How to build young people’s character

When ‘building character’, what we are really talking about is developing resilience, one of the most important personal attributes required on the journey of life. It is a particularly important attribute if a young person is to achieve their potential.
In a 2014 BBC article Schools urged to promote ‘character and resilience’, Patrick Howse reported on the drive to increase resilience in schools. He highlighted how schools are becoming factories with the sole purpose of passing exams. Personally I’ve spent time in schools and I think they are stuck between a rock and a hard place. The fact is schools want to provide well rounded education and buy into investing in ‘extra circular’ activities which build resilience, however with exams results a key driver in league tables, you can’t blame schools for focusing on exam outcomes.
In my recent blog on teenage mental health I highlighted how people like Clinical Psychologist, Tanya Byron believe there is an increase in young people with mental health issues from enriched environments. She feels they have a fear of failure and a choking anxiety about their futures. She also talked about the pressure on academic results over developing emotional intelligence; and the importance of young people understanding exam grades don’t define who they are as people.
Young people are capable of amazing things. This includes a young person called Ella, who at 13 climbed El Capitan, a 2,000 meter mountain in the USA with her Dad. The climb involved spending 5 days on the rock face including camping on a vertical face.
It would be easy to think how irresponsible it was for a father to take his 13 year old daughter up a mountain like El Cap, a mountain which tests the world’s best climbers. In Andy’s words:

‘I wanted to prepare Ella for life’

Andy’s view is the only way to do this is to take Ella outside of her comfort zone and avoid wrapping her up in cotton wool.
I remember reading a story about a Junior School making kids wear protective goggles to play conkers. So is the world going crazy?  I think it’s important to see things in context as it’s easy to make a headline out of something small. Is this a school simply reacting to a health and safety culture? I’m not sure it is. I would argue this more down to a ‘no win, no fee’ culture. The fact is employers having a responsibility for the safety of their staff and the public is important however when it creeps into schools feeling they might get sued if a kid gets hurt playing conkers, perhaps it time to take stock.
Back to Ella and her Dad. Andy believes climbing has the power to teach the ability to face risk, fear and doubt, 3 things everyone has to face in life. In the BBC interview Andy did admit Ella cried on El Cap, however it was when she dropped her iPod. If you look at what Ella has achieved to date, his theory seems to have worked.
Ok, not everyone has the skills and experience to take their child up a mountain, however if we try and wrap young people up in cotton wool and don’t encourage them to get outside of their comfort zone, how will they deal with the challenges life throws at them. As we know, most things we don’t want to do at first, often gives us the most satisfaction.
Here are 7 simple ways to start building character of young people (other than climbing El Capitan)
  1. Get them involved in sport
  2. Participate in Duke of Edinburgh awards
  3. Get them out of their central heated bedroom and go camping
  4. Visit a climbing wall
  5. Saturday job
  6. Volunteering
  7. Face the fear and switch off the Wi-Fi for a weekend
Post by Jim Clarke

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