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What Matters Most

Monday, June 03, 2013
By: Quinton Ellis, M.S.

Some months ago EFC, in conjunction with Edmond s Character Council and our municipal juvenile courts, developed a community service alternative for teenagers dubbed the What Matters Most program. The purpose of the program would be to explore the concept of personal character and its relationship with the moral and ethical responsibilities facing teens with an eye toward the effective transition from adolescence to adulthood.
Having created the basic structure, complete with curriculum and framework for scheduling/attendance, as well as having secured a funding source, my betters evidently, due to sheer bureaucratic exhaustion, nominated me Character Czar . Since that time, I have been attempting to lead a group discussion of what character is and what it means to possess it. We talk about why we do the things we do and why we are the way we are and what all that means about us. The program is a useful one, and its limitations are those of its facilitator, and I am ever plotting to increase my effectiveness.

I write this not by way of advertisement. In its current incarnation, you d actually have to convince your child to break the law to get him or her into the group and that seems, well, counterproductive. The reason I bring the subject up is that in talking with these teenagers, I have come to learn a great deal about them and even a little about myself.

The first thing I ve noticed is that teenagers these days don t have much of a conception of what character is; not a surprise. Teens, however much we wish it were so, largely do not suppress their baser behavioral instincts while elevating the loftier in pursuit of self-granted approval that permits them to live with the peace of mind that only derives from pride that is earned. No, they tend to elevate the basest behavioral instincts in dogged pursuit of the approval of others in their peer group which consigns them to a life (high school anyway) in which they futilely outsource their responsibility for their own self-esteem to others seeking to do the same. I must confess; I didn t spend that much time thinking about this kind of stuff when I was in high school either so that s not by itself a concern, but then, try this: Ask your kids or any teen to whom you are close, who are their role models?
I m not kidding you. I ve had to define role model before. But mainly I get the glassy-eyed stare (the one that replaces the full-on eye roll when the circumstances are a little too dicey for that particular ocular maneuver) that teens assume when you begin talking about something they think is useless to them- like math. To them it sounds old-fashioned. I even start to feel old-fashioned when I talk about it with them. You re reading this; do I sound old-fashioned to you? But the concept does seem almost quaint these days, doesn t it? We ve got more media coming at us in more ways than ever before delivering us the stars of the page, stage, screen, blog, vlog, court, field, studio, Senate sub-committee hearing; can you find many role models for your children in this bunch?

The truth is that your kids are finding role models, just not the ones you d prefer. Short of my now aborted (I d at least lose my job) plot to firebomb the still filming set of MTV s odious Tila Tequilla show, it falls now more than ever to we the adults in their lives to set the example for the young people. And we do that now, I know. We teach our kids virtue, ethics, and morality. But as we are reading the lesson plan, are we learning the material? Are we the people we hope our children will be when the cameras are off, so to speak? Kids love to learn things only on the condition that they are not informed that they are being educated. That can be every instant that they are around us. Think about all the things your child has the opportunity to see you do on any given day. Think about all the ways they learn to respond to life s stresses. You think you rank about as high on their list as reading a book, but they are watching nonetheless. And it s not just your child. We live in a community. One of the things teens are adept at doing is finding adults that, through shared behavior, help them justify some current behavioral or moral shortcoming. I ve heard on way too many occasions that, I know a guy who s a lawyer who gets high all the time. I mean, are they all talking about the same guy? What kind of law does he practice? Why in the world is he getting high with all these kids? These questions haunt me.

Anyway my character class has got me thinking about my own character and I thought I d saddle all of you nice people with that chore as well. It is well within my authority; indeed, it is my responsibility as Character Czar.

Quinton is a staff therapist at Edmond Family Counseling and can be reached at 405-341-3554.
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