By Stephen Gray Wallace, featured in Psychology Today.
There was nothing pretty about the public spectacle Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers created by lying about his vaccination status. His hubris placed his team at a competitive disadvantage and his teammates (and competitors) at increased risk of contracting COVID-19. Just as bad, he failed on the role model requirement that comes with stature and notoriety (Etienne, 2021).
All of us who have children or work with children—maybe especially teenagers—understand the imperative of character development, including honesty. Rodgers just made that work much harder.
In my 2018 Psychology Today post “Big Little Lies – Character, Culture and American Youth,” I noted that the process of character development is of critical import for everyone who serves as a touch point for young people. The turmoil roiling in industries ranging from entertainment to government to broadcasting and beyond raises some significant issues with regard to how we are raising our children and the examples that potentially powerful public role models are, even unwittingly, providing to American youth. That holds true now more than ever.
The YMCA of the USA defines character development as “the process through which youth develop and integrate a set of values, skills, attitudes and behaviors that allow them to navigate successfully and responsibly in learning, work and life” (Lantos et al, 2020). Indeed, character is positively linked to social and emotional well-being, behavioral health, academic performance, and economic success.
For its part, Character Lab defines the term to mean “Intentions and actions that benefit both the individual and others. It’s hard to see how Rodgers’ self-serving statements square with that sentiment (Character Lab, 2021).
Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget’s observations of children led him to develop four stages of cognitive (i.e., intellectual) development. The fourth stage, Formal Operational (Ages 12 and up), tells us why moral considerations become more prominent in tweens and teens. It is characterized by the ability to think abstractly (thinking about thinking) and the consideration of moral, philosophical, ethical, and political issues. It is also when deductive reasoning comes to the fore (Cherry, 2020).
Teens are also in the process of identity formation and healthy separation and independence from their parents. This makes role models particularly influential as youth look for other, non-parent adults for examples of how to live life and find success.
Lawrence Kohlberg built on Piaget’s work by positing that there are three levels of moral development, characterized as preconventional, conventional, and postconventional (Lumen, 2021).
- During the preconventional level, a child’s sense of morality is externally controlled. Children accept and believe the rules of authority figures, such as parents and teachers, and they judge an action based on its consequences.
- During the conventional level, an individual’s sense of morality is tied to personal and societal relationships. Children continue to accept the rules of authority figures, but this is now because they believe that this is necessary to ensure positive relationships and societal order.
- During the postconventional level, a person’s sense of morality is defined in terms of more abstract principles and values. People now believe that some laws are unjust and should be changed or eliminated.
So important is the proactive teaching of character in school, Character Lab has created a scorecard of sorts—the Character Growth Card.
The CGC is a school-based assessment developed to help middle school teachers provide students with formative feedback on skills that researchers and teachers alike have linked with success. We believe these questions are a useful springboard for teaching and learning activities related to a young person’s development of character skills …
The skills on this card fall into three major categories: social character, which facilitates harmonious relationships with other people and is exemplified by social intelligence and gratitude; achievement character, sometimes termed performance character, which facilitates the achievement of personal goals and is exemplified by grit; and intellectual character, which facilitates learning and is exemplified by curiosity. Some skills relate to two categories. For example, self-control is both interpersonal and an achievement strength; zest is both interpersonal and a learning strength; and, finally, optimism relates both to achievement and learning.
The Character Growth Card also offers tools to help adults when working with children.
- Discuss the differences and similarities between their scores and a child’s self-ratings for each skill area.
- Return to this card on a quarterly basis as a way to emphasize that over time, these skills can grow and change.
- Discuss whether scores have changed over time and a child’s perceptions about the source of this change. Has the child’s behavior changed? Or perhaps have the child’s personal standards changed? For example, children who become more aware of self-control skills may wish to change their self-control rating after several months of personal observation and reflection, even if their behavior itself has not changed much.
- Discuss different situations or environments when ratings might be different than the norm. For example, a child might say that he or she is normally a 5 on self-control, but when it comes to playing on the baseball team, he or she would give herself a 1 or 2 in this area.
The card itself prompts ratings on eight items.
- Self-Control (school work)
- Self-Control (interpersonal)
- Social Intelligence
Of course, parents (and other caring adults) play a pivotal role in teaching character as well.
The Center for Parent & Teen Communication (CPTL) speaks to some of the ways they can help, reminding us of the importance of developing character to build resilience. CPTL also details six additional C’s of resilience: confidence, competence, contribution, connection, coping, and control (Ginsburg, 2018).
- Do the right thing—don’t take the path of least resistance
- It’s not always the path of immediate pleasure
- Reinforce, don’t preach
- Show empathy and honor sensitivity
- Model, model, model
- Forget perfection—work on improvements
- Expose teens to people of good character
- Reassess yourself
- Citizenship and building a stronger nation
The center also reminds us of the importance of teaching our kids about resourcefulness, generosity, and loyalty (Koh, 2021).
What Aaron Rodgers got wrong was not recognizing his place as an important role model for youth and engaging them with salient examples of character.
CharacterLab. (2021). Character. https://characterlab.org/character/ (23 Nov. 2021).
Cherry, K. (2020). The 4 stages of cognitive development: background and key concepts of Piaget’s theory. verywellmind. March 31, 2020. https://www.verywellmind.com/piagets-stages-of-cognitive-development-27… (23 Nov. 2021).
Etienne, V. (2021). Terry Bradshaw Says Aaron Rodgers ‘Lied to Everyone’ About Vaccination Status. People.com. November 8, 2021. https://people.com/sports/terry-bradshaw-says-unvaccinated-aaron-rodger… (23 Nov. 2021).
Ginsburg, K. (2018). Building character in teens. September 4, 2018. Center for Parent & Teen Communications. https://parentandteen.com/building-character-in-teens-one-of-the-7-cs-o… (23 Nov. 2021).
Great Schools Partnership. (2021). Character growth card. CharacterLab. https://www.greatschoolspartnership.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/Char… (23 Nov. 2021).
Koh, C. (2021). 3 crucial character traits to teach teens. July 12, 2021. Center for Parent & Teen Communications. https://parentandteen.com/3-character-traits-to-teach-teens/ (23 Nov. 2021).
Lantos, H., McClay, A., Stratford, B., Redd, Z. and S. Villatorro. (2020). Promoting Character Development in Youth Programs through Professional Development for Staff and Volunteers. https://www.childtrends.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/YUSA-Outcomes_Ch… (23 Nov. 2021).
Lumen. (2021). Kohlberg’s stages of moral development. Education, Society, & the K-12 Learner. https://courses.lumenlearning.com/teachereducationx92x1/chapter/kohlber… (23 Nov. 2021).
Wallace, S. (2018). Big little lies. Psychology Today. January 17, 2018. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/decisions-teens-make/201801/big… (23 Nov. 2021).