Monday, April 12, 2010

The Good Character Challenge

Character development is the cornerstone of my youth martial arts program. Look around -- in department stores, groceries, schoolyards, street corners, and on the Internet -- and you'll see why. Our children are woefully lacking in good character these days. Just some examples:

  • Some Fort Worth, Texas, cheerleaders reportedly thought it was a good idea to spike sodas with urine and then gleefully give them to teammates.
  • Some teenagers in Massachusetts reportedly bullied a classmate to the point that she committed suicide.
  • Enough student athletes use steroids that some school districts now test, or are considering testing, for performance enhancing drugs.

We read about these incidents every day, and in the moment, we are shocked and appalled. But how many of us can go one day without:

  • telling a little white lie?
  • sticking company office supplies in our briefcase or purse "by accident"?
  • showing up late to work, or leaving early
  • spending way more on our credit card than WE KNOW we can repay
  • driving over the speed limit, taking a U-turn when the sign clearly states it is against the law, or turning right on a red light when another sign tells us not to?

Where has good character gone in this country? Is it no longer valued? Have we given up the good fight for honesty and virtue?

Alas, my stubborn nature is beneficial after all, for I haven't given up on people young and old doing the right thing at the right time for the right reason -- even when no one is looking.

Years ago, my Taekwondo grandmaster had his young students memorize 10 basic rules to live by. One problem was that he made the students memorize and verbally recite these rules, but never checked to see if they were actually adhering to them. The other problem was that each rule started out, "Children must....," as if only youths need character development. When I opened Tao of Texas Martial Arts Institute, I made a point to have guidelines that begin with "WE must..." because everyone, at every age, could have better character. Even, and especially, me.

Take a look at the rules my students must follow to qualify for promotion in my Taekwondo program. How many can you check off every day?

  1. We must respect our parents and family members AT ALL TIMES.
  2. We must greet family members when we come home, and say goodbye when we leave.
  3. We must be honest and truthful AT ALL TIMES.
  4. We must build and maintain a good relationship with our brothers and sisters AT ALL TIMES.
  5. We must help with household chores.
  6. We must wash our hair and body, and brush our teeth every day.
  7. We must clean our room and keep it clean.
  8. We must not rudely interrupt another’s conversation.
  9. We must complete our homework (or project) and turn it in on time.
  10. We must respect our teachers and peers AT ALL TIMES.

Heck, Congress could use a little of No. 10 right now! And did anyone get stuck on No. 8? I listen to adults talk to each other all the time, and it's like watching a constant rerun of "Interrupt-Ville." Few people know how to let others finish a sentence before they begin spouting their self-important point of view.

I ask my students which ones they struggle with the most, and overwhelmingly, it's keeping a good relationship with siblings. How are you doing in that arena? Personally, I still have a looooong way to grow. Due to my students' inspiring efforts, though, I've been making baby-step improvements and have been making regular attempts to call my two sisters more often and to be patient and compassionate when they are bickering with each other, which right now is all the time.

I struggle most with No. 1. I don't call my mom and dad enough. I'm working on that, but having been an absentee daughter in the past, it's a hard habit to break. Still, my students offer the inspiration for me to keep trying.

Last week, I dropped everything to go be with my mom as her sister was dying. She said last night that she was so happy that I did.

"I knew you'd come," she said. "You didn't say you were coming, but I knew you would."

It meant a lot to her that I came, and it meant a lot to me to hear her say it made her happy, for I have not always made her happy.

None of us is perfect. Every day is character in progress for me. Take this morning: I woke up, put the back of my hand to my forehead, and sighed, "I don't have a fever." I swallowed. No sore throat. I sighed again, thinking about the sometimes-boring work I do in the mornings at a publishing company, then resolved, "Well, I'm not sick, so I guess I'd better get going." Then I rolled out of bed to begin my day.

We all have our character defects struggles. Years ago, a friend of mine told me her boss had a "come to Buddha" meeting with her about the fact that my friend had been arriving to work every day about 30 minutes late, taking a longer lunch than allowed, and then leaving about 30 minutes early.

"Well no wonder she's upset. That's theft." I said deadpanned. "You're stealing from the company."

She looked stunned. My friend had never seen it that way.

"How long have you been doing this?" I asked.

"Oh, maybe about a year," she said.

"Wow. That's a lot of money you owe the company."

Her jaw dropped. Her olive complexion became ashen. I told her how lucky she was that her boss didn't fire her on the spot. She thought about it, and later went home and calculated all the time she had "stolen" from the company. For MANY months afterward, she came in early, worked through lunches, and stayed late to repay all that time she took off. Her boss never questioned why she was working extra hours.

Another friend thought it was O.K. to pay for one movie ticket at the theater, and, after the movie was over, waltz on over to the movie across the hall without paying. She, too, didn't see that she was stealing from the movie theater. Now, though, when she goes to "the movies," she more specifically goes to see "a movie."

I have never been more proud of my friends.

I'd like to say that the friend who struggled to stay at work has never again failed to put in a good day's work for an honest day's pay, and I'd like to say I always call my mom and dad when I should. The truth? Neither of us is perfect. Everyone falls victim to their weak character defects from time to time, especially when hungry, angry, lonely, or tired. But now she knows that whatever time she fudges on, she must make up, and I know that I have no excuse ("it's too early/too late to call") for not keeping in touch with my parents.

I've made every character mistake in the book in my life. Today, though, I take these rules seriously, and my students know it. The penalty at the school for flagrant violation of our basic rules is loss of belt rank and possible suspension. Some students have indeed lost rank for various infractions: making Fs because they didn't turn in homework, being unreasonably rude to their siblings, talking back to their parents, blaming the broken vase on the dog instead of saying they broke it when they were playing frisbee in the house. Am I hard on them? Why, yes, I guess I am. However, I'd rather they lose rank in a martial arts school and learn a vital lesson about being a better, stronger person than lose a parent's or friend's trust through lying, or worse, make a mistake so large that they lose their freedom via jail time.

So enough already. Developing and keeping good character is simple. I'll admit it's not easy, but very simple. You just do the right thing -- whether you like it or not, whether you want to or not, whether it's politically popular or not -- because it's the right thing to do.

What this means for me is that I show up to work on time, and I don't leave early just because the boss is gone for the day. It means I'll suffer the societal pressure of being honked at by the driver behind me who wants me to turn on red when the sign says not to. It means I'm going to report the cash that student just handed me for a used uniform that wasn't in the school's inventory. It means I'm going to tell the truth about why I was late to meet my friend (I screwed up) instead of making an excuse that "sounds good." And it means I will have to let myself look bad from time to time. It means I will make mistakes and own up to them as quickly as possible instead of pointing the finger at someone else, rationalizing, or justifying my behavior.

Will I always feel better about telling the truth? Honestly, maybe not in the moment (because I'm a perfectionist who's all about looking good), but eventually, I will see the value in truth and be glad I owned up to it. (Plus, I don't have to keep lies straight in my head if I tell the truth the first time.)

If my students can follow these simple rules, everyone can step up to the big-boy Character Development plate, too.

So, I dare you: Take the Good Character Challenge. Follow the above-mentioned 10 basic rules for one week. And let me know how it goes.

Be honest....

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