I took part in a conversation the other day about choosing a high school. Here in the city it's a big deal. There are lots of choices, and parents are often focused on getting their kids into a Good School so that the dominoes of the future will fall in an auspicious way. My friend Ellen commented that we need to be aware that whenever our kids are given options, we're given a strong temptation to nudge our offspring in the direction of our own idols. She thinks we're too focused on opportunity, and that our priority for our teens should be character issues, instead.
Although I value education very highly, I tend to agree with this. In recent years I've come to realize that character isn't just about honesty and kindness and a sense of justice. It's about how you handle the problems you face. Do you withdraw and huddle in a heap, or do you rebound quickly? Do you take the bull by the horns, or wanly hope someone will notice you're having trouble and step in? Do you "feel the fear and do it anyway" or feel the fear and feel the fear and feel the fear and crash?
Character qualities are closely wrapped up with coping skills. This is because a lot of the time we can't act on our beliefs if we can't cope effectively with obstacles. If we believe in honesty but are afraid to face people with uncomfy news, we end up weasling out of the situation -- and that's not honest. If we believe in hard work but are easily crushed by setbacks, we give up. If we want to be reliable but procrastinate excessively because we're anxious, we can end up deeply unhappy. How well we cope plays into how true we can be to ourselves.
The teen years involve a lot of stumbling around, trying to make sense out of life and deciding what's important. In the jumble of competing priorities, parents do need to nudge kids toward opening doors instead of closing them. But I think Ellen's onto something. What kind of people our kids grow up to be depends a lot more on character than on which school they attend.