Fostering Character Development in Teens: Honor, Pt 1

In There's a Stranger in My House by Dr James WellbornLeave a Comment

def: (noun) fair and respects the rights of others

One of the primary ways that societies regulate the behavior of their fellow citizens has been through an emphasis on honor; upholding it, defending it, living with it.  In many considerations, honor represents the whole collection of Character-istics, similar to Character and integrity.  However, in this column, honor represents a specific Character-istic; a commitment to what is fair and rightfully due to others.  When honor is defined in this way, the code underlying honorable behavior is derived from an entitlement to certain basic human rights, not the least of these being life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  (And, no, this definition of happiness is NOT about what feels good.  The philosophical concept of contentment would be closer to the concept of happiness considered here.)  So, therefore, honorable behavior is represented by a sense of fairness (regardless of your feelings for or against the other person) and a dedication to the protection and defense of the rights of others (regardless of whether or not they deserve it).

Kids (and not a few adults) can have trouble recognizing their own bias in “deciding” whether someone is deserving of fair treatment or respect.  There are some pretty despicable people in the world, after all.  Fairness and justice is something all people deserve.  Your kid will need a lot of help learning how to act with honor toward other people; particularly the ones that tick them off.

So, what’s a parent to do?

Character Check.  First, find out where they stand when it comes to honor.  Is your kid someone who:

□   Takes turns

□   Doesn’t blame others carelessly

□   Compromise

□   Is open minded

□   Displays good sportsmanship; win or lose

□   Shares possessions without enticement or reminders

□   Looks for peaceful, fair solutions to problems

□   Plays by the rules

□   Looks out for the rights of others

□   Is upset by unfair treatment of others

□   Refrains from making comments or jokes that put down another group or person

If your kid is missing a lot of these Character-istics or you want to shore up what is already there, read on.

Model it.  Fairness and respecting the rights of others comes in many forms.  It can be as straightforward as distributing chores equitably among siblings and as subtle as whether you treat people the same regardless of their heritage, ethnicity, religious beliefs or sexual preference.  How fair minded are you?  Are your decisions based on strong and clear prejudices, “isms” (e.g., racism, sexism, AGE-ISM!, etc.) or bigotry?  (Notice that Honor doesn’t require you to be unbiased or prejudiced; it means you strive to not have those determine how you treat others.)  Does your honor code include the concept of “every person for themselves?”  These beliefs and actions are inherently unfair.  An honor code that makes it acceptable to deny fair and respectful treatment “except . . .” runs counter to the fundamental tenets of our constitution.  It also runs the risk of being used against you (and your kid) by other people.  (Virtually every category of humanity has experienced unfairness, injustice and death at one time in history; some repeatedly.)

Don’t forget about the power of stories as a way to model your kid’s Character development.  Tell them stories about people who are personal models of Honor to you; even better if they are members of the family.  Find fables and stories that emphasize fairness (e.g., The Cow of No Color: Riddle Stories and Justice Tales from Around the World by Nina Jaffe, Steve Zeitlin and Whitney Sherman).  And, there are movies, of course (e.g., A Civil Action, The China Syndrome, To Kill A Mockingbird, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington).

Notice it.  Draw attention to instances of Honorable actions people perform in the world around you.  There will be stories in the news (though not as often as we need to hear) of people who treat others fairly, especially when they might have benefited from just keeping quiet or turning away.  Standing up for the rights of others, protesting some unfairness in the world, acting to right a wrong committed toward someone else; these are things worth mentioning to your kid.  Pay attention to your kid being fair in their assessment of others, distributing possessions or providing opportunities for other people.  Make sure they know you noticed.  Support them in their indignation about injustice in the world.  Teens are at risk for entitled outraged (“That’s not fair!  I should get more”) so be sure to provide lots of admiration when this outrage is directed at unfairness toward others.

Express it.  Use words and phrases that indicated Honor is important to you (and should be to them):  honorable, person of honor, fair, just, unfair, being a good sport, playing by the rules.  Talk about fundamental human rights (as they relate to what another person deserves simply because they are a person).

Expect it. Your kid will learn to be honorable through requirements that they be fair and just in their treatment of others (including their siblings).  Make sure your kid knows that you expect them to respect the rights of others, especially those people they dislike or disagree with (like their siblings).  This is not the same as requiring them to accept other’s views or behaviors.  It is about respecting their rights and treating them justly despite the fact that they are despicable human beings.  (Though you should equally expect your kid to maintain a firm hold on their own personal value system.  Being fair doesn’t mean you like or even agree with the person.)


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