I’ve been thinking a lot about Character Education. A few decades back, I began seeing colorful Character Education posters in schools. It was part of a curriculum that promoted the basic character traits: responsibility, cooperation, perseverance, kindness, honesty, and respect.
I remember some critics calling the program a waste of time, just as they criticized anti-drug and positive behavior programs like DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) and CHAMPS (Choosing Healthy Activities and Methods Promoting Safety). I reported on several of these classes, usually held in 5th or 6th grades. I never considered them to be a fix-all for society’s woes, but I figured the lessons couldn’t hurt. Sadly, some kids see few if any good role models at home.
Certainly, there are some real “characters” among us. I used to hear that term often when I was growing up. For instance, our town drunk was a real character (the word was often pronounced “care-actor.”) Webster’s defines a character as “a person marked by notable or conspicuous traits….like the features that make up an individual.” Based on the many “characters” I knew, that often included drinking too much, talking too loud, or behaving in an unusual manner.
So when schools started emphasizing the benefits of good character traits, I was totally on board. I was frequently asked to help recognize or reward a child who had shared their lunch with a needy friend, comforted a classmate that had been bullied, or rushed to open a door for someone with a heavy load. Others were honored for spending time with a handicapped friend, or aiding a family member in an emergency medical situation. We definitely have a good number of heroes who exhibit good character traits.
But we also have too many people, young and old, who evidently missed out on character education lessons. Some of their worst behavior has been on display during the pandemic. You’ve seen the videos of people who have berated clerks and waitresses. Perhaps you heard about the sick dolphin stranded on a Texas beach that died after being harassed by a crowd of people who also tried to ride it. And don’t get me started about the lack of civility in our government.
So I asked several friends: “Based on the behavior you see in public, on the highway, and in government: are Character Education lessons in school doing any good?”
The most common response was, “These lessons should start at home.” I agree, but you and I both know that’s simply not going to happen in some homes. The first and sometimes only place a kid sees a good role model is at school. If that’s where they learn it’s not okay to throw a fast food bag out of the car window, that is time well spent. To me, that’s more valuable than memorizing the exact date Millard Fillmore became president. (He was number 13, and that’s all I care to know.)
Another friend told me, “The internet allows us to see in real time, the behavior and character of people worldwide. Far too often, a culture of disrespect and selfishness is what our children see, especially from individuals who hold high offices.” I could not agree more. Much of what we have see have seen in recent years in the White House and Congress should be flagged with “Parental Guidance Suggested.”
Society in general seems to be increasingly mean-spirited and defiant. In some homes, the “background noise” is provided by cable opinion channels. Is it any wonder we are more argumentative and less willing to cooperate, collaborate, and compromise?
According to one teacher, “Social media has changed the dynamic in schools. Kids are bombarded every day with inappropriate role models and behavior. The message they see is ‘It’s all about me.’
“Andy Griffith Show” reruns are still on the air, sharing some good character lessons, but they’re far outnumbered by edgier current sitcoms and reality shows. One friend told me, “In order for these shows to get attention, they have to be mean-spirited. Gone is anything redeeming, including common courtesy, empathy and respect. Pop culture often reflects real life.”
Let’s make character education a priority, especially in our homes.