When Character Building Tales Are Damaging

Good news for all parents: I have come up with a design for a school that would offer our kids the character building opportunity of having to walk uphill to AND from school.

I know parents everywhere are going to jump all over this idea, because none of us want our kids to be wimps and grow up thinking that life should be easy. It’s really a shame that they don’t have to walk 5 miles uphill to school each day. And 5 miles uphill back. In the snow. How on earth will they develop the strength of character to just deal with life’s difficult circumstances?

My design is really quite simple: build the school on the side of a cliff with a pulley system. The school day starts at the top of the cliff each morning. Once the children are safely inside and the school bell rings, the school building is then lowered to the bottom of the cliff with the simple pulley system.

Then build a town about half way up the cliff, a few miles away from the school.

OK so the fact that I’m not great at drawing and that I took all of 5-10 minutes to complete this is obvious. But it should give you the gist of my concept.


For a stronger character building experience, select a higher cliff, or build the town even further away from the school, and consider building it all in a cold and snowy climate, like Siberia.

This brilliant idea came out of this year’s Halloween experience for our family. It was already going to be a challenge, with ballet and theatre classes taking place as usual, last minute shopping for costume accessories, and then crafting mermaid crowns. We were expecting it to be a wet Halloween, but we weren’t too worried. It’s Portland after all: most of the time, rain means a light drizzle.

Cue torrential downpour.

At 3:30 PM I get a text from Jessica as I’m about to check out at Michael’s:

“We have a problem. Lolie and Squigglebug’s room is flooding.”
“For real.”

“I’ll see what I can do when I get home.”
“Dan we put towels down? I’m sure you already have…”
(Thanks autocorrect. Who the heck is Dan?)

“We are talking 3 inches.”

Needless to say, I contacted our landlord and rushed home as fast as anyone could driving an old VW bug in a deluge with disintegrating wiper blades (we just bought the car and our store doesn’t carry the right size blades. I checked.)

By the time I got home, Jessica and our 14 and 12 yr olds had emptied the affected basement bedroom and gotten rid of most of the water. It had been seeping in through the floor and just for fun had brought with it a few large slugs that were climbing the wall.

Lolie (12) then helped me make sure that water had a path to get away from the house at ground level—in the pouring rain. We figured out that one of our gutters was literally dumping water in a pool next to the bedroom wall.

Meanwhile, Jessica rallied the troupes inside, trying to salvage what little time we had left and mustering as much positive energy as she could to make Halloween fun in spite of it all. She was busy hot-gluing shells and pearls to cheap princess crowns for our little mermaids when Lolie and I came back inside, drenched, but triumphant. Lolie went off to find bubble wrap which Jessica was planning on using to apply make up and create the illusion of scales.

That’s when she yelled up at us that the downstairs storage room was also flooded.

We split into two groups: Jessica would work on our Littles’ makeup while Lolie, Storyteller and I would tackle the cause of our dampened spirits.

Now we get to the point of me sharing this story (other than my obvious need to vent about this whole thing…).

Recognizing the frustration, anger, defeat, you-name-it feelings emanating from my crew, I thought I might share a childhood experience of my own; a character-building experience, yes, but also a bonding one, thinking that we might experience the same together.

“This reminds me of when I was a kid and my room would flood when…”
“Yeah, Daddy, we know. You would clean it up with your Mom.” 

I was hurt. My childhood experience was completely dismissed. It’s not like I was going to talk about how hard it was for me so I could then tell them to buck up and deal with it. I wasn’t going to embellish it and tell them about how my mom and I would take turns surfing on the giant waves in my bedroom, or how we would swing from the freaking chandeliers, in an attampt to challenge their sense of fun.

I just wanted it to be a bonding experience and didn’t get a chance to explain it.

I grumbled.

I announced to the world that I was done trying to be positive.

I oozed maturity.

And I missed the boat completely.

I should have let them be frustrated and angry. I should have let them be negative. I should have encouraged them to vent.

I should have listened.

My default setting is to want to fix things. The mood was broken. I thought I could fix it. But instead, I’m the one who came across as dismissing THEIR feelings.

This ended up being a painful, and important, reminder for me that I don’t need to fix people, or their feelings, or even their perspective. I need to listen. I just need to be with them.

Halloween was very different for us this year. The rain stopped around 7:45. The sky was so clear we could see stars—an unbelievable contrast to what the heavens were doing just a few minutes prior. After visiting half a dozen houses in empty streets, we decided to go home. The kids got settled in front of a Halloween movie while I went to the store and bought an arm-full of candy to share. We stuffed our faces with sweets and the littles all had a sleepover in our library (our TV room)—after we brushed their teeth, of course.

One more thought: Why do we share our childhood character building stories? Don’t we want—don’t we expect—our children to have a better childhood than we did? Or at least one where they face different challenges than we did? I wonder if our own stories would be better received simply as stories and not used as a way to manipulate our children into being tougher, or working harder, or appreciating what they have more. And then when we see an area of our children’s character that could use a little maturing, we could simply have a conversation with them about it—one where we listen more than we talk and we validate their feelings while presenting a different perspective.

Reality is: instead of facing a 5 mile walk uphill barefoot in the snow to and from school, one of the things our children are up against is learning healthy levels of engagement and boundaries with media consumption and the internet. That’s way more scary and that’s just one thing. We don’t want our kids to learn how to just deal with adversity. We want them to learn how to overcome adversity.  And they need us on their side. By their side.

~ Jeremy

Jeremy headshot cropped




Jeremy Martin-Weber is the proud father of 6 inspiring girls, and is 19 years into a love story with his partner, Jessica Martin-Weber. 

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