In last week’s post, we began a discussion of the essential life lessons my experience has taught me must be mastered during the socialization process for a person to develop a character of integrity (see: Building Character: The 10 Commandments of Socialization). And as I have mentioned in prior articles, (see, for example: Disturbances of Character, Part 2: Socialization is a Process), socialization is inherently an arduous, lengthy process for us humans. Both nature and nurture play key roles but certain dominant features of modern culture can really hamper the nurture side of things and impede sound character development. And it’s precisely because the kind of world we live in today is so hostile to healthy socialization that the mastery of what I like to call the “10 commandments of character development,” though particularly challenging, is so crucial. Although I have written about these “commandments” before (see: The Ten Commandments of Character), in the present series we’ll be taking a more in-depth look at each of these character-building imperatives, using actual examples to illustrate their importance.
The “first commandment” of effective socialization is to be ever mindful of one’s impact on others and the world. From our earliest days we have a natural tendency to view ourselves as the center of the universe, so to speak. Overcoming this natural mindset is no easy task. As I illustrate through several of the vignettes in Character Disturbance and have written about in a prior blog post (see Egocentric Thinking), individuals who do not master this task have a lifelong penchant for self-centered or egocentric thinking. Egocentric thinkers don’t give pause to think about others and rarely contemplate the consequences their behavior might bring into the lives of others. They’re simply too self-focused for that. Becoming more mindful of others’ legitimate wants and needs and the impact of their actions on others is not only essential for adaptive social functioning but also essential for developing that all-important sense of empathy for the experience of others.
These days we know a lot more about how crucial empathy is for functioning in a pro-social manner. We’ve also learned that the capacity for empathy is strongly influenced by biology. So, learning to think of others and the impact of our behavior on others can be infinitely more challenging for those among us biologically predisposed not to feel empathy all that easily. That’s why it’s so important to give ardent attention to this first commandment of character development early on in the socialization process.
I’m often reminded of some things I observed with my two beautiful grandchildren, who my wife and I have had the pleasure to care for one day a week for several years. There was a time when I actually wondered whether my grandson (the older of the two grandchildren) might not have a real empathy deficit signalling big trouble ahead. On more than one occasion, when he was 3 or 4 years old I witnessed him deliberately doing things hurtful to his younger sister, and then not only grinning about it but seemingly unashamedly relishing in the dastardly thing he had done. I even wondered if he would ever learn to not only empathize with her pain but also come to any willingness to be more mindful of the world around him and not so overly-focused and intent on immediate self-gratification. But that was the discipline challenge: You don’t have to have everything you want – It’s not just about you – You share space in this world with others – Others have wants, needs, and rights, too – You have to think about what others might be feeling when you mistreat them and how you’d feel if someone treated you so adversely, etc. It took a LOT of work. But blessed with good, patient, parents, informed caretakers, and, of course, his doting yet resolute grandparents, by the time he started Kindergarten my grandson’s teachers were all saying what a “gift” it was to have him in the classroom because of how “mindful” he appeared to be socially.
Children can’t just be “lectured” not to be selfish and to consider others. They need to be shown precisely how to do that, rewarded when they self-initiate caring and considerate behavior, and experience swift and firm consequences when they let selfish interest override all other concerns. And you can expect them to kick and scream the whole way. It’s simply not natural to think outside ourselves. We are not born civilized. Socialization is a process. And the amount of 24 hour a day, 7 days a week guidance it takes to socialize a human being dwarfs that for any other creature on the planet. What’s even more sobering to consider is that as difficult a challenge socialization is by nature, the rampant excess, excessive self-absorption, and self-aggrandizing promoted in so many aspects of modern culture makes the mastery of this first crucial life lesson extremely difficult.
I’m sure the readers will have some comments not only reflecting their experiences with the socialization process but also on those aspects of modern society they see as potentially obstructive to the development of good character. And next week, we’ll be taking an in-depth look at the second “commandment” of sound character development: overcoming entitlement tendencies and cultivating gratitude.