their struggles to become decent people, that the waters around them aremuddied. We have to avoid blaming children for their moral confusion in a world that adults have been unable to make nurturing orwelcoming. What we owe them is time, love, and counsel as they move toward independence and autonomy.
A Call to Characteris our attempt to provide a resource for parents and caring adults that can be used to encourage young people to read, talk, and thinkabout moral issues. The "call" of the title is the call of a familiar dinner bell to a feast with good friends, not a strident trumpet call toattention and obedience.
Character develops and is tested throughout life; it is not fixed once and for all. Self-respect is tested duringhard times, and there are moments when compassion conflicts with self-interest. It is not easy to be consistently honest if one feels deprived.Loyalty to family and friends can often contradict loyalty to ideas or principles.There is no simple formula, comparable to 2+2=4, to beuniversally applied in the realm of morality. However, this does not mean that all moral decisions are relative and all actions equally valid.There are some fundamental principles of decent behavior, the behavior that distinguishes a person of good character, that stand out and canbe used to weigh moral decisions, and these center on self-respect and a deep caring for others.
Public figures such as Helen Keller,Benjamin Spock, Rosa Parks, Elie Wiesel, Marian Wright Edelman, Grace Paley, Nelson Mandela, and Dolores Huerta come to mind whenwe think of people who combine this delicate balance between regard for oneself and concern for humanity. Indeed, part of why they are sowell-known is that they stand up for others and do so with great personal clarity. But, of course, we've all met people whose strength ofcharacter, though it will never be known in a public way, nevertheless compels our admiration and imitation. These famous andnot-so-famous moral heroes strike our imaginations and call on us to be better and stronger ourselves. They assume responsibility for theirown lives and within their families and at the same time find ways to help people in their communities and advocate for those who need tobe protected.
Character, in the sense we use the word in this book, is the constellation of values that lead to self-respect, dignity,reverence, and concern for the lives of others. It emerges throughout life and is not a moral nature that is set once and for all in childhood.
The stories, fairy tales, fables, poems, and other literature in this anthology illustrate the moral challenges people face and portray thedevelopment of character. They are particularly valuable guides for young people during those years when moral principles are internalizedand children begin to organize their actions and opinions on the basis of values.
A Call to Character is a family reader to sharewith your children during the sensitive preadolescent years when character and values emerge most forcefully. The book is divided into foursections, the first three of which focus on clusters of character values: The first addresses values that refer primarily to one's self; the second,those that emerge in relationships with family, friends, and neighbors; and the third, values that relate to people one doesn't know, to society,and to nature. The fourth section is about love, the joyous and harmonious ideal of the fullness of living.
In the first part of the book, ourselections address values that contribute to the personal strengths of eight- to thirteen-year-olds. This is the time of life when young peoplebegin to act independently and raise serious moral questions, such as, Where do I stand? How do I respond? What kind of a person am I? Itis the time when children begin to form personal answers to questions of courage, integrity, and self-discipline. It is also the time when theybegin to move into the world on their own and make decisions guided by principle rather than impulse or the wishes of peers or adults. It isa time when there is a voice growing inside which speaks and says, "This is the real me," a time when parents are acutely aware that theirchildren's growth pains are not solely physical.
The awakening of a "real self" is beautifully described by Emily Dickinson as aconvergence:
Expressed or still
Character first emergesin relation to children's feelings about themselves and evolves in relation to their immediate social world and then to the larger world beyondfamily and friends. To an important degree young people build their own characters and choose the kinds of people they become. Thedevelopment of such values as courage and integrity occurs as they make personal choices when facing moral dilemmas, so adults have tobe sensitive to their autonomy. Consequently, discussion and storytelling rather than preaching or didactic teaching are the appropriate waysto help children as they learn to make these choices.
The power and liberating force of the inner voice is conveyed by the poet DeniseLevertov in her "Variation on a Theme by Rainer Maria Rilke":
A certain day became a presence to me,
there it was, confrontingme, a sky, air, light:
a being. And before it started to descend
from the height of noon, it leaned over
and struck my shoulder asif with
the flat of a sword, granting me
honor and a task. The day's blow
rang out, metallic, or it was I, a bell awakened,
and what I heard was my whole self
saying and singing what it knew: I can.
But courage is often not enough to sustain ourinner voice and our striving toward autonomy and integrity. We have to learn how to apply ourselves wholeheartedly and persevere in theface of difficulties. This self-discipline enriches and enlarges us, making it possible to do more than dream of and insist on opportunities andprojects for ourselves, but to plan and carry them out creatively and with good humor. With creativity comes the ability to solve problems.With playfulness and good humor we can deal with frustration.
Personal choices and imperatives involving courage, self-discipline,integrity, creativity, and playfulness characterize all stages of life, but they are especially heightened and poignant during early adolescence.The challenges of school, the temptations of the media and the streets, the drives to test the limits of other people's love all demand thatyoungsters find out who they are and discover the essential rudiments of their characters even as they are molding them. When that doesn'thappen, all too often an extended inability to deal with personal problems and cold insensitivity to other people's lives follow. The poetJimmy Santiago Baca expresses this need to know and draw moral strength from one's emerging self:
I cannot fly or make somethingappear in my hand,
I cannot make the heavens open or the earth tremble,
I can live with myself, and I am amazed at myself, mylove, my beauty,
I am taken by my failures, astounded by my fears,
I am stubborn and childish,
in the midst of this wreckage oflife they incurred,
I practice being myself,
and I have found parts of myself never dreamed of by me
"Who Understands MeBest but Me"
In the second part of A Call to Character, our attention turns to how we learn to live with others. This is anothermajor aspect of the development of character. How we live with others, our social development, is in fact the testing and training ground forcharacter. As young people discover the effect that they have on the people they knowfriends, family, teachers, acquaintancesthey beginto develop their ability to be loyal, generous, empathetic, and honest social actors. But acquiring and applying these values is a gradualprocess, involving the interplay of experience and reflection. That's why adaptability is important; youngsters can, and will likely have to,change their minds, learn from mistakes, resist what comes most easily, and embrace new challenges as they make their way in an uncertainworld.
It is through caring contacts with adults that young people can learn about strength of character without the rigidity whichfollows the punishment and forced feeding that once typified moral education. Released from rigidity, children and adults can change whenthey are faced with new challenges.