How To Be Good

I went to a discussion this week at the think-tank Demos on developing character in young people, called How To Be Good.

I admire Demos for its willingness to talk about 'the Good Life' and 'good character', in an era of moral relativism when we've grown uncomfortable with such terms, and, as the historian Darrin McMahon put it "the only people talking about values in the education system are sports coaches".

The problem is, neither Demos, nor any of the participants in the discussion, ever defined what they meant by 'good'. The media-friendly psychologist Tanya Byron, who gave an entertaining but rather empty short talk, began by saying 'I'm not going to get into a big discussion of what good means' before saying that children weren't actually as bad as most people thought. The kids are alright, in other words. Fine, but then if so the whole discussion of developing character through new education initiatives is pointless.

Professor Judy Dunn, the author of the new Good Childhood report, also didn't clearly define what she meant by good, but she seemed to take it to mean things like emotionally literate, capable of empathy, socially-skilled and tolerant.

So did the other participants, such as Emma-Jane Cross, chief executive of the charity Beat Bullying, who concluded 'we can teach children to be good, whatever that means'. Well, how can you, if you're not sure what 'good' means?

Obviously social skills like empathy and tolerance are part of good character, but they're not all of it. I would say they are the character traits we particularly associate with women, and it was noticeable that all the panelists were women.

One problem with character development of young people at the moment, particularly of young men, it seems to me, is the absence of both father-figures, and of more paternal values.

Almost 40% of young people today grow up without their biological father present in their home. For African-Americans in the US, two thirds grow up without their biological father.

This often affects young people's moral and emotional development very negatively. A 2005 study of 3,400 middle schoolers in the US, for exmple, indicated that not living with both biological parents quadruples the risk of having an affective disorder. Around 40% of US prison inmates grew up in fatherless homes. 70% of rapists in the US grew up in fatherless homes.

Young men are growing up without being taught the values that fathers traditionally pass on, such as learning how to follow a career, learning to take risks in the world, learning how to compete, including learning how to cope with failure.

These skills are also absent from the feminised values of our education system, which instead focuses on teaching empathy, emotional literacy, tolerance, non-competition - which is all important, but misses out alot.

So we're leaving young people, particularly young men, to learn these skills on the streets, in gang culture, knife fights, and drug dealing.

We are trying to turn our young men into good little girls.