In recent times there has been widespread discontent and criticism of the leaders of institutions and organizations. The vast majority of the criticisms have not been about leaders’ competence or skills. They have been about their unethical and immoral/amoral behaviors as evidenced by racism, discrimination, corruption, dishonesty and toxic behaviors that harm followers, workers and the general public.
In my 30-plus years in training and coaching leaders, I’ve found their failures almost always reflect an absence of good character and virtuous behavior.
When Do Leaders Begin to Show Bad Character and a Lack of Virtuous Behavior?
It doesn’t suddenly magically appear when they are promoted into leadership positions. Several experts would argue, the signs and indications are there early in childhood in the home and school. And it is reflected in the movies children and youth watch.
Why then, do we not pay more attention to positive character education? This article will address that question.
Primrose Schools conducted a national survey with Ipsos which profiled hundreds of parents whose children have attended, currently attend or will attend an early education program between the ages of 3–5. The survey assessed parents’ beliefs about early character development by asking questions about how much parents value important character skills, like teamwork and generosity, and when they think children should start learning these traits.
The survey and study included the following insights:
- 92 percent of parents who responded believe nurturing positive character traits in children is more important today because of our increasingly social media-focused world.
- Nearly 50 percent of parents surveyed said they are unaware of when they can and should start helping their children develop positive character traits.
- More than half of parents who responded feel their child did not or will not acquire honesty, generosity and compassion (54, 54 and 62 percent, respectively) during their early education experience.
The Primrose study said, “What we learned from this research is that parents undoubtedly believe character traits like compassion, generosity and kindness are important for their children to develop; however, they may not have the information and support they need to help their children cultivate these traits and other social-emotional skills to their full potential.”
The study stated further that there is a misconception: Instilling good character in children is solely the parents’ responsibility and that early education and childcare providers should support parents in intentionally nurturing good character.
“We know children are capable of developing foundational social-emotional skills and character traits at an early age. In Primrose classrooms, we see how big their little hearts can be daily. With this in mind — and knowing the extent to which children’s early social-emotional development can shape their ability to cope, relate to others and show compassion later in life — early education and childcare providers must support parents in nurturing their children’s social-emotional development purposefully,” the study reported.
The Role of Parents in Developing a Child’s Good Character
Parents who model moral behaviour effectively pass on their values to their children. Be an example of the decisions and deeds that go into having excellent character. Their children will observe this in their day-to-day actions and decisions if they are dependable, fair, compassionate, courteous, and active in the welfare of their family and community. They will also observe that their family experiences happiness, fulfilment, and tranquilly as a result of this conduct.
Empathy is the first step, according to psychologist Michele Borba, who discusses moral development in children in her books. We can educate our children on all the other character traits because of the empathy that exists between parents and children. Children are intrinsically motivated to learn the lessons of love and character you share when they perceive that you truly understand and care about them.
Parents need to use teachable moments to build positive character.
Children must also learn that when they transgress the moral principles that govern their family, they will face just and honorable consequences. Using instructional opportunities to develop character is made possible by effective disciplining techniques. When you correct your child, always take the time to explain why his behaviour is improper. Make it a practice to recognize the value you want to impart to the child depending on the specific behavior.
The Importance of Stories from Literature and Life
Long before books existed, parents and teachers used stories to impart moral teachings. They teach kids moral and ethical principles by sharing stories about their life and the society they live in. Parents reinforce their values by talking to their children about the tales they see on TV, in books, and in the media. Great books for children that convey vital values abound, as seen in this list from the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Parents can assist their children in considering the best course of action by paying attention to and responding to their stories about school and friends. Parents need to be discerning about what stories children overhear their parents tell other adults. These stories demonstrate to kids how their parents’ principles shape every part of their lives.
Parents Need to Provide Opportunities for Their Children to Practice
Before new skills become automatic for kids, they must practice them. This also holds for developing character. When children witness character development in action, they can learn vicariously, and when they hear lessons in values, they can learn directly. But for them to understand what true character is, they need firsthand experience.
When a child is given the choice between two pals, for example, parents should support their child in making the right choice so she can experience the benefits in her daily life. Also, they can discover strategies to get their kids interested in social and civic activities.
The distinction between “having excellent character” and “being a nice person” frequently confuses young people. Although these two undoubtedly have some overlap (many good individuals also have good character), they are ultimately two separate things.
It all comes down to a person’s fundamental beliefs and the reasons for their actions. People with good character typically possess qualities like integrity, honesty, courage, loyalty, fortitude, and other significant values that encourage good behavior. These personality qualities define who they are as people and have a significant impact on the decisions they make throughout their life.
Also, a person of good character acts morally upright because they think it is the correct thing to do. They don’t do something only to look good in front of other people or because they are influenced or under pressure from someone else. People act appropriately because they value living their lives by their particular principles.
Character Strengths and Virtues
It is widely accepted that character, not appearance, success on academic tests, or income, determines one’s level of happiness in life. Character strengths, which have their roots in the field of positive psychology, refer to a collection of 24 distinctive human traits created by the VIA Institute on Character. According to research, these qualities affect happiness, including how resilient we become and the quality of our relationships.
Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman make an effort to identify these inward virtues and strengths in their highly regarded academic textbook, Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification. According to research, “those who regularly draw on these inner resources are three times more likely to report having good life satisfaction and six times more likely to be engaged at work.” Simply described, they fall into the following six categories, which you may read more about at the non-profit VIA Institute on Character:
- Wisdom and knowledge: originality, a love of learning, discernment, and an open mind.
- Courage: Bravery, tenacity, integrity, and zest.
- Humanity, which includes the ability to love and be loved, kindness, and social intelligence.
- Justice: Collaboration, equity, and leadership.
- Temperance: Compassion and forgiveness, self-control, modesty and humility.
- Transcendence: Gratitude, hope, humor, spirituality, appreciation of beauty.
It’s crucial to keep in mind that this is one framework for comprehending character strengths.
The VIA Institute Model due to its simplicity and extensive empirical research backing. Some academics contend that these character traits are not novel, but rather an addition to what they have discovered from decades of research into personality theory. Every model contains flaws, so it’s best to think of them as helpful manuals rather than absolutes for leading a fulfilling life.
The VIA Institute of Character Chairman, Dr. Neal Mayerson, emphasizes that teachers need to decide on the type of culture they want to foster in their classrooms. He contends that environments that value involvement, cooperation, self-assurance, and respect for others foster character growth.
According to Dr. Andrew Sokatch, a pioneer in the field of character education and senior programme officer at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, “a rising body of data suggests that schools may be strong venues, and teachers can be powerful agents, by which these traits are formed.” Sokatch stated in a compelling TEDx lecture on character education that “science is revealing to us that we are missing half of what kids need to become fully involved, successful, thriving adults.” He thinks that moral knowledge should be taught in schools.
The Influence of the Movies on Children and Adolescents
Children’s and teen films serve more purposes than just amusement. Messages about right and wrong, what behaviours define a hero or villain, and how to deal with moral quandaries can also be infused into them. Think about the film The Hate U Give, which explores how teens can speak out against racialized gun violence. Or WALL-E, which conveys messages about consumerism and environmental destruction.
Honesty is the quality that parents most want their children to value, according to a recent national Character.org survey in the United States. Yet we see on a daily basis in the media how adults regularly and frequently spread lies and disinformation. Another nationally representative survey, The State of Gender Equality for U.S. adolescents by PLAN International revealed that 35% of boys believe that strength and toughness are what society values most in boys, compared to only 2% of boys who think morality and honesty are what society values most in boys.
A meta-analysis by Sarah M. Coyne and colleagues published in Family Relations shows how more than 70 studies lends support to the researchers’ plea to the entertainment industry. It was discovered that viewers of media, particularly films, who exhibit “voluntary behaviour to benefit others” are more “prosocial” in general. They also have a tendency to act kindly, such as by lending a hand or thinking kind thoughts, especially towards strangers, as well as to feel more compassion or caring for those who are in need. Additionally, they tend to be less hostile and inclined to intentionally hurt others. Parents are urged to consider what kinds of messages movies are conveying by asking themselves “Is the media depicting helping or volunteering, and is it towards a stranger or friend?” the authors of this research wrote.
Psychologist Tobias Greitemeyer published a study in Current Opinion in Psychology in which he argues people don’t just automatically copy what they see in the media. It is possible for watching characters in movies to awaken us and tap into our emotions and thoughts, which can change how we perceive the world and inspire us to interact with others differently.
For instance, our beliefs can change when we see a character in a movie lend a hand or share with someone, leading us to believe that doing good deeds is the right or expected thing to do. These convictions — that displaying integrity and kindness is natural — can ingrain themselves firmly in our minds and influence both our day-to-day behavior and our expectations of others.
Greitemeyer also discussed how kindness is contagious, that is, how its advantages might spread throughout society beyond one-on-one interactions. Greitemeyer noted, “That is, [people] may influence their friends who, in turn, affect their friends who, in turn, have an impact on their friends. With this in mind, films have an unmatched ability to instill kindness and moral ideals in young people and foster their growth. Kindness can spread via three degrees of separation, according to research by James H. Fowlers and Nicholas A. Christakis in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
“The Good Guys: How Character Strengths Drive Kids’ Entertainment Wins”
The UCLA Center for Scholars and Storytellers, co-sponsored by the Science of Virtues Lab at Baylor University, has published a report titled “The Good Guys: How Character Strengths Drive Kids’ Entertainment Wins,” (2022) authored by Lauren B. Taylor and Yalda T. Uhls. The project was funded by the John Templeton Foundation grant Character Strength Interventions in Adolescents Engaging Scholars and Practitioners to Promote Virtue Development.
