Children have no idea who they are, and that's fine. Credit: Marcos del Mazo/LightRocket via Getty

January 9, 2023   10 mins

I submit: the traditional concept of “building character” is out the window.

Once upon a time, a fully realised person was something one became. Entailing education, observation, experimentation, and sometimes humiliation, “coming of age” was hard work. When the project succeeded, we developed a gradually richer understanding of what it means to be human and what constitutes a fruitful life. This ongoing project was halted only by death. Maturity was the result of accumulated experience (some of it dire) and much trial and error (both comical and tragic), helping explain why wisdom, as opposed to intelligence, was mostly the preserve of the old. We admired the “self-made man”, because character was a creation — one constructed often at great cost. Many a “character-building” adventure, such as joining the Army, was a trial by fire.

These days, discussion of “character” is largely relegated to fiction workshops and film reviews. Instead, we relentlessly address “identity”, a hollowed-out concept now reduced to membership of the groups into which we were involuntarily born — thereby removing all choice about who we are. Rejecting the passĂ© “character building” paradigm, we now inform children that their selves emerge from the womb fully formed. Their sole mission is to tell us what those selves already are. Self is a prefabricated house to which only its owner has a key.

This is not an essay about transgenderism per se. Nevertheless, our foundational text is excerpted from Christopher Rufo’s September 2022 comment, “Concealing Radicalism”, which quotes adolescents from a TikTok video on gender assembled by Michigan’s education department:

“I am a triple threat: I’m depressed, anxious, and gay.”

“Last night at about 2am, I put in my bio that I identify as ‘agender’, which is different than non-binary because non-binary is like neither gender, right? Agender is like the grey area between genders.”

“Hi, my name is Elise. I’ve used she/her pronouns all my life. But recently, and for a while, I’ve been struggling with gender issues as well as a whole lot of other identity things. So, I finally gave in and ordered a [breast] binder for myself and it just came in today.”

“A rational observer might suspect,” Rufo notes, “that these youths are in a state of confusion or distress, but rather than explore this line of reasoning, the education department.,, promote a policy of immediate and unconditional affirmation.” He quotes Kim Phillips-Knope, leader of the LBGTQ+ Students Project: “Kids have a sense of their gender identity between the ages of three and five, so about the time that kids have language, they can start to share with us whether they’re a boy or a girl — usually those are the only things that they will identify as, because those are the only options we’ve given them.” He adds: “In response to a teacher who asked how to respond to a student in her classroom who claims to have ‘she/he/they/them’ pronouns, Amorie [a staff trainer] responded adamantly: ‘Go with what the kid says. They’re the best experts on their lives. They’re the best experts on their own identities and their own bodies.’”

I further submit: throwing kids who just got here on their own investigative devices — refusing to be of any assistance aside from “affirming” whatever they whimsically claim to be; folding our arms and charging, “So who are you? Only you know” — is child abuse.

The idea that your psyche is set from birth is intrinsically deterministic and therefore grim. The vision it conjures is fatalistic and mechanical: all these traits are hardwired, and life involves winding up the clockwork toy and watching it totter across the floor until it runs into the wainscotting. If a newly emerged self already exists in its entirety, there’s nothing to do. In contrast to becoming, being is an inert affair.

We haven’t given these young people a job. Contemporary education strenuously seeks to assure students they’re already wonderful. Teachers are increasingly terrified of imposing any standards that all their wards will not readily meet, so everyone gets a gold star. The Virginia school district of the once-renowned Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology now aims for “equal outcomes for every student, without exception”. A pedagogical emphasis on student “self-esteem” became dislocated from “esteem for doing something” decades ago. Why should any of these kids get out of bed? No wonder they’re depressed.

Minors don’t know anything, which is not their fault. We didn’t know anything at their age, either (and may not still), though we thought we did — and being disabused of callow, hastily conceived views and coming to appreciate the extent of our ignorance is a prerequisite for proper education. Yet we now encourage young people to look inward for their answers and to trust that their marvellous natures will extemporaneously reveal themselves. With no experience to speak of and no guidance from adults, all that many kids will find when gawking at their navels is pyjama fluff. Where is this mysterious entity to whose nature I alone am privy?

There’s nothing shameful about being an empty vessel when you haven’t done anything and nothing much has happened to you yet. Telling children, “Of course you don’t know who you are! Growing up is hard, full of false starts, and all about making something of yourself. Don’t worry, we’ll give you lots of help” is a great deal more consoling than the model of the ready-meal self. We demand toddlers determine whether they’re “girls or boys or something in-between” before they have fully registered what a girl or boy is, much less “something in-between”. Placing the total onus for figuring out how to negotiate being alive on people who haven’t been given the user’s manual is a form of abandonment.

