An Interview with Ron Kinnamon

Character. Integrity. Purpose. Responsibility. Every year camps and camp professionals strive to bring a diverse community together around common values and goals. The 2003 American Camping Association Conference in Denver, Colorado, will bring character education to the fore from every angle - workshops, shared philosophies, discussions, and dynamic keynote presentations. Ron Kinnamon, chair of the Character Counts! Coalition and one of the keynote speakers at the national conference, will explore the six core values in character development and how each can be fostered and implemented in the camp community. His expertise stems from a varied camp background, including serving as assistant national executive director of the YMCA of the USA, camp director of YMCA Camp Grady Spruce, president of the American Camping Association Texas Section, and co-author of the book, Camp Leadership Focus. Kinnamon also volunteers as the senior advisor to America's Promise and serves on various committees for the Points of Light Foundation and the Josephson Institute's Board of Governors.

In an exclusive interview with Camping Magazine, Kinnamon shares his unique perspective on character development and his commitment to "spread the movement through youth organizations, sports, and schools to reach every kid in America."

Why do you believe that character building - developing good character - is essential to youth development?

Children and youth today don't live in a "kid friendly" world. They face serious problems as never before - problems such as substance abuse, teen pregnancy, and youth violence. These are all ethical issues. The long-term solution to solving these problems is to develop a societal norm based on a limited number of core values.

This is not new to camp professionals. Camp people have known the importance of developing character for well over a hundred years. We have been developing character by teaching a set of core values. Now we need to help the rest of the world to understand that adults need to teach and demonstrate these values to children and youth.

Our society has a problem in providing positive youth development for all kids. In many ways, we adults give the wrong message to youth. Many adults are afraid of teens and because of this, they stop communicating with them. How many adults know the names of the children and youth in their neighborhood? How much conversation goes on between adults and teens when it is not organized? How much eye contact is there with teens who dress differently or who are pierced?

Our children and youth are in real need of positive youth development - and the cornerstone of youth development is character development. Every child has the right to develop his or her character so that he or she will know "right" from "wrong" and make decisions that will allow them to be a child of character and competence. Camp counselors have known for a hundred years that you can't "police" kids at camp. They know that they must develop a norm of behavior for their cabin group. This is character development in its purest form.

You have stated that building good character in today's youth is essentially an adult issue/concern. What do you mean by this and why do you feel this way? How can adults reach children through character education?

Kids didn't just wake up one day and decide that they will no longer be respectful or responsible or caring. Children learn to be respectful or disrespectful from the adults in their lives. We adults teach and demonstrate the values our children possess. This is why I say that we don't have a youth problem, we have an adult problem.

The best way we can change the values of the children and youth with whom we come in contact is by living our lives in such a way that they are able to see how we demonstrate these core values. Kids observe the lack of values in some of the highly visible sports figures, rock stars, politicians, corporate CEOs, and movie stars - but they also observe the lack of values in the adults closer to their lives. They carefully observe us using a radar detector in our cars, buying a child's movie ticket for a small teenager, smoking, not being honest when we fill out our tax forms, and telling jokes that include disrespect for people of a different gender, race, or religion.

We, as adults, must take the responsibility to change the world that we have left for our children.

What is the mission and purpose of Character Counts!? How does the coalition work and what successes has it realized?

Character Counts! is a coalition of over 500 organizations that have committed to teach and demonstrate six core values to children and youth. Character Counts! is not as much of a program as it is a movement. It is spreading across the country and impacting millions of children and youth every day. Character Counts! is thousands of trained adults who work with kids in camps, schools, and youth organizations of all kinds. Members of the Character Counts! Coalition include organizations like ACA, individual camps, whole school systems, NEA, Association of School Administrators, YMCA, Big Brothers/Big Sisters, the American Federation of Teachers, the United Way, the Points of Light Foundation, whole cities, and over five hundred other groups.

What are the six core values and why do you feelthat they are important?

About eight years ago, the Josephson Institute of Ethics called together executives of leading educational and youth service organizations to determine how we can best impact character development in children. These leaders came up with the six values that are used today in Character Counts! These values are Trustworthiness, Respect, Responsibility, Fairness, Caring, and Citizenship. Though these grew out of the Judeo/Christian tradition, they are also the core values of all major religions in the world. They are important because they are a fundamental way to bring people of all types together in agreement, since these values transcend religion, race, gender, economic circumstances, etc.

Many states have already either mandated or strongly recommended that character education be part of the school curriculum and youth development programs. How has the camp community and camp experience been in the forefront of character education throughout the years and what more can we do?

We have gone through a period in the 70s and 80s when schools have been afraid to "teach values." The thing that is very strange about this is that it is impossible to teach without teaching values. We teach values by what we say, the tone of our voice, our body language, etc. The way we establish a societal norm is by teaching and demonstrating the same six values so that kids hear and see these values everywhere they go. Hearing the same words to describe these value concepts at school, at camp, at home, or at youth organizations provides continual reinforcement of those values.

The camp community has always understood and reinforced the importance of character development by teaching core values. While camp has been the leader in developing character, it has somewhat separated itself from the community as a whole. The camp community has positioned itself as a place to "escape." Although this philosophy is changing, the community still remembers this "separate" view of camp. Now is the time for camp to provide leadership in the community. Expertise in character development is a gift camps can give to their communities throughout the United States. Now is the time for the camp movement to mobilize the total community to teach and demonstrate these six values - to develop good character and positive youth development.

Originally published in the 2003 January/February issue of Camping Magazine.