We live in competitive times. Parents send their two-year-olds to Junior Kumon to get a head start on reading and math. Older kids are pressured to excel in various extracurricular activities and academics.
Parents naturally want the best for their kids, but a focus on achievement needs to be balanced with character development for lasting happiness and success.
There are many education programs — inside and outside the classroom — that focus on lessons about values, such as respect, responsibility, and perseverance. By combining academic learning with character education, students can put the knowledge they acquire at school into perspective and grow to be well-rounded adults.
Former Yale professor William Deresiewicz has written about the disillusioned and cynical generation of current college students. In his book “Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life”, he argues that a worryingly large percentage of college students report feelings of hopelessness, fear, anxiety, depression, emptiness, aimlessness, and isolation, despite studying at the best institutions in the country. All of these feelings may potentially be preventable — with character education.
Defining Character Education
Character education — as defined by the U.S. Department of Education — is “a learning process that enables students and adults in a school community to understand, care about, and act on core ethical values such as respect, justice, civic virtue and citizenship, and responsibility for self and others.”
Life offers countless opportunities to help us shape our children’s characters; but sometimes, key messages get lost in the daily hustle.
Here are some methods that parents can employ to help with character education for their kids:
Reinforce the Guidance Curriculum from School
With support from the federal government, state Departments of Education develop and implement curricular guidelines and programs for character education across all grade levels — from elementary through middle and high school. These programs focus on various aspects of character development, such as:
- Peer pressure, conflict resolution, and safe vs. unsafe behaviors
- Respect, tolerance, and anti-bullying
- Alcohol and drug abuse
- Anti-violence programs
In elementary school, kids often bring home notes explaining their school character education programs. Be sure to reinforce some of those lessons at home through discussion and reminders about appropriate behavior.
You can read more about how to respond if you are worried about your child is bullying or acting up.
In higher grades, parents can stay involved by having ongoing conversations with children about school, their friends, and issues they are facing instead of solely focusing on grades. You can also seek opportunities to participate in school guidance programs.
For instance, the high schools in our district have a School Safety Team with parent volunteers. This committee looks at school culture and trends to address issues pertinent to the school environment. It gives parents a chance to work with students and school authorities to enhance the community.
Help Kids Seek Service Opportunities
Pediatrician Dr. Kenneth Ginsburg, a specialist in Adolescent Medicine at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, says that children who understand the importance of personal contribution gain a sense of purpose and enhance their own competence, character, and sense of connection to the world. Volunteering helps kids meet and work in cooperation with other like-minded peers and adults in the community.
There are various agencies that facilitate local volunteering opportunities for kids, including the following:
- Animal shelters, which always need volunteers to groom, walk, and play with animals
- Libraries and senior centers, which often look for volunteers, especially during summer vacation
- Service-based organizations like Girl or Boy Scouts, which engage in several community-based projects throughout the year.
- Local soup kitchens or food pantries, which allow kids to help feed underserved members of the community
If you are looking for your children to do something independently, you can encourage older kids to tutor younger ones in the community free of charge. Also, a simple walk around your neighborhood to pick up trash can be a way for younger children to help out.
Follow this link for tips about how to fit community service into your kids’ busy schedules.
Use Literature and Great Movies to Emphasize Values
You can help your kids learn values by introducing them to compelling characters in inspiring books. For instance, reading “The Lorax” by Dr. Seuss made a great impression on my kids.
A great resource for literature rich with life lessons is the Core Virtues website. This literature-based character education program, developed by educator Mary Beth Klee, has been adopted by many private schools across the country; and it can also be used by parents independently. One core virtue — such as respect, responsibility, discipline and perseverance, generosity, or service — is highlighted as the Virtue of the Month. For each virtue, there are suggested books, listed by grade level, to read with your kids.
Use family movie nights to watch inspiring films that emphasize the values you want to impart to your children. Common Sense Media’s list of Movies that Inspire Kids to Change the World is our go-to resource. It has movie suggestions for kids ages six to 17 years old.
Emphasize the Importance of Effort over Outcome
There is much lost from the experience of learning if children only focus on increasing their academic knowledge and do not contextualize school within a larger value system. Parents need to teach kids that you play sports for satisfaction and enjoyment, and not only to get on a college sports team, or that you excel at academics for the joy of learning — in addition to the opportunities that open up as a result. Praise that focuses on process and hard work as opposed to outcomes will demonstrate the importance of a good work ethic — and serve as an additional facet of your child’s character education.
Character Education…Our Shared Responsibility. Retrieved February 5, 2015 from The US Department of Education, Office of Safe and Drug Free Schools.
Ginsburg, K. The 7C’s: The Essential Building Blocks of Resilience. Retrieved February 5, 2015 from FosteringResilience.
Literature Based Character Education. Retrieved February 5, 2015 from Core Virtues.
Movies that Inspire Kids to Change the World. Retrieved February 5, 2015 from Common Sense Media.