In Mrs. Brady's first-grade classroom at Soundview School in Lynnwood, "Responsibility" was the word for September. The students participated in a variety of responsibility-themed activities that spanned the curriculum. At the end of the month, they performed a play for the entire school about what responsibility means to each member of their class.
This is one of many ways that values are taught at Soundview, a private non-denominational school that, like many other schools, has made character education a priority. While academics are important, teachers and administrators agree, it is also critical that schools teach and model positive values, especially since most children spend the bulk of their day in school.
Many schools have programs for publicly acknowledging students who demonstrate specific character traits like respect, compassion, honesty, self-discipline and good citizenship. According to Gary Tuttle, principal at Soundview, "This not only fosters a sense of pride in the student being recognized, but also sets a positive example for the other students in the school."
Allowing students to experience the results of their own choices is another way that teachers foster values in children. Mary O'Brien, director at Arbor, a Montessori school in Sammamish, says, "by putting students in real-life situations with real consequences, children learn responsibility and respect for materials and each other."
Parenting author Elizabeth Crary agrees that children need to experience the consequences of their actions. She is concerned that many parents try to save their children from the unpleasant consequences of their choices. While this may seem to work in the short term, it does not help children to learn long-term values.
Crary suggests that parents think about what they desire their child to be like as an adult and then work backward. According to Crary, "No matter what the age of the child, when parents have a unified direction they can keep from switching back and forth according what they want their child to do in each situation."
Parents need to think about the values they want their children to have and then determine what each of those values looks like at every developmental stage, she adds. Six-year-olds, for example, tend to be egocentric and are just learning to consider the consequences of their choices.
Some younger children experiment by stealing, such as shoplifting a toy from a store. While this behavior may seem alarming, it's normal and with proper guidance from parents it shouldn't be a long-term problem, Crary says.
As children grow older and are balancing their own needs and wants with those of the people around them, they may experiment with cheating and lying as a way to get what they want. Modeling appropriate behavior, natural consequences and talking with children about their choices can all be effective ways to help children who are struggling with these issues, she adds.
According to Crary, pre-teen children are more likely to be influenced by their peer group. Often children in this age group struggle with kindness. Parents whose children are being cruel to others, can encourage them to consider how their behavior makes other people feel and to think about the kind of person they want to be.
Developing strong values now will not only help your children in adulthood, but also in the teen years ahead. Teenagers who are clear about their own values and beliefs are more likely to make wise choices when they are given more responsibility and freedom.
Rachel Lynette has written several nonfiction books for children. She has taught children of all ages and has two kids of her own.
Tips for fostering strong values
Laurie Rogers, a children's advocate with Safer Child Inc., says that values give children the structure and the tools they need to navigate a relative world. Here are some suggestions from the Safer Child Web site, www.saferchild.org, to help parents foster strong values:
- Remember you are a role model.
- You are your child's most important role model. Children are always watching, listening and learning. Model the behaviors you want to see in your children, even when it is difficult.
- Choose values-based activities.
- Find activities that support your values and do them together as a family. If you want your children to develop compassion for those less fortunate than themselves, volunteer in a soup kitchen or sponsor a child overseas. If you want your children to appreciate nature, have your family pick up litter at the park and take lots of hikes.
- Consider how your children spend their time.
- Are video games, violent and/or sexually explicit movies and children's fashion magazines really teaching the values you want your children to internalize? Replace them with fun and healthy alternatives.
- Make time for your kids.
Children are more likely to grow into adults with strong values if they have a close relationship with their parents. By spending time with your children and keeping communication open, you can help to guide them as they grow.