Thursday, September 06, 2018

Mr. Rogers and the Calculus of Character Building

We all went to see the Mr. Rogers documentary ("Won't You Be My Neighbor?") on Monday.

I thought I knew quite a bit about Mr. Rogers, but I learned a number of new things yesterday, and it was extremely worthwhile.

It's powerful and moving, for many reasons, but there was one moment that was particularly powerful for me. Mr. Rogers, in an interview, said this: "Those who would try to make you feel less than who you are--that is the greatest evil."

That's one of those statements that is so purely true that it takes your breath away, doesn't it? Just let that sink in for a moment.

Now, think about coaches.

For decades (or centuries), coaches have sold the notion that they "build character." The problem is how they define character, because, to them, "character" is synonymous with "obedience".

That's not character. 

I didn't understand this for a long time. The idea that a coach would "break down" a kid to "build him back up" in the coach's image deeply bothered me, but I could never quite understand why. I mean, everyone says it works, right? I want my kid to have character, right?

What bothered me wasn't that a large number of coaches are reprehensible assholes. That's a given. What bothered me was that they got a free pass because of "character building", and I knew that was wrong, but I couldn't clearly explain how and why it was wrong. 

Well, this is why its wrong, and please remember this every time a coach talks to you about your child: character implies agency. 

Children (and grown-ups, too) must have agency to develop character. The vast majority of coaches don't give agency--just the opposite, really. Agency gets you into trouble. 

Without agency, though, it's not possible to develop character. They're bound together.

Coaches so epitomize the kind of person who "makes you feel less than who you are" that it's something, as parents, you need to watch carefully. It's the worst, most heinous kind of bullying, and many coaches are professional bullies. 

They'll try to bully you, too, and unless you are willing to stand up, they'll succeed. 

So when a coach tells you he (or she) is "building character" in your young person, ask them how they do that, and ask them if there is agency involved. If they start talking about "breaking them down to build them back up", they are genuinely full of shit. 

At that point, it's a good idea to start looking for another coach.  Keep looking until you find one that genuinely cares for your child.

You will be very glad that you did. 

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