Why Character Counts, by Marilyn Price-Mitchell PhD

It’s simple. Character counts because character increases well-being and leads to a life of fulfillment. 

It is widely acknowledged that character  –not beauty, high test scores, or wealth – account for life satisfaction. So how do children develop character during their academic climb from kindergarten through high school?

Educational goals of developing intelligence are well articulated and their outcomes can be measured. Until now, however, character strengths were less defined and not as measurable.

Martin Luther King Jr. understood why character counts most.  At a speech at Morehouse College in 1948, he said, “We must remember that intelligence is not enough.  Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education.”

When I reflect on King’s statement, I think of my closest friends and the people I most respect.  I am drawn to them by forces beyond intellect and success.  I admire their character strengths, the values they hold, and how they treat me as a fellow human being.  So when we think of education in the broadest sense of the word, it is important to consider how kids develop character during childhood and adolescence that determine the kind of adults they become.

This is the first in a series of articles on character — why character counts, and ways we help foster character strengths in children.  This article defines character strengths and presents a framework for understanding them.  As adults who model character to kids each and every day, it’s helpful to begin by taking inventory of our own character strengths!

Character Counts Throughout Life

While researchers are not in total agreement, there has been effort in recent years to define character strengths. The academic goals of education are often well-articulated and outcomes can be measured.  Until now, however, character strengths were less defined and not as measurable.

In their highly acclaimed academic book, Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification, Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman attempt to define these inner virtues and strengths.  Researchers have also developed ways of measuring character strengths.  You can read extended definitions of all these strengths at the nonprofit VIA Institute on Character, but simply put, they fall into the following six categories:

  • Wisdom and Knowledge: Creativity, Curiosity, Judgment and Open-Mindedness, Love of Learning, Perspective
  • Courage: Bravery, Perseverance, Honesty, Zest
  • Humanity: Capacity to Love and Be Loved, Kindness, Social Intelligence
  • Justice: Teamwork, Fairness, Leadership
  • Temperance: Forgiveness and Mercy, Modesty and Humility, Prudence, Self-Regulation
  • Transcendence: Appreciation of Beauty and Excellence, Gratitude, Hope, Humor, Religiousness and Spirituality

It’s important to note that this is one framework used to understand character strengths. Personally, I like the VIA Institute Model because it is backed by lots of empirical research. But every model has limitations and it’s best to consider them helpful guides.

The value of any kind of framework is in how it is understood and applied in the real world — in homes, classrooms, and out-of-school-time activities for children. It is that link from theory to practice that I hope to facilitate in this blog.

Getting Started: Understanding our own Character Strengths

Why Character Counts, by Marilyn Price-Mitchell PhDOne of the best ways for parents, educators, and community leaders to better understand character strengths is by first examining our own.  I did this and so can you.  More than a million people worldwide have taken the online survey through the VIA Institute on Character.

The survey for adults takes 30-40 minutes and produces a free report of your top five strengths.  There is also a survey designed for youth ages 11-17 that takes 40-50 minutes. If you want a detailed report of your 24 strengths, the fee is $40.

My daughter, age 28, and I both took the survey last week.  I opted for the free version which listed my top five strengths and what they mean.  Mine were:

  1. Appreciation of beauty and excellence – You notice and appreciate beauty, excellence, and/or skilled performance in all domains of life, from nature to art to mathematics to science to everyday experience.
  2. Creativity, ingenuity, and originality – Thinking of new ways to do things is a crucial part of who you are.  You are never content with doing something the conventional way if a better way is possible.
  3. Gratitude: You are aware of the good things that happen to you, and you never take them for granted. Your friends and family members know that you are a grateful person because you always take the time to express your thanks.
  4. Hope, optimism, and future-mindedness: You expect the best in the future, and you work to achieve it. You believe that the future is something that you can control.
  5. Industry, diligence, and perseverance: You work hard to finish what you start. No matter the project, you “get it out the door” in timely fashion. You do not get distracted when you work, and you take satisfaction in completing tasks.

My daughter chuckled at my results, saying they fit me to a tee. Anyone crazy enough to get a Ph.D. in mid-life has to have a lot of ingenuity and perseverance!

Being in the middle of a job search, my daughter opted for the $40 report which we thought might be helpful in understanding her strengths as they related to a career choice. The 18-page report rank-ordered all of her strengths, not only giving her a top five but also information on how she could develop strengths that she didn’t use as much.  It was a very helpful document.

My daughter’s top five strengths were completely different from mine, which was not surprising.  Through our conversations, we both learned a lot about each other, how we differ, and why we admire each other’s strengths. Yes, we agreed, character counts!

Want to learn about your own character strengths?  Take the VIA Survey of Character. When you have finished, you’ll understand your own strengths and take the first step to learning how to foster character strengths in young people!

The second article in this series looks at ways parents’ help children identify and discuss character strengths at home.  The third article shows how one teacher is building a classroom environment based on character strengths. And the last article examines how character strengths can be instilled by community leaders.

Articles in the Series on Character: 

Part 1: Why Character Counts (Reading Now)

Part 2: How Families Develop Character in Children

Part 3: Teachers Develop Character Strengths

Part 4: Character Development: A Role for Community Leaders


Photo Credits: Barrett Web Coordinator; Chrissy Ferguson

Published: May 6, 2011

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