When I was a boy, it seemed that everyone was deeply proud of America’s schools and the values of the students within them. You don’t hear much of that these days. When it comes to our kids, it seems we have devolved to a point where we care more about what they can do than about who they are…and they know it. That represents a depressing turn for all of us.
So, what do we do? We can begin by reorganizing our priorities as follows: attitude over aptitude, effort over ability, and character over talent. Rather than merely espouse these priorities, let’s honor and live them from kindergarten on up to the decisions made by college admissions departments. We must say it and mean it. After all, a lifetime of teaching has taught me to never kid a kid. Never tell them something’s important when it’s really not.
But before we can truly help our kids, we may need to first help their parents. Huh?
For decades, American schools, both public and private, have been mired in various efforts to accommodate a perceived decline in the American family. For their part, our schools have followed a doomed strategy as though they believe they can pick up the slack by trying to compensate for what our students are not getting at home.
I'm talking about a triad in which parents are students’ primary teachers and home is the primary classroom."
This strategy has led schools to an unspoken pact of accommodation with parents: We agree not to challenge your parenting, in exchange for your tax, tuition, and/or philanthropic dollars. It has also caused us to cheat the very students we purport to serve.
Suggesting that such compensation is impossible, the academic David Nyberg wrote in 1990: “If parents do not contribute to the moral education of their own children, teachers cannot reasonably be expected to make up the deficit.” Educators in pursuit of “moral deficit reduction” would do well to heed Nyberg’s recommendation: “Perhaps the first move in rethinking how we teach values in school is to impress on parents that they, and not teachers, are their children’s primary educators.”
Hence, let’s build community with a new triad—student, teacher, parent—in which all individuals foster a collective commitment to character development. This will require schools to have the courage to diverge from the time-honored maxim “the customer knows best” in favor of a higher vision, one that will lead our customers—our students and their parents—to thank us later.
I submit the idea that parental growth is the key to character development in the family. Our children don’t need us to be perfect; they need to see our effort and willingness to dig in and focus on our own progress. If parents reach for deeper values, character, and purpose, so will their children.
When schools talk about parent involvement, they typically mean that they would like parents to support the work of the teachers. (A number of charter schools even require parents to volunteer as tutors or hall monitors.) Many schools offer parenting workshops featuring tips or techniques designed to influence habits and behaviors. This is all well and good, but I’m talking about a triad in which parents are students’ primary teachers and home is the primary classroom. I’m talking about workshops that challenge parents to become inspirational examples for their children.
After 35 years in the character education “camp,” I’ve learned two things:
• Character is inspired rather than imparted. (We don’t pour it in, we draw it out.)
• You must influence the influencers. (And family is the biggest influencer.)
Both conclusions add up to the fact that parents have to be on board with the program. Beyond lending moral support, they need to model the notion of character education as a lifelong pursuit. One simple way to do this is to make sure that while goals are being set for their children—course selection, extracurricular choices, and so on—parents are also setting personal goals for themselves, such as exercise, community service, and cultural enrichment. And just as kids get report cards at regular intervals, parents require times when they can share progress (and, yes, sometimes a lack thereof) with their kids and their peers. In facilitating this process, I have observed that children tend to be so inspired by their parents’ willingness to place themselves in the vulnerable position demanded by any process of personal growth that they don’t even care all that much about their parents’ progress.
In recent years, I have also observed that parents tend to be increasingly focused on having a “relationship” with their children, some to the point of obsession. We also have difficulty allowing our kids to fail. In short, parents need help in letting go. Sometimes the best way to let go is to become so preoccupied with your own progress that you have less time to think about your child’s. In time, you will become a role model who inspires your child to go after his or her best.
At the Hyde Schools, where I work, our mission sounds simple enough: We seek to provide a learning environment where individuals develop character and discover a deeper purpose in their lives. It also sounds like something that might be found in any school mission statement. The trick lies in preventing this mission from becoming just an add-on. It must guide everything we do. It requires buy-in from everyone: students, faculty, staff, and oh, yes, parents.
When it comes to character definitions, I like this one from Kevin Ryan, who founded the Center for Character and Social Responsibility at Boston University: "… to know, to do, and to love the good.” Character serves simultaneously as our guardian against temptation and our catapult to greatness. In addressing character development, schools tend to prioritize the “guardian” side of the equation and will often reach for a character program as a solution to a problem like disrespectful manners or bullying on the playground. Once the problem is solved to the faculty’s satisfaction, the character program returns to the shelf to gather dust indefinitely.
Although well-intended, this view relegates character to a corrective end as opposed to the challenging means to Ryan’s “good.” If we are going to demand more from parents on the character front, schools need to ramp up their commitment as well, which means going well beyond isolated character education classes or the occasional lecture. This is the educators’ role in the parent-student-schools triad.
Perceived as a catapult, character serves as the means to a fulfilling and inspiring personal destiny. A poem by the 19th-century writer Charles Reade captures this: Sow an act and you reap a habit; Sow a habit and you reap a character; Sow a character and you reap a destiny.
Reade seemed to know that it’s a slow and deliberate process, one that demands a lifelong commitment. For schools and parents working together, there is no better commitment they can undertake.
A version of this article appeared in the August 29, 2012 edition of Education Week as Sowing Parents’ Role In Character Development