Can you forge character out in the suburbs?

November 15, 2007 | By | 3 Replies More

This question is not really fair.  After all, there are many people out in the suburbs who don’t have it easy and there are many people living in the city who have never had to overcome serious challenges.

Nonetheless, it is my prejudice that those people with the highest character, those people we admire the most, are people who have overcome adversity on regular basis.  They are people whose character has been forged through adversity.  Not  necessarily constant adversity (which can also destroy character), but the lack of adversity can results in people who are more like lumps of clay rather than admirable human beings.

The “suburbs” have often served as a token for a place that is pernicious, and for good reason statistically.  There are certainly many people who have been raised in the suburbs (I am one) who have never had to face serious external adversity.  Many of those people will never develop character unless they challenge themselves.  Many people raised in the suburbs will never have the need to challenge themselves.   We all know such people.  They have been coddled by their families from day one.  They don’t know how to fend for themselves, because they never really had to fend for themselves.  This is especially true if the parents were “normal,” not abusive in any way and not alcoholic (no greater impetus for developing self-reliance than having a dysfunctional parent).  No greater curse, I think, than a totally “normal” upbringing with video games, computers, television, and lots of financial resources that enable the purchase of a constant stream of material possessions and amusements.

What brought this on is a conversation? I had a long discussion with a friend last week.  He taught high school in the inner city for a number of years and was concerned that many “suburban” children will never have a chance to develop real character because they will not have to face or overcome serious challenges.  I chimed in by mentioning several families with whom I am acquainted where the entire world revolves around the child or children.  These are all families headed by “normal” (sensitive and intelligent) adults who don’t recognize the important need of their children to be regularly deprived of their immediate wants. 

In one child-raising book I once read, the author spoke of the need of children to get a regular dose of “Vitamin N,” (“No”).  In that book, the author asked the reader to think about how many times they tell themselves “no” during a day.  For instance, you’re at work, and every 10 minutes you think of getting up and (fill in the blank: take a walk, call a friend, eat a snack, watch a movie, surf on the Internet).  But you usually tell yourself “no,” right?  And those of us who are disciplined enough to ride herd over ourselves were likely raised with a certain amount of adversity and left to deal with it on our own.  We learned to either sink or swim.

This friend and I tried to come up with a set of rules that children “in the suburbs” are deprived of learning, unfortunately, due to their deficiency of adversity.  Here’s our list of the things many such children are deprived of learning out in the “suburbs”:

1  Life is not fair.
2  You don’t always get what you want. 
3.  Life’s not always about you.
4.  Some things don’t come easy.
5.  You must sometimes delay gratification.
6.  You will need to spend time with people who are not like you.

Writing this, I am now wondering whether it is true that our greatest heroes rise out of serious adversity.  I wonder if anyone has done a careful study documenting whether this is true or whether it is an (no pun intended) urban legend.


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Category: American Culture, Psychology Cognition

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (3)

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  1. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    I noticed a long time ago that is seems the most socially conscious people had difficult childhoods. Two guys that I went to school with are shining examples. First, there was Nelson.

    Nelson's mother died when he was very young. after a couple of years, Nelson's father remarried to a woman who had 2 children from a previous marriage, a pair of fraternal twins named Joanie and Johnny. When Nelson was 12, his father died in an accident, and with no known relatives, Nelson was in left in the care of his step mother. Nelsons father had left a pension that his widow could collect and she spent the money on Joanie and Johnny, but not on Nelson. Finally, in the spring of his 15th year, he was literally thrown out of the house.

    He spent most of the summer homeless. and got a part time job pumping gas at a service station. ( this was in the late 60's when full service stations were still common) After a few days, the station owner realized that Nelson didn't have a home, and tried to get Nelson to stay at his house. Nelson refused, but finally met the request halfway, by agreeing to sleep on a cot in the parts storeroom at the station.

    The owner insisted that Nelso finish high school, so Nelson would walk to and from school and in the afternoon, evening and on weekends work at the station and on his homework. BY the time he graduated, he had become an excellent mechanic. Nelson eventually bought the station and today runs a respectable and large auto repair service.

    The second guy was Steve. Steves parents had died when he was young, leaving the eldest of his 2 brothers, Ralph, as the breadwinner. Ralph, who was 16 at the time had to quit school to find work. Steve, the youngest, stayed home help with Randall (the third brother who was mentally handicapped. ) The three brothers lived in a house that was so dilapidated, that you could see the single lightbulb through the gaps between the planks in the walls, from the street as you drove by. I honestly don't know how they survived the winters in that place. I never really knew Ralph or Randall, Steve and I were good friends. Steve had practically nothing, but he would give someone the shirt he was wearing if he thought they needed it. Steve married a nice girl and became a farmer.

    I guess the point here is that by not having any luxuries help you to appreciate the true necessities of life.

  2. DavidM says:

    "What does not destroy me, makes me stronger."

    Friedrich Nietzsche – Twilight of the Idols

  3. Ben says:

    "We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way."'s_Search_fo

    "Fundamentally, therefore, any man can, even under such circumstances, decide what shall become of him – mentally and spiritually. He may retain his human dignity even in a concentration camp."

    "We can discover this meaning in life in three different ways: (1) by doing a deed; (2) by experiencing a value; and (3) by suffering."

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