“The traditional concept of ‘building character’ is out the window,” says Lionel Shriver in UnHerd. A “fully realised” person used to be something one became, through “education, observation, experimentation, and sometimes humiliation”. But these days the idea of “character” has been largely swapped out for “identity”: a “hollowed-out concept” reducing us to the groups in which we were involuntarily born. Forget about “character building” – 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”.
The truth is that children don’t know anything. And there’s nothing shameful in that: you’re naturally going to be an “empty vessel when you haven’t done anything and nothing much has happened to you yet”. Adults should “advise, comfort and inform” our kids that it’s ok for them not to know who they are yet, not pressure them into determining whether they’re “girls or boys or something in-between” before they even properly understand what gender is. Yes, we all have an “inborn essence” particular to us, but “it’s a spark; it’s not a fire”. The self is “not found but made”: the product of who we love, who we lose, the mistakes we make, and the things we accomplish. That’s an exciting, active version of “identity” – one “enlivened by agency” and full of potential.