The tragic case of the teenager who died from sniffing butane last month highlights an eternal quandary that parents face in attempting to balance character and personality. In response to such a horrible event, parents often say that the "authorities" should have done something before it was too late. These tragedies usually have roots that law enforcement can't reach.
For parents, distinguishing character from personality is the first task. The development of character involves learning a strong sense of right and wrong that can guide a person to make the correct decisions that will lead to a full and successful life. Character affirms human dignity, promotes the well-being and happiness of the individual, serves the common good and defines our rights and obligations.
Character pertains to issues involving conformity and with learning and abiding by the values of the family, the clan, the community and even the nation. It typically involves responsibility, respect, perseverance, honesty and patriotism. At its highest level it is integrity, firm adherence to a code of moral values and being honest, trustworthy and incorruptible. For parents, character development is the deliberate effort to strengthen virtues that are good for the individual and good for society.
Whereas character is more inner-directed, personality is more outer-directed. The development of personality entails openness to new experiences; awareness of others; social and emotional competence; and for teenagers and often adults, being popular and well-liked. This last aspect of personality is particularly important for teenagers. The strong desire to be accepted by others and well-liked can be problematic. As teens experience strong cognitive and physical changes, they often begin to think of their friends and peer group as more important than their family.
Due to peer pressure, they may indulge in behaviours that are inconsistent with the values of their family. As they search for their own unique identity, adolescents frequently are confused about what is right and what is wrong. While generally positive, a stress on personality can lead to teenagers trying things that could be inconsistent with character such as butane, alcohol, drugs and promiscuity.
A crucial dimension in the rearing of teenagers is the conflict between conformity and defiance. Character development requires acceptance of and conformity to the values of the family and religion, acquiring a distinct personality often requires being able to defy some norms. If parents place too much emphasis on conformity the teen may not develop as an individual, a phenomenon that is more likely to be found in this region or in India. On the other hand, if parents do not insist on basic levels of conformity - that is, if they are too permissive - then aberrations may develop, integrity is weakened, popularity becomes too important. This often occurs in American and British society.
One of the most important - and difficult - tasks that parents face is when and under what circumstances to accept or tolerate defiance in a child. It is far easier, for instance, to accept when it is related to relatively unimportant values, not fundamental values. A white lie, in other words, is more tolerable than a blatant distortion of a basic truth. Knowing when to allow a child to do something the way he or she wishes instead of the way the parents would prefer is complicated but important. Yet parents should never abdicate or forget their formative role.
I remember once when my son was about three and I told him he could not do something. "If you don't let me you won't be my friend," he said. My reply: "I am not your friend. I am your father." Delicate and complicated. I know a woman of high integrity in a neighbouring country, in a powerful and important position, whose daughter, a very intelligent young teen, refused to wear an abaya. What did the mother do? She recognised that sometimes defiance is part of developing individuality. The girl went on to be valedictorian of her high school class then to be very successful in the university. Soon she will marry.
In the case of my son, I was very strict with him for most of his life. And I worried a lot about stunting his personality. As a young adult he once told me: "You were very strict with me so I learned to be strict with myself." Today, he is a successful businessman, happily married and with no apparent vices - except golf! So as parents, stress character over personality, but try to figure out when to accept defiance - for your child's good and for your own.
Dr Clifton Chadwick is a senior lecturer in the faculty of education at the British University in Dubai