Last weekend, as we left the pizza place where we’d taken the kids to dinner, my husband noticed that Will was clutching some orange and black plastic spiders in his fist. He asked Will, “Where did the spiders come from?”
Will evaded. “Hey look at dese cool spiders, Daddy!”
“I see the spiders. Where did they come from?”
“Did you take them from the restaurant?”
“Dey’re so spooky, Daddy!”
“They’re not ours. They belong to the restaurant. Is it okay to take things from someone else?”
“No. Dese are not yours. Dese are not for you.”
Back they went to return the pilfered spiders. While a 2-year-old taking a handful of plastic spiders is fairly innocuous, it is a good illustration of the fact that knowing what is right isn’t the same as doing what is right.
When I was writing my graduate thesis on character education and developing a model to use in my own classroom, I had a 3-fold desired outcome:
There’s the cognitive piece: I wanted my students to know what is right and wrong.
That needs to translate to the behavioral piece: I wanted my students to do the right thing.
Finally, there’s the affective piece: I wanted my students to feel compassion for others and guilt for acting wrongly and pride in doing what’s right.
In this 3-part series, I’ll talk about each piece, how I advocate approaching them, and how they work together.
The Cognitive Aspect of Character Education
If we want our kids to be good people, we have to teach them what is good. It seems pretty obvious, but there’s a scarcity of really teaching kids what is good and what is bad and why. Many contemporary approaches to character education take the values clarification approach of trying to maintain moral neutrality. (I won’t rehash everything that’s problematic about that approach, but you can see my thoughts about it here.) Kids generally want to do what’s right, but they aren’t born knowing what that is. Ever read Lord of the Flies? Yeah. It’s our job as parents or teachers to teach right from wrong. Even before we teach reading or writing or riding a bike or tying shoelaces. Moral formation is part of knowing who you are.
So, where do I start and how do I use a literature-based approach?
1. Identify what is good. Begin with what it is you want to see, not what you don’t want. Begin with honesty, not with “Don’t lie.” Begin with gentleness, not with “Don’t hit your sister.” If we want to inspire children with a vision of what is good and true and beautiful, we need to show them what that is. Evil is like darkness; it is an absence. When we are told only what not to do, our focus isn’t on the good, it’s on the nothing of the void. Yes, you have to correct bad behavior but turn the focus to what you want, not what you don’t.
2. Explicitly define what it means to be honest/gentle/courteous/etc. (I find this to be just as important for me—it helps me to really think about what a particular virtue means.)
3. Give examples. Identify and praise virtue in children when you see it. “I noticed that Sophia held the door open for Ben on the way into the cafeteria. That was really courteous of her.” Then I move to examples of people they know or famous people and historical figures they know of.
4. Read, read, read. I read a variety of books- literature, biography, history- which support the virtue I’m teaching by introducing characters and storylines where that virtue shines. As the books become part of our shared conversation and culture, they serve the double purpose of providing a vision of what this virtue looks like in action and what kids can aspire to, but they also give us a space for conversation about and reflection on the virtue.
Next time, I’ll talk about teaching kids to use their knowledge of right and wrong to actually do the right thing. Because maybe, like me, you have a child who knows that stealing is wrong but decides to pocket those super cool Halloween decorations anyway. 😉