Character building in the UK, I think, needs a little bit of an upgrade. Part of that means having a clearer idea of what we’re trying to build.
Character building 1.0 & The Welsh 3000s
Currently, character building is a euphemism for any experience that is uniformly dreadful and unrewarding. One example, from my childhood, was a challenge called the Welsh 3000s.
“It’s very rocky, and both uphill and downhill sections are demanding. Navigation can also be problematic without previous knowledge of this area of Snowdonia. For some, the walk involves camping/bivvying at the top of Snowdon the night before, adding to the weight of kit for the initial section. Additionally, one mountain, Crib Goch, is very exposed – several people have died on it.
This challenge is commonly underestimated – you need to be very fit to walk it in 24 hours.”
And no, it was not rewarding, nor enjoyable, nor could I see the point. Still, these challenges abound and are perhaps especially prevalent in the independent sector. Even the wide-eyed Wellington progressive Anthony Seldon says that “Hikes and gruelling expeditions should not be the domain just of the posh”.
Character Building 2.0
The difficulty with this is not that the hikes shouldn’t happen. Simply that they need to be given a context. Saying that they are simply good things for their own sake is not, I think, good enough. I like this from KIPP, Duckworth, Seligman et al.
SELF-CONTROL – SCHOOL WORK
Comes to class prepared
Pays attention and resists distractions
Remembers and follows directions
Gets to work right away rather than procrastinating
SELF-CONTROL – INTERPERSONAL
Remains calm even when criticized or otherwise provoked
Allows others to speak without interruption
Is polite to adults and peers
Keeps temper in check
Recognizes and shows appreciation for others
Recognizes and shows appreciation for his/her opportunities
Is eager to explore new things
Asks and answers questions to deepen understanding
Actively listens to others
Gets over frustrations and setbacks quickly
Believes that effort will improve his or her future
Finishes whatever he or she begins
Tries very hard even after experiencing failure
Works independently with focus
Able to find solutions during conflicts with others
Demonstrates respect for feelings of others
Knows when and how to include others
With it, you can begin to give children a) some meaningful targets and b) some meaningful reasons. At least, then, at the end of a nightmarish hike across the Welsh mountains, one might feel a sense of achievement, not pointlessness.