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Michael Josephson's mission is to help children make the right choices.

In Character

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Michael Josephson is founder of the Josephson Institute of Ethics, in Marina del Ray, Calif. In 1993, Josephson brought together a group of educators and youth-service leaders to discuss a way to teach character to children regardless of political views, religious beliefs, race, ethnicity or socioeconomic status.

The result was the creation of Character Counts, an educational initiative now endorsed by nearly 500 school districts, nonprofits and youth organizations across the country. The program advocates what Josephson calls the six "pillars" of character: trustworthiness, respect, fairness, responsibility, caring and citizenship.

Character Counts was introduced to Virginia schools in 1999. On Feb. 22, state Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke, will present a resolution to the General Assembly recognizing Josephson. While he is in Richmond, Josephson will serve as the keynote speaker for the "Building Communities of Character" conference sponsored by Virginia 4-H to be held at the Richmond Omni Feb. 21 and 22.

Josephson's ideas and the work of the Institute have been featured in such programs as "Dateline," "Today" and "CBS Evening News with Dan Rather." Josephson also has been profiled in Time, the Wall Street Journal, USA Today and the Los Angeles Times.

Style: Why promote character and how do you do it in a way that makes sense to kids?

Jacobsen: First of all, the answer to why promote character is because we care about our kids. I have five kids; four of them are under the age of 9. I care a lot about their lives and the decisions they are going to make. I know that certain decisions are going to cause them pain and certain decisions will help them live productive, happy lives. Character is the most essential quality. You've got to know how to deal with success and failure; you've got to know how to deal with integrity, with temptations, with cheating and lying; you've got to establish relationships in trust. So I don't think there's anything more basic in the way we communicate with children than to try to instill in them a sense of core values.

Secondly, we're concerned with character because even if we do the best job we can with our own kids … there are some parents who say, "Well I'm doing a great job myself at home and I don't need help." Well, maybe not everybody at your [kid's] school is. … You gotta care. The data is pretty scary about what kids are doing today in terms of violence, in terms of drinking, in terms of cheating and the like. There's this implied notion that it's optional if we try to teach values. That's ridiculous. You teach values if you decide not to teach values — the value you're teaching is that values don't matter.

You mentioned the kid running into another kid who isn't getting that reinforcement at home. But how do you teach the heady concept of ethics to those kids if their basic needs — food, shelter, clothing — aren't even being met at home? How do you reach that group?

One of the most important needs is approval. Kids need approval and they need love as well. Yes, of course you've got to feed them. This isn't in lieu of, this doesn't compete with eating. But the fact is, they need to feel wanted, they need to feel loved, they need to feel valued. Character is the way that this works with adults who are willing to love them, who are willing to care. There are many kids who are coming from totally toxic backgrounds where they don't [receive] the proper reinforcement at home or they don't get the proper love or self-worth, for example, that might be necessary to make the hard choices that ethics requires. But teachers and coaches and grandparents and even cafeteria workers, with even the slightest of self-conscious effort, provide that. …

So sometimes the way character education works is not just to take the kid who is coming from a horrible background and lecture him, it's to love him. You say, I understand that's what you're getting at home but here's an alternative, here's another way, this is what we expect of you. Quite the contrary from the assumption that kids who are living in highly deprived circumstances are the least receptive, they are the most receptive to these messages. They need them the most. In fact, if you were to make a guess as to who has more character, 100 poor kids or 100 rich kids, most people would say the poor kids. Affluence, it turns out is a bigger obstacle to character than poverty.

I've read that you use a lot of anecdotes, almost like fables, to demonstrate a moral lesson. But this still seems a little abstract for kids. How do you apply ethics in concrete specific ways?

We teach kids that they are stakeholders, like they are wheels on a cog, that everything they do has a consequence. We had a situation where a gang kid — who had been kicked out of his school and was in an alternative school — was given some praise and a certificate because he had turned in the janitor's keys. Now this was significant for the kid because he was in this alternative school for burglary. Finding the janitor's keys is like dying and going to heaven. I asked him, "Why did you do that?" And I hoped he'd say, trustworthiness, loyalty and values, but what he said was, "I didn't want the janitor to lose his job." Now that was a wonderful tangible application of what we mean by stakeholders, an example of ethics changing attitudes.

What are the results [of your program], and is the question of ethics and character more pertinent today than a decade ago when the initiative began?

Certainly. The world goes in cycles. You had a major movement in the late '70s and early '80s with what was called values clarification and values relativism. Schools and youth organizations abandoned any attempt to teach values. They were so afraid of being sued. We began to pay a very high price. We started seeing all these cheating and violence rates go up in the early '90s. I think we reached a point in the mid- to late-'90s like in the old movie "Network" where the guy says "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore." This passivity about character, this abandonment of responsibility is not making kids better or happier or the world safer. So what can we do that's prudent and wise that doesn't impose on [kids] individual and narrow standards of a particular religion or philosophy or political view? It's not what this is about. It's about what you and I both want. If you had the opportunity to choose what characteristics you want the person who marries your child to have, what would you choose? Yeah, you'd probably like it if he were rich. But if I gave you the choice between being rich, but he was an unfaithful SOB, you'd say, OK, give up the money. Just make sure this guy is kind and honest.

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