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A Measure of Character

“Citizenship” and “character” are two of those elusive terms that are not only hard to define, but seem to be traits one is either born with or not. But for School of Behavioral and Organizational Sciences (SBOS) Assistant Professor Laura Wray-Lake, these traits—like good manners—can be cultivated; and the sooner young people start getting the message, the more engaged in society they will become, and the more democracy on the whole will benefit.

Anything from taking out the trash for an elderly neighbor to running for city council counts as an act of “civic engagement,” defined as any behavior that contributes to the greater good of society. And for any community to thrive, whether that community is a small neighborhood or an entire nation, its citizens must be actively engaged in its betterment. But how, when, and what inspires individuals to become actively engaged citizens has always been something of a mystery. Until now.

Wray-Lake has devoted much of her career to studying how citizens become civically engaged. Focusing on children and how they absorb values of citizenship and character, she has discerned that the messages youth receive from parents, including the context in which they are received, affect their likelihood of being civically engaged.

“A lot of parents think that they are conveying messages about citizenship and character, but we have found that these concepts best translate to kids if they are very specific and if adolescents accurately hear what parents are saying, such as discussing that it’s important to help people, and why,” said Wray-Lake. “It sounds obvious, but teens have to correctly interpret parents’ messages before they can impact their own values and behaviors.”

Springboarding from this research, Wray-Lake will now be embarking on a three-year study to investigate character and civic engagement among children and adolescents. The project will be funded by a grant Wray-Lake received of nearly $700,000 from the John Templeton Foundation last June.

The research team, which includes Wray-Lake, Amy Syvertsen from the Search Institute, and Aaron Metzger of West Virginia University, will first look at how children understand civic engagement and character. This entails conducting one-on-one interviews with children at each of the research team’s three sites across the country.

Based on those findings, they will design a survey. This phase will identify whether (and how) civic engagement and character can be measured in childhood. The team will also look for developmental patterns in civic engagement and character.
The third part of the project will be a larger quantitative study of youth and parents, looking at how a young person’s context—family, neighborhood, peers, and school—affects their character, competencies, and level of civic engagement. In other words, figuring out if and how children understand these concepts, the team wants to ultimately find ways to enhance these values among young people. And while it is nice to encourage young people to put out the trash for a neighbor, the ultimate payoff is the adults these youth will become; adults with with a civically, community-minded character. Seen this way, the concerted effort to instill these values in youth has the potential, later down the line, to create a completely transformed citizenry.

“The enduring impact of the project will consist of encouraging character strengths and engaged citizenship in young people, which has positive implications for the well being of the youth themselves and for democracy as a whole,” said Wray-Lake.


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