Character Above All by Head of Upper School Ben Snyder

Many Nobles parents have heard me say that my favorite parenting expression is “we’re only as happy as our unhappiest child.” As someone with two children out of college, I can tell you that adage continues to hold true!

It is inevitable that something will not go well for our children. The situation may be a mistake made, a disappointment endured, a personal trial or an unfairness suffered. Our challenge as parents is to figure out how best to help our children persevere and learn from the situation.

In some circumstances, we end up focusing on the impact of the situation on a child’s achievement or happiness; “What impact will this have on Johnny’s college chances?” or “Sue is so unhappy about this—how can we make her feel better?”

These impulses seem natural, and many of us make significant sacrifices so our children can succeed, be happy or achieve their dreams. Unfortunately, I don’t believe this is generally the proper response for us to have.

When we, as adults, look back on our lives and reflect on what situations have taught us the most, it is often when something went wrong that we learned and grew. Often those mistakes or disappointments forced us to look hard at ourselves, our character and what is most important to us.

How did our actions impact others? What did my behavior say about my character and how might I learn and recover from it? What do I need to do to correct the situation? What are my obligations to my “team”? How might I have handled the situation differently?

The pressures on Nobles students to achieve are real, and we naturally want our kids to do well and be happy. But what our research shows is that our students feel great tension between their achievement goals and their developing character.

Parents and teachers should consider how we interact with our children and students. Instead of an achievement-oriented conversation (“How did you do on the test?”, “Did you get the lead in the play?”, “Did you win today?”), we should engage them in talk around what kind of person we want them to be (“How did the team/cast feel about how it went today?”, “What was your response to X?”, “What does that situation say about the people involved?”, “Is there anyone you should be reaching out to?”).

Ultimately, we hope to develop young people of character at Nobles who value and understand excellence and take real joy and satisfaction in the process of learning, failing, rebounding and making a positive difference in the world around them.

Approaching the final quarter of the year, we all might do a “gut check” around the kinds of conversations we have with kids and the balance we strike between focusing on their doing well, on their happiness and on their doing good and thinking of others.

This article was written for the March edition of the Parents’ E-Newsletter

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