On Character Development

In my September 2, 2014 post to this blog, I described how, over the past 20 or more years, my colleagues at Goodwill and I have been working to build a strong, dynamic, serving institution. Such institutions are vitally important to the development and ongoing improvement of a decent, stable society.

But, as emphasized by Richard Reeves in a wonderful essay, “The New Politics of Character,” in National Affairs, that’s not enough. Reeves states that “if we want a better, freer, fairer society, we will have to complement the 20th-century focus on strong institutions with a new (if also ancient) concern for strong individuals. The quality of our policies is a vital concern. But so is the quality of our people.”

According to Reeves, “The development of character is perhaps the central task of any civilized society and every individual within it…..Gaps in character development correlate to gaps in income, family functioning, education, and employment. The character gap fuels the opportunity gap, and vice versa.”

Lest we think there are simple solutions, though, Reeves provides a dose of reality. For example, he points out that, while rates of teen parenthood have declined, rates have proved stubbornly high among the least-educated, lowest-income groups. It may appear that poor teenagers who become parents are irrationally discounting the future and so failing to demonstrate the virtue of prudence. But there’s an important factor in the equation that we might not realize: “Teen pregnancy appears to have a limited impact on life chances for this group (poor teenagers) because their life chances were so truncated in the first place. Broadly speaking, they are not sacrificing opportunities for wealth and security in the long term for short-term pleasures; their opportunities for future pleasures are few, so as a matter of calculation it makes more sense to pursue the short-term pleasures than it would for a teen from a wealthier family.”

Reeves suggested approach? “The key insight for policymakers is that the task is not simply to teach prudence, but to improve the future prospects of these young adults so they have brighter possible futures to measure the present against…The opportunity agenda is a character agenda, and vice versa.”

Of course, without good role models, it is harder for a child to learn to defer gratification. There is also a growing body of evidence from neuroscientists showing “that growing up in a poor, stressful environment slows the development of the pre-frontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for self-regulation.”

Reeves emphasizes, though, that “The most important influence on character development is not poverty – it is parenting. Good parenting – close, attentive, nurturing – can often compensate for material poverty.”

This is reassuring for those of us at Goodwill in central Indiana. We’ve now been implementing Nurse-Family Partnership for nearly three years, and well over 600 babies have been born to the moms who have enrolled. All of those moms want to do what’s best for their babies. But when our nurses first meet them, few know how to be good parents or to provide the kind of environment in the home that is conducive to the proper health and development of their children. That’s a lot of what our nurses emphasize during their 2-1/2 year relationship with these families. And that’s a big part of why NFP nationally has shown such remarkably strong results reducing the incidence of a lot of negative social indicators among children whose parents participated in NFP.

Of course, NFP is only part of a long term solution to a lot of major social problems. But thirty years of solid evidence illustrates why it should be scaled as much as possible. We intend to do our part.

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One thought on “On Character Development

  1. Mr. McClelland,
    Will you please run for public office after you leave Goodwill? You are exactly what this country needs, and I would be proud to serve on your campaign team!
    A loyal Goodwill donor and shopper!

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