A Case for Character Education

Parenting expert Annie Fox offers insight on why social and emotional learning must be a part of every kid's education.
It is important that both parents and teachers focus attention on teaching kids to be good people. (Photo: Martine Doucet)
Nov 15, 2012

Each week parenting expert Annie Fox will share her wit and wisdom for teaching kids to be good people and strong learners.

Forward-thinking parents and educators are getting hip to the fact that kids need more than good grades to succeed in life. They need people skills, aka Emotional Intelligence (EQ).

As social psychologist Daniel Goleman put it in his ground-breaking book Emotional Intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ, “If your emotional abilities aren’t in hand, if you don’t have self-awareness, if you are not able to manage your distressing emotions, if you can’t have empathy and have effective relationships, then no matter how smart you are, you are not going to get very far.”

Put it like that and it’s impossible to dispute the importance of EQ skills. But where are kids going to learn them? Most schools are in the business of teaching academics. EQ and character-building has been left to parents who may or may not be consciously teaching their kids to be good people. But let's face it, everyone who lives or works with kids ought to be helping them increase their Emotional Intelligence. We are the village, right? Maybe if there were a test measuring EQ achievement, it would be a priority in school. Unfortunately no test like that exists. But wait! There is an ongoing test that evaluates EQ. It’s called life.

More: The Key to ‘How Children Succeed’: Hint...It’s Not Standardized Tests

We know the hardest part of being an adult is learning to effectively manage our emotions as well as our personal and professional relationships. That’s what trips us up most often and most intensely. It's also what causes us to do and say things we later regret. So there goes the “academics only” argument. It’s a no-brainer that social and emotional learning must be part of every kid’s education. This stuff has to be on our plate even when it’s already so packed we can’t even see the plate anymore!

Schools everywhere report bullying as an ongoing problem online and off. The resulting social garbage pollutes the school climate. Most troubling of all is how the constant pile-up can change kids' self-perception and their ability to maintain relationships. Because kids rarely receive effective educational tools for resolving social issues, they continue making thoughtless choices that hurt themselves and others.

Need a more personal taste of the price we pay for not teaching character education? Here’s just one of the dozens of emails I receive weekly from kids:

I've always been teased and bullied because of the lies people say about me. I know I'm not what they say I am, but it’s like they say it too many times, and I'm actually wondering if I really am. I'm just really tired of all the bullying and hate. I don't know what to do to make it stop. Please help.

Our kids are hurting. They’re feeling powerless. How can we not help them? Let’s use our influence to help fill in the gaps in  kids' character education. Start today by consciously modeling respect and caring in every interaction with your colleagues and your students.

In addition, make it crystal clear that on your watch kids will treat one another with respect. When you see kids doing the right thing, acknowledge them publicly. When you see them doing otherwise, talk to them (respectfully, of course). Find out what’s going on and provide a needed course correction. If you don’t, who will?

If you are interested in using discussion drivers to get your students exercising their moral compass, pick and choose from some of these questions from teens about relationship challenges. Your students are likely to impress you with their ability to sort through complex issues and come up with astute observations about human behavior and non-violent ways to resolve conflicts. While they may not be ready to implement any of those observations in their own lives, this practice is invaluable!

So please make time, while you teach whatever subject you’re being paid to teach, and find ways to get kids thinking and talking about the choices they make moment-to-moment. When we fail to teach these skills, we fail our students—and that’s not an option. Preparing kids to become people of good character is part of every parent’s job. It’s part of every educator’s job too.

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