You Learn Rules of Character
by Ron Kurtus (revised 25 March 2013)
Starting with your earliest days as an infant, you learn rules and lessons about how to get by in life. You learn the "right way" to do things and to interact with others through observation, instruction and experience.
The way you follow these rules and examples determines your behavior in various situations. Repeated or typical behavior is then called a character trait. It is an attitude you have to the situation, challenge or obstacle. The sum of those character traits is your character.
Questions you may have include:
- What are formal rules you learn?
- What are implied rules you learn?
- What do you learn from experience?
This lesson will answer those questions.
You are taught formal rules of how to behave from parents, friends and organizations.
Parents often give their children words of wisdom of how to act. Some examples of positive rules your parents may have given you include:
- Do your best
- Be brave
- Don’t make fun of people who are different
- Be honest
Some parents teach negative lessons to their children. They say things like:
- "You are stupid"
- "You'll never amount to anything"
- "Minorities are trash"
Friends are highly influential in establishing a person's character. In fact, during the teen years, many of the lessons and character rules taught by parents are forgotten and replaced by values learned from friends.
Kevin’s parents taught him to be honest. But when Kevin started hanging out with Scooter, he learned some new "values" to follow. Scooter would tell Kevin how it was cool to steal things, just for kicks. The boys would often shoplift and have a laugh afterwards.
After Scooter was caught purse-snatching, Kevin realized stealing wasn't such a good idea.
As he matured, Kevin reverted back to the values about honesty that his parents had taught him.
Just about everyone is born into a family group. People also join numerous groups or organizations throughout their lives, such as clubs in school, the place of employment, and professional organizations.
These groups usually have rules and codes of conduct that members are expected to follow. For example, belonging to a church shapes your character by its rules and commandments.
Although you receive various formal rules as a young person, most of the character rules learned are implied and gained through observation and imitation.
Lessons from parents
Children learn from watching how their parents act and then imitate these implied rules to form their own character traits. If your parents are hard-working, you usually will be a hard-worker when you grow up.
Unfortunately, sometimes the lessons aren't the most positive.
Phil and Emily always seemed to be late in arriving at family functions. Their children would see them doing unnecessary tasks and even watching television before they were supposed to leave.
When Jody grew up, she was also habitually late. She learned the lesson well from her parents, such that it became a character trait of hers.
Likewise, if you see your parents cheat on their taxes, you may learn the lesson that such actions are acceptable.
Young adults learn many of their character traits from friends, especially after they become teenagers. Styles, values and ways of thinking are picked up from others.
Although Peter was never very helpful to others, after he joined the Tau Kappa Epsilon fraternity, he became involved in their annual toy collection drive for local orphans.
This experience helped to change his character into becoming more caring about others.
Part of this behavior is from wanting to belong and be accepted.
Movies, television and songs
Movies, television shows and popular songs provide messages and lessons that can influence young people. Since violence and breaking common rules of decency are the most dramatic, they are expressed in these media.
World Wide Wrestling provides entertaining professional wrestling matches where the heroes cheat and use unsavory tactics to win a wrestling bout. One professional wrestler is a former Olympic champion and shows off his metals when he gets in the ring. He is soundly booed. He tries to fight fair and typically loses the match.
In 1999, a 12-year old Florida boy imitated the wrestling techniques he had learned from watching professional wrestling on television and accidentally killed a 6-year old girl after punching and body-slamming her.
The boy was sentenced to life in prison as an adult. Meanwhile, the producers of the wrestling shows gained increased viewers from the publicity.
That is not to say there are no good messages and lessons in the entertainment media. There are many movies, TV shows and songs that have positive messages and lessons. But it seems that the bad lessons usually result in more ticket sales.
Lessons from experience
The positive results you gain from applying your various character traits reinforce those traits. They seem like beneficial ways to behave, so you will continue acting in that manner.
Some people learn some wrong rules. They may get instant gratification from the behavior and never realize that it is actually harming or hindering them. It takes some insight to realize your mistakes and correct them.
Brian noticed that whenever he joined a group of fellow college students in conversation, soon afterwards the group would break up and the others would leave. It puzzled him, and he mentioned his observation to his roommate, who said that it might be because he was so opinionated.
The idea of that hurt, because he enjoyed giving his opinion and putting others down. But he also realized that it was ruining any chance of good relationships with the other students.
Brian learned the lesson that you have to respect others and their opinions. It was difficult, but he changed his ways and his character improved.
Realizing a better way of doing things can improve your character and those of others.
You learn rules to follow for a successful life and good relationships from your parents, peers and outside influences. Some of these lessons are formally given as words of wisdom, but most lessons are implied and learned through observation.
These rules shape or define your character. If you find that you have learned the wrong rules, you can learn to change your character traits.
Learn to be the best you can be
Resources and references
Students and researchers
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You Learn Rules of Character