Do we learn virtuous behavior most effectively when it is modeled for us, or when we are explicitly taught what is and is not good? It’s a long-standing debate in the world of character education, and the answer is both.
Indirect character education- modeling virtuous behavior and creating an environment in which being good is celebrated- is absolutely necessary for credibility and for showing giving children a model for virtue. Do as I say, not as I do simply won’t cut it. For better or worse, little kids are like perfect mirrors of the adults who care for them.
When Will kneels on the ground in front of Bridget and declares, “I love you my sweet girl. You’re my favorite little brudder!” my heart swells with pride. (Also, I make a mental note to review the brothers vs. sisters concept.) I feel somewhat more chagrined when he swats the barking dogs and says, “Be quiet you stupid dogs! Go lay down somewhere!” Oops. Watching me, he’s learned to be gentle and loving to his sister, but also to be impatient and irritated with the dogs. Either way, he’s doing what his mother taught him to do.
Still, this copycatting isn’t enough. For starters, even the most superb role model is flawed and mere impersonation will copy these flaws too. Secondly, as children mature, they are less willing to uncritically accept the modeling of parents and teachers. Finally, the idea that children will somehow just absorb an accurate understanding of what is and is not good isn’t realistic. Yes, we need to show, but we also need to tell.
Direct character education- explicit instruction in how one is to act and why- is an integral part of formation in virtue. Parents and educators must first act virtuously, but then we must remember to explain what is virtuous (or not) about our own choices and engage kids in dialogue.
When the 14 year-old wants to be driven to early morning swim practice, requiring you to be out the door at 4:30 am, you can say, “I’ll get up early and drive you to swim practice because I love you and I want you to be able to pursue the things that make you happy. I admire your self-discipline and dedication.” When you’ve just yelled at the 4 year-old for spilling an entire gallon of obscenely expensive organic milk, after you told her to wait for help, you can apologize with, “I’m sorry for losing my temper and yelling. I felt frustrated that you didn’t follow directions, but it’s not okay to yell. Will you forgive me?”
This interplay between what is caught and what is taught, between showing and telling, is why I love literature as a center piece for character education. A good story provides the reader with role models for virtue (and examples of vice and it’s consequences), whether it’s a work of fiction or about real people and events. When we read with kids, we have the opportunity to talk about this stuff in a way that feels safe to them, because it’s about the story. This time together is also relationship building and makes it easier for us to have conversations about vice and virtue in our own lives. As certain books, characters, stories, and historical figures become familiar parts of our family culture, they create the kind of ethos where virtue is celebrated and pursued.