Adults have an obligation to advise, comfort, and inform — to provide the social context that children have none of the resources to infer and to help form expectations of what comes next.  Instead, we’re throwing kids helplessly on their primitive imaginations. The first time I remember being asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I clearly remember answering, “a bear”. I wasn’t trying to be a wiseass. I just wasn’t up to speed on the ambitions to which I was expected to aspire. Little wonder that kids are now “identifying” as cats. Next, they will be identifying as electric lawnmowers, and we will have asked for it.

This notion of the pre-made self is asocial, if not anti-social. It separates personhood from lineage, heritage, culture, history, and even family. You are already everything you were ever meant to be, never mind where, what and whom you come from. But seeing selfhood as floating in a vacuum is a recipe for loneliness, vagueness, insecurity and anxiety.

By contrast, a self constructed brick by brick over a lifetime has everything to do with other people. The undertaking involves the assembly of tastes and enthusiasms, the formation of friendships and institutional affiliations, participation in joint projects, and the development of perceptions not simply of one’s interior nature but of the outside world. Character that is rooted in ties to other people is likely to be more solid and enduring. The elderly are most in danger of desolation when they’ve outlived their friends and relatives. Who I am partially comprises decades-long friendships, my colleagues, my fierce devotion to my younger brother, a complex allegiance to two different Anglophone countries, and a rich cultural inheritance from my predecessors.

In my teens, we employed the word “identity” quite differently. We thought having an “identity” meant not only being at home in our own skins, but also having at least a hazy notion of what we wanted to do with our lives. It meant connecting with the likeminded (I found kindred spirits in my junior-high Debate Club). An “identity” was fashioned less from race or sexual orientation than from the discovery of which albums we loved, which novels we ritually reread because they spoke to us, which causes we supported, which subjects interested us, and which didn’t. It meant figuring out what we were good at (I was good at maths, but in second-year calculus I hit a wall) and what we couldn’t stand (me, team sports). Identity was fused with purpose: I knew I was drawn to writing, the visual arts, and political activism (the latter making me rather tiresome).

We were as self-involved in our determination to be individuals as Gen Z, but that particularity was commonly assembled from the cultural smorgasbord of other people and what they’d thought and made: Kurt Vonnegut or William Faulkner, Catch-22 or The Winds of War, Simon and Garfunkel or Iron Butterfly, hostile or gung-ho positions on Vietnam. Naturally this is a version of identity subject to change. That’s the point. It’s supposed to change. I no longer listen to Emerson, Lake, and Palmer.

The self is not found but made, because meaning is made. Rather than be unearthed like buried treasure, meaning is laboriously created, often by doing hard things. I cringe a bit recalling the person I was in my twenties, because she represented an early stage of an ongoing project that I have modified much in the years since. My twenties were an early draft of a manuscript whose sentences I have revised, pruned, and qualified. Ideally, if I keep forcing myself to do hard things — take on the premise of a novel that at first I have no idea how to execute, move to still another country, cultivate new friendships — the later drafts of my eternally incomplete manuscript will be more captivating. I would arguably be a fuller person had I done the very hardest thing — having children — but as a not-half-bad second best, I have committed to a marriage of 20 years and counting and thus to a man who moors me. Only death will part us.

Of course, in constantly reforming and refining who we are, we can lose aspects of ourselves from earlier drafts that we should have kept. I no longer dance alone for hours in the sitting room, and I miss that abandon. For years I crafted ceramic figure sculpture, and I’m not sure that substituting journalism as my primary side-line to fiction writing constituted an improvement. Towards the very end of our lives, many of us will drop pretty much every paragraph we ever added, and we’ll go from novel to pamphlet.

Nevertheless, given the choice I’d prefer to spend time with me in the present than with me at 35. I know more (although what I learn now has trouble keeping up with what I forget), my sense of humour is sharper, and rather to my surprise I’m humbler. I’ve more perspective; while that perspective is often bleak, that very bleakness — a gleeful bleakness — can be entertaining. I’m not as neurotic about what I weigh, and I am more generous, both in relation to contemporaries and younger aspirants. I’m less concerned with my professional status, and I think much more about death (which is torturous but intelligent). Some of this profitable evolution was effortlessly organic, but much has issued from a challenging career, the fruit of taking a big risk in my youth that’s paid off.

