First, let’s start with the definition. Character is what you do when no one is watching. If this is the case, what does that even mean anymore? We post everything we do on social media. We post what we eat, what we wear, what we’re listening to. The only things it seems we don’t post are things we are ashamed of, which honestly, if you spend too many hours on YouTube you’ll realize is not much.
As a high school teacher, I can tell you that positive reinforcement is drilled into teachers in almost every training we go to. Studies show that positive reinforcement tends to work even when the reinforcer leaves the equation, so we started using it in education all over the place. Teacher buy loads of candy, do treasure chests, have games with prizes, all so that students can feel an immediate positivity about reaching some kind of goal or exhibiting some type of desired behavior. This, of course, is a push back against old school academics with paddles and other punishments or negative reinforcement (when you withhold a reward) for example no recess.
It sounds simple enough, and works a lot of the time. Students will respond quicker if they know they can get something out of it. So, great! That’s the answer then! …Right?
Let’s take a minute before jumping on board here. What are we teaching children when we reward them every time they exhibit the behaviors that we prefer? Are we teaching them to value hard work? Are we teaching them to enjoy doing the right thing? No.. we are just teaching them to keep their eye on the prize. At best that leads to self-indulgence, cowardice, or short-sightedness. At worst, moral bankruptcy.
See, we’ve stopped teaching children about integrity and character. Not all parents of course, but this, sadly, is the trend. We have learned that everything we choose has a consequence. We make our choices based on those immediate consequences and that’s that. What we are missing is who we are becoming in the process. Life is not about what you can accomplish, what grade you end up with, how much money you make, or anything else. Your job, your family, your schooling, your children, everything in your life is only the means to an end. That end is not any of those things in and of themselves but rather who you spend your life becoming. When we are hard pressed, that’s when we show our true character. What happens when cheating gives you more of a benefit than studying hard and ending up with a lower grade? What happens when having an affair gives more of a short term benefit than being loyal to your spouse who is struggling at the moment? What happens when you adopt a child who is exceptionally difficult and it would be easier to just give them back? Who will you be when the going gets tough and the positive reward doesn’t always come along with the morally correct choice?
I will tell you that the end, and all the means to that end, will leave you with one thing: on your death bed, will you be proud of the life you lived? Will you know that you made a difference while you were here? Will you be confident that when you enter heaven, God says “well done my good and faithful servant”?
Next time you are faced with a decision ask yourself: Which choice will make me more of the person I hope to become? Make that choice, not because of what reward you will receive or punishment you will avoid if you do… but simply because it’s the right thing to do. Character and integrity, they are the only things no one can take away from you. Protect them with your life because when character is lost, everything is lost.