An Introduction to Character Education for Parents and Guardians
By Dr. Philip Fitch Vincent, Director of the Character Development Group
Character education is not another thing to be added to the plate. It is the plate.
—Dr. Kevin Ryan
I assume that most of you are parents or grandparents or aunts or uncles. With this liberty, let us consider the following scenario. Your child, grandchild, niece or nephew makes the A/B honor roll. A friend approaches you in the grocery store and notes the recognition of the child’s name in the local newspaper. With all your modesty you state to your friend that you and your family are proud of his achievements. A week later another friend approaches you as you are getting into your car. She states that your child/grandchild/niece/nephew is such a kind, caring child. She states, “You can always count on him to do the right thing with such a good heart.”
Out of these two compliments, which one means the most to you? If you are like most adults throughout the country, you answer the second one. Why is this so? After all, grades are clearly important. Schools and school districts are often being assessed solely on their test scores. Children who maintain academic excellence are recognized in schools and communities. Yet you know that anyone can make straight ‘A’s in school or score at the highest level on test scores and still flunk life. We want our children to do well academically in school. Anyone who does not want this for their child is failing to help educate their child. But there is more to being an educated person than academics. An educated person has also developed the habits of civility and kindness along with the intellectual aptitudes that enable this person to assess and act in a morally consistent manner. We will refer to this aptitude as the development of character.
What do we mean by the word character? Kevin Ryan and Karen Bohlin in their fine book, Building Character in Schools, provides an historical definition that leads to our present understanding of the word character:
The English word character comes from the Greek word charassein, which means, “to engrave,” such as on a wax tablet, a gemstone, or a metal surface. From that root evolved the meaning of character as a distinctive mark or sign, and from there grew our conception of character as “an individual’s pattern of behavior…his moral constitution.”
So one’s character reflects a pattern of behavior or our moral constitution. Our moral constitution is developed by observing those who are around us: parent(s), relatives, teachers, coaches, neighbors. It is from this observation that we begin to develop habits of civility and at times, incivility. Our character is also developed through our use and study of the humanities as we sharpen our intellectual response to ideas and thoughts that make up our moral roadmaps. And our character shaped by what and how we give to others, how we serve others in our school and in our community.
Over the next two years we will examine what schools can do to promote the moral development of our children. We will discover that developing a climate that promotes the moral development of children is not easy. It will demand a serious intentional effort on the part of everyone within a school environment to model as well as teach and help children develop the social/moral and intellectual habits that are crucial to developing and leading a moral life. It will require that we consider not just the curriculum, but also how we are teaching and children are learning the curriculum within our scope.
We will also examine the role that the community must play in supporting the efforts of the schools as well as developing strategies within community organizations that promote the moral awareness and growth of children. Insights gleaned from efforts in St. Louis, Chattanooga, Tennessee, and Canandaigua, New York as well as other community-based character building efforts will be analyzed and suggestions will be offered.
Finally, we must make effort to assist the primary care givers — the parent(s). We will learn about practices taken from schools and communities that have attempted to involve and support parents in their character building efforts.
Hopefully over the next two years we will develop a greater understanding of the strategies needed to embrace a child in a rich character developing environment. I will provide some ideas from the research as well as strategies learned from my work with schools that are beginning as well as nationally recognized character developing schools and communities. I also welcome your input and comments regarding success that you have had in assisting children, staff and perhaps yourself in developing a more character based life.
I look forward to the coming months and would welcome some topic ideas or questions that you might have.