Dr. A. Lynn Scoresby
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Where Children’s Character Comes From

November 5th, 2007 by Lynn


Schools have reported an increase in conduct problems such as bullying, cheating, class room disruption, youth gangs, and violence. One researcher points out that an increasing number of children are being sent out of the class room to remedial help for conduct problems rather than for the purpose of solving learning difficulties.

This focus by schools and parental concerns has, in the last ten years, led to increased attention to something called “character education.” Many schools and school districts purchased programs that provided a school with banners, discussion points, and a proposed talking schedule about positive “virtues,” such as honesty and kindness. Even though these seem useful and positive, the assumptions which they are based on are not consistent with what the research reveals about the true source of character development. If the research is correct, schools and parents are spending a lot of money to get a lot less than they are paying for.

In 1974, Lawrence Kohlberg, a pioneer in moral reasoning, reported an attempt to educate children in a school setting. He had researched six levels of thinking or reasoning and hoped to help children reason in a morally mature way. A short summary of his findings revealed that it was possible to improve behavior at school but not outside of school. His attempt, much like the school’s attempts today, may help out school but not produce actual development of the personality qualities parents and teachers hope for.

Subsequently, researchers learned that character development was more likely the result of social experience combined with brain growth, not mental maturity by itself. That is, social relationships are necessary to help children learn to regulate themselves, to learn integrity and honesty, to include instead of exclude others, and not hurt or harm themselves or others. This suggests that positive social experiences where children experience empathy, compassion, cooperation and a host of other social and emotional abilities are the true foundation of character. When adults help children learn how to use these skills by examining what helps and harms people they can promote character development in many settings; not just one classroom.

Anything which reduces children’s positive social involvement and having adults mentor them can reduce opportunities to learn character qualities. Examples include excessive TV watching, video game playing, and computer involvement. These are identified because they obviously result in a lack of the emotional and social skills which are the foundation of character development. There is also good evidence that the absence of positive emotional skills learned in social involvement may reduce children’s motivation to learn and succeed. It is successful social involvement (not popularity) where children learn the character qualities so highly prized in our society.

Have some thoughts on the subject? Drop me a comment or two and let me know.

Posted in Child Development

5 Responses

  1. Eric

    So… this saying that parents need to be more pro-active in guiding their own children towards interacting with others instead of expecting “the system” to do it for them?

    Well… duh!

  2. skrap san

    I Agree with Eric, it should be common knowledge that the only thing that really will learn your kids to be good persons is to show them how its done. And that this has to be done by the people who influences them the most, their parents and other close relatives.

    But then again, its easier to blame the system/media who ever and expect them to fix it.

    I don’t really want to blame the increase in families splitting up since that is a one dimensional way to look at it. But i would say that it seems to be an increasing trend among parents that they don’t really have to invest time in their kids. There seems to be plenty who rather pour money over them than give them attention for 5 minutes.

    so in conclusion, time solves more problems than money.

  3. Educator

    I agree. Parents are expecting schools to do the parenting for them. There is no end to the responsibilities put on the school and teachers that are not even related to curriculum. It is getting to be increasingly difficult to just teach when you have to deal with so much more, including behavior. Student’s who are not taught correct behavior at home can not exhibit it within the classroom. This goes for more than just behavior and does include many aspects of character. Nothing impacts education at school more than what they learn at home.

  4. Former educator

    So what if we all agree that schools would be better and teachers could spend more time teaching if parents actually did their job. Obviously it’s not being done and the fallout lands in the classroom. But I don’t think that’s what Dr. Scoresby meant. I think he’s saying that schools are implementing programs that aren’t going to truly teach character…just nice principles about it. Just because you talk about kindness in your classroom and use a pencil with “respect” written on it, doesn’t mean children are going to demonstrate those qualities in those circumstances they find themselves in when they are needed the most. If character truly comes from positive social interaction and relationships, schools then can provide the perfect environment for these relationships…since school is completely social. I hope more of our schools are truly teaching children to BECOME compassionate and not just teaching ABOUT compassion. Otherwise, seems to be lots of wasted time and effort.

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