Clearly, some aspects of character, of self, are determined from the off. I’d never have become a nuclear physicist no matter how hard I tried. But the conventional “nature versus nurture” opposition still eliminates agency: you act mindlessly as whatever you were born as, or you are submissively acted upon. Where on this nature-nurture continuum does the object of all this theorising have a say in the outcome? I’m leery of venturing into the prickly no-go of sexual orientation. Yet while I’m open to the idea that some people are born gay, choices can affect what gets you off. We hear repeatedly from big consumers of online pornography that their tastes begin to change, and it takes more and more extreme videos to become aroused, until actual humans in real life will no longer do the trick. Watching porn is a choice. Even sexual proclivities exhibit some plasticity.

Following the modern script, 14-year-olds have learned never to say, “I’ve decided to be trans”, because all my friends are trans and I feel left out, but always, “I’ve discovered that I am trans”. This passive, powerless version of self has implications. We’re telling young people that what they see is what they get — that they already are what they will ever be. How disheartening. What a bore. Whatever is there to look forward to? Many victims of this formulation of existence, which apparently requires little of them besides all that being, must reach inside themselves and come up empty-handed. At the direction of the sort of educational authority Chris Rufo quoted above, they’ve undertaken a psychic archaeological dig, only to be left with a pit. So they feel cheated. Or inadequate. Convinced that they alone among their peers exhumed nothing but a disposable cigarette lighter.

By withholding the assurance, “Don’t worry about not knowing who you are; you’re just not grown up yet, and neither are we, because growing up isn’t over at 18 or 21 but is something you do your whole life through”, we are cultivating self-hatred, disillusionment, bewilderment, frustration, and fury. Young women often turn their despair inward — hence the high rates of depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and cutting. Young men are more apt to project the barrenness of their interior lives onto the rest of the world and take their disappointment out on everyone else.

In a trenchant essay last autumn, “Mass Shootings and the World Liberalism Made”, Katherine Dee seeks a deeper explanation for the mass murders committed by disaffected young men, whose blind rage and misanthropy now express themselves in the US at a rate of twice per day.  Gun proliferation, Dee claims, is not the core driver. Rather, “we have a nihilism problem”. The videos left behind by the Sandy Hook child killer Adam Lanza suggest a belief that “even if we could free our ‘feral selves’ from the shackles of modern norms, there would be nothing underneath. Just blackness. A great gaping hole. For many mass shooters, the only reasonable response to this hole is death — the complete extermination of life. Not just theirs.”

According to Dee, all these atrocities have hailed from “a world where everything revolved around the individual”. The result is narcissism, which “is expressed through our perpetual identity crises, where chasing an imaginary ‘true self’ keeps us busy and distracted. We see it in the people who use their phones and computers like they’re prosthetic selves, who are always there, but never present, gazing endlessly at their own reflection in the pond.”

An authentic sense of self commonly involves not thinking about who you are, because you’re too busy doing something else. It is inextricably linked to, if not synonymous with, a sense of meaning. Nihilism, an oxymoronic belief in the impossibility of believing anything, can prove literally lethal. Young men who feel no personal sense of purpose are inclined to perceive that nothing else has a purpose, either. They don’t just hate themselves; they hate everybody. In telling people who’ve been on the planet for about ten minutes that they already know who they are, and that they’re already wonderful, we’re inciting that malign, sometimes homicidal nihilism. Because they don’t feel wonderful. They’re not undertaking any project but, according to the adults, inertly embody a completed project, which means the status quo is as good as it gets — and the status quo isn’t, subjectively, very good.

Transgenderism may have grown so alluring to contemporary minors not only because it promises a new “identity”, but because it promises a process. Transforming from caterpillar to butterfly entails a complex sequence of social interventions and medical procedures that must be terribly engrossing. Transitioning is a project. Everyone needs a project. Embracing the trans label gifts the self with direction, with a task to accomplish. Ironically, the contagion expresses an inchoate yearning for the cast-off paradigm whereby character is built.

We should stop telling children that they’re the “experts on their own lives” and repudiate a static model of selfhood as a fait accompli at birth. Sure, some inborn essence is particular to every person, but it’s a spark; it’s not a fire. We could stand to return to the language of forming character and making a life for yourself, while urging teachers to exercise the guidance they’ve been encouraged to forsake.

As we age, we’re not only that unique essence in the cradle, but the consequence of what we’ve read, watched, and witnessed; whom we’ve loved and what losses we’ve suffered; what mistakes we’ve made and which we’ve corrected; where we’ve lived and travelled and what skills we’ve acquired; not only what we’ve made of ourselves but what we’ve made outside of ourselves; most of all, what we’ve done. That is an exciting, active version of “identity” whose work is never finished, full of choice, enlivened by agency, if admittedly freighted with responsibility and therefore a little frightening. But it at least provides young people something to do, other than mass murder or gruesome elective surgery.

Lionel Shriver is an author, journalist and columnist for The Spectator. Her new book, Mania, is published by the Borough Press.