The report states “The world today is an increasingly interconnected and overwhelming place. Generation (Gen) Z, referring to people born after 1995, is the first one to grow up in this world as digital natives. As a result, Gen Z places a high emphasis on the use and importance of technology. Researchers have also found that Gen Z values social justice, the truth, and individuality. As Gen Z fights to address the many systems that are broken and must be fixed, they are going to need every tool possible to succeed. They are going to need to be courageous, empathetic, and persevering. These are character strengths that can be developed–especially if media producers and storytellers help them along. Youth are spending more time than ever consuming media. That raises a question: what are they learning from all this content? And what can they learn?”
The report describes how in 2010, Common Sense Media launched an initiative to help parents, educators and children choose content that models skills and virtues that support positive youth character development. The initiative identified a list of 11 core Character Strengths that can be demonstrated through media to youth audiences.
This list was then used to develop a first-of-its-kind tagging system that helps parents and children easily identify content promoting these Character Strengths. Common Sense Media began systematically identifying content with these Character Strengths in March 2016– and then evaluated the use of this tagging system among parents and children. In 2019, the Center for Scholars & Storytellers (CSS) released a report, finding that both parents and children prefer media content that promotes character development, especially when it features Character Strengths. In other words, parents and children want to watch content that sparks conversation and provides learning opportunities.
But does that preference translate into paying customers? To find out, the research study combined data provided by Common Sense Media with publicly-available records such as boxofficemojo.com and rottentomatoes.com to create a sample of over 1,700 films. We analyzed how the inclusion of Character Strengths related to box office performance both in the U.S. and internationally.
Also, differences in how many Character Strengths were featured in films across recommended viewing age groups were examined. Audiences were grouped based on developmental milestones: 2- to 5 years old, 6- to 7 years old, 8- to 12 years old, and 13- to 18 years old.
The 11 Character Strengths
Below are the definitions for the Character Strengths that were developed in the system that Common Sense Media uses to tag content. These 11 characteristics encompass moral character values and social-emotional skills that underscore ethical behavior and qualities needed for thriving within social institutions (e.g., family, school, workplace). The character strengths are listed in alphabetical order:
- Communication: Listening attentively and appreciatively, expressing oneself clearly and sensitively, and honoring differences.
- Compassion: Caring about others, and trying to help them generously.
- Courage: Taking on challenges even if there is a risk of physical harm and/or harm to reputation.
- Curiosity: Having a strong desire to learn or know something — a search for information for its own sake.
- Empathy: Understanding and sharing the feelings of another.
- Gratitude: Being aware of and thankful for the good things that happen.
- Humility: Not regarding oneself as more special or better than others.
- Integrity: Speaking the truth, acting sincerely, and taking responsibility for one’s feelings and actions.
- Perseverance: Working hard, despite obstacles, in pursuit of a long-term goal.
- Self-control: Being able to manage one’s thoughts, feelings, and impulses.
- Teamwork: Working respectfully and effectively with a group.
Major Findings of the Study
- “Having Character Strengths present in the film is positively related to all metrics of box office performance. Films tagged with Character Strengths made an average of more than $87 million globally, compared to only about $34 million for films without them, an 88% difference.”
- “Films for the teen audience had the lowest number of Character Strengths. The higher the recommended age for films, the lower the number of Character Strengths present in them. We found a significant negative correlation between the total number of Character Strengths in films and recommended age.”
- “The most frequent Character Strengths tagged were perseverance, courage, and teamwork. Critical Character Strengths, like humility and integrity, were not frequently included in films.”
The report states that “There is a clear gap in the industry for content directed at teens that promotes positive Character Strengths. Teens are at a critical developmental stage where they are impressionable and easily influenced by their social environments, including the media. Research³ suggests that prosocial media is effective in teaching prosocial behaviors (ex., empathy) and other positive outcomes. So, storytelling that highlights these Character Strengths holds enormous promise to help youth so they can better navigate the key challenges and changes they are experiencing.”
The report states: “Not surprisingly perseverance and courage are Character Strengths frequently used in storytelling. And teamwork is often featured in content for younger audiences. Yet our research found that other Character Strengths such as humility, integrity, and self-control could be more frequently modelled in stories.”
The Report’s Final Conclusions
- “Teenagers who are at a critical developmental stage are not being provided with enough content that can help their character development and social-emotional learning. As such, content directed at teenagers should feature more Character Strengths to help teens with positive character development, as they are currently being left behind.”
- “Key Character Strengths–such as integrity, gratitude, and humility–should be more prevalent in content for all ages. While the most frequent Character Strengths of perseverance, courage, and teamwork are valuable skills, they could be supported by the other Character Strengths that are less frequently portrayed in film storylines, as all are necessary for positive character development and academic and professional success. Further, these are the Character Strengths that children struggle with the most, and so creators may be missing an opportunity to help children where they need it most.”
Personal Thoughts and Observations
In my book, Virtuous Leadership, I provide detailed research and frames of reference of the elements of positive character and virtuous behavior that can be a valuable reference point and resource. As I’ve tried to emphasize in this article, the development of positive character cannot begin too early if we want to develop a more just, moral and ethical world.