We’ve all taught our children to lie, inadvertently.
It might be an age restriction for an activity, a ‘sorry we’re too busy’ to extended family when a more honest response would have been ‘I don’t want to because we want time together’. And we all know what it’s like when they call you on it. An explanation is fumbled through as we wrestle with the tangled ball of morality, social norms, our own desires and needs and the example we’re setting our children.
What are the implications of this?
David Brooks is a New York Times columnist. He wrote The Road of Character, which explores our moral and economic characters. He argues that in the last 30 years we’ve become fixated on our economic selves, to the detriment of our moral selves. This might explain why so many people feel unfulfilled with their lives, because an important part of who we are is being neglected. He cites data from Google showing how the words we use has changed. Bravery is down 66%. Gratitude down 49% humbleness 52% kindness 56%. We’re talking about this stuff less. And in his words this means –
"You settle for a moral mediocracy. Day by day, year by year, you turn your core self into something a little less impressive than you want."
Susan David says something similar in Emotional Agility (a good read if you are battling with how to better get a grip on your reactions to your emotions and help your kids do the same with theirs).
She says that, as industrialisation brought urbanisation, people found themselves working and living alongside people they had no history with. Before, when communities changed slowly, so character mattered. Meaning your moral and mental qualities. When communities started to change fast, personality (roughly the impression you make through your behaviours and attitudes) became more prevalent, because you had to get to know people quickly. Building a reputation based on character takes time, having a stand out personality doesn’t.
As the pace of change and uncertainty of the future rise, there’s a question about where you focus your efforts to better equip your children to succeed. Our education system is focused 100% on skills, especially STEM (science, tech, engineering and maths), which are certainly useful. But if the projections of AI and machine learning advancements keep up, computers will far outstrip humans in these areas because of the nature of the skill set required. So maybe skills are a red herring.
As the pace of change and uncertainty rise, perhaps it's better to give them the best abilities to navigate those changes, whatever they maybe. From what I’ve read so far, it seems like some combination of character and personality is the best bet. Character for that inner strength to stop them erring onto immoral, illegal or dangerous paths. Personality to interact with the outside world in a way that sees them climbing ever higher, regardless of what skill set is required to climb. I am of course assuming they are good at learning at this point.
But if the future is so uncertain, and to really focus the mind, you can only choose one aspect, which do you go for?
I think it’s character. If, like me, you believe the biggest barriers to success are those we have within us, then having a strong sense of our inner selves is the foundation of success. And, if the world is changing to be more interconnected and more transparent, then character has a chance to compete with personality to get them ahead too.
Next time you find yourself making one of those little lies in front of your children, you’ve got a few choices. Don’t do it. Do it and explain, thoughtfully why to them, or just do it and don’t explain. The last one is the least likely to help them later in life, but is the easiest. The first one is the hardest, but likely to serve them far better in the future. The choice is yours.