My grandfather passed it on to my father who in turn relayed it to me, “In the final analysis, son, it’s character that counts”. And until recently I had assumed it was a family aphorism. Now, thanks to the speed and range of internet search engines, I have been able to discover that Theodore Roosevelt got there first! In a speech given on 23 April 1910 he is reported as saying, “It is character that counts in a nation as in a man. It is a good thing to have a keen, fine intellectual development in a nation, to produce orators, artists, successful businessmen, but it is an infinitely greater thing to have character. Character consists of sobriety, steadfastness, the sense of obligation toward one’s neighbor and one’s God, hard common sense, and enthusiasm toward whatever is right.”
As you can see, the saying, whatever its source and history, has stuck in my mind. And it came back to me in Glasgow recently when David Divine was speaking at a conference, Learning from History (convened by the Child Care History Network and CELCIS - the Centre for Excellence for Looked After Children in Scotland). He was talking openly about his experiences of life in the children’s home called Aberlour, and also of the research he was doing on the memories and reflections of some of his contemporaries who were cared for there. I had known of Aberlour, and had indeed written about the history of residential child care in Scotland. In fact I had visited the home, when Gerald Barlow was the CEO. Much of what David said confirmed my existing knowledge and the importance of the setting; the place came flooding back to me as he spoke.
But there was one big difference hearing of the home from his personal experience: he was clearly impressed and influenced, perhaps above all, by the characters of the founder Canon Charles Jupp and those who succeeded him: Reverend Walter Jenks, Reverend C A Wolfe (“Wolfie”) and Reverend C W Leslie. They embodied and communicated an ethos that every child, whatever his or her origins or status, had the ability to grow up and flourish in society. It was not just that David Divine was talking about the characters of these four leaders of Aberlour: he was a living testimony of and to them. I had the sense that I was meeting a person who had in some way imbibed and digested something of their characters. Their nature and beliefs had in some way rubbed off on him. And they were all obviously “characters” in the sense of being charismatic leaders.
Now this is something that is vitally important in any form of child rearing or teaching: children need and respect characters. You can use the term role models to get the flavour of what this means, but it is about something more, something deeper than merely this. At the conference David Lane produced some of the Children Webmag mugs he had commissioned, and on them are dozens of the names of pioneers in child care. And every one of the names that I knew belonged to a person who was a character in this sense. It was not just that they believed certain things, taught particular systems or theories, but that they possessed characters for which they are esteemed and remembered.
In any form of child-rearing or learning that is based on relationships and where the key element of the “use of the person” is recognised as the most important resource in the whole process, it is self-evident that in the final analysis it is character that counts. The very beings or souls of these pioneers shone out, and shone through everything that they did. And we can say this without in any way suggesting that they were saints or without faults. The thing about character is that it can transcend and outweigh blemishes and flaws. It is not dependent on perfect performances, theories or deliveries.
Yet we skate over this in our contemporary world. You could be forgiven for thinking that training, knowledge, systems and proficient management were the keys to good child rearing. They have in common the quality that they tend to relegate character to the margins. The argument (if indeed there is a coherent philosophy) seems to be that if you are sufficiently trained then you will be effective in child care. Yet we all know, if we think about schools and teaching, that the effectiveness of a teacher is always primarily to do with her character and personal qualities. Highly intelligent and/or qualified teachers who do not gain the respect of the class if their personalities, integrity and characters, are, to put it bluntly, virtually useless.
Why is it that we have relegated character to the margins so decisively, I wonder? Are we afraid of something? Perhaps we realise that no one today would get away with the spontaneity, risk-taking and actions of our forbears. I remember someone saying of David Wills, for example, that he would never get away with what he used to do in today’s climate. Perhaps we have lost sight of vocation or calling in child care.
Be this as it may, I am writing this piece on the exact anniversary of the founding of Mill Grove on 20 November 1899, and members of what we call the Mill Grove family have been returning home to celebrate. There were two founders of Mill Grove 112 years ago: Herbert White, my grandfather, and Rosa (“Ma”) Hutchin. Those who remembered them talked of owing everything that they are today to their characters: they were role models, not just of life and action, but of attitudes and personality.
Fashions (and their associated vocabularies) in child care as in teaching are notoriously short-lived and fickle. So I am not sure if “preparation for independence”, “life skills” and “resilience”, are still all the rage, or even whether they are politically correct! But of this I am sure: in the final analysis whatever a child is taught and knows, it will always be his or her character that counts in the long run. In fact, when we talk of resilience, I think we are inescapably bound to refer in some way, however indirectly, to the character of a child.
I look at legislation, training, policies, standards, and Ofsted reports, and wonder how it can be that we fail to do justice to what we all know to be true.
Once we have celebrated Founders’ Day at Mill Grove, Advent and Christmas are always just around the corner. So it is that as soon as I have finished this article I must devote myself to creative thinking about Advent Sunday. As I wish all the readers of Children Webmag a very happy Christmas, it occurs to me that whatever we may know or think about Jesus, those who knew and know him best, were and are attracted above all to his character. Would that it might find its way in its fullness into every follower and every group that calls itself, like the four leaders of Aberlour, “Christian”.