Where Children’s Character Comes From
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.
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Posted in Child Development