Character Series, Part 9: Courage

Taking initiative when you’re scared.

Showing respect for someone when it’s not the cool thing to do.

Being grateful in the midst of bad luck, setbacks and hurt.

Being honest even when it might get you in trouble or be uncool.

Making a responsible decision when you so badly want to be irresponsible.

Remaining appropriately confident in the face of unwarranted criticism or failure.

Showing compassion when everyone else refuses.

Making an independent choice when you’re terrified.

As with ALL of our character traits, courage takes practice.

Mrs. Kay always says “Practice makes easy.”  I love this so much. It is infinitely better than practice makes perfect, because we are not aiming for perfection (and those who do will only face disappointment).  We are aiming for habit. We are literally paving little roads in the brain, whether it’s the motor skills to play a note or the courage to stand up to our peers. The more we practice, the more the pathways between the neurons myelinate, aka pave a road that becomes easier and easier to travel.

We talk of building character–it’s a slow process that takes years.  When our kids don’t show character, we should hold them accountable, but not be too surprised.  After all, Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither are upstanding, kind, successful adults.  We practice, we have setbacks, we practice more, and gradually we bloom.

Character Series, Part 8: Gratitude

This may be the most straightforward virtue to teach your kids.  It’s deeply linked to mental health and contentment and there is a lot of science supporting its practice. Some of the virtues we value go in and out of style, but gratitude is currently fashionable.  You can find gratitude references, life hacks, and suggestions all over the internet, in mental health/wellness magazines, Ted Talks (this is one of my favorites), etc. but they all come down to practicing it daily.  Literally practicing it every day.

Make lists of things you’re grateful for in a journal, at dinner, in the car after school, write them down and put them in a jar in the kitchen, etc.  A benefit of doing it daily means that you (and your children) move past the general good in your life like each other, a home, food, clothing, etc. and begin to notice the small things that happen each day.  An encouraging word from a friend, someone who helped you with a project, a stranger who let you step ahead of them in line, someone (maybe you don’t know who) hung your coat up when it was on the floor.  As we get really good at it, we can be grateful for good that comes out of hard situations: your scraped knee revealed the quick, kind, concern from a peer, your struggles with math has taught you a good work ethic, a tight budget has taught you to think through your priorities, hurt feelings have helped you be more empathetic to others.

The research shows that as we do this, our brains literally change and become more positive.  We begin to see good everywhere and develop a lifestyle of gratitude.  This is why there’s a link between mental health and gratitude; your brain tells you that you have lots to be happy about and that makes you happier!

Character Series, Part 7: Respect

Respect comes in two forms, an external form and an internal form. Our children learn the external form of respect (how they react to people, how they handle authority, how they treat strangers) from our expectations.  This is also known as manners, but I prefer to use respect because it is tied to our beliefs about others whereas manners often don’t have explanations or meaning.  Showing someone respect is pretty straight forward teaching; you tell them what you expect, and they need to meet your expectations. In this case more than any, they will rise to meet your goals for them and over the years their habits will reflect your requirements.

The internal form of respect is much more difficult and much less straightforward.  Here you will teach your children your own personal concept of respect.  What beliefs are at the heart of your respect for others? Do people have to earn it or do they receive it simply because they are human? Does your behavior change when someone loses your respect? What does someone have to do to lose it?  Do you show respect to people you don’t actually respect, and if so, why?  This won’t be one discussion when they’re 5 or 8 years old, this will be 18 years of discussions and role modeling and reactions to positive situations and challenging situations.  The more aware you are of your beliefs and actions, the more intentional you can be as you pass them on.

It works well to have a moral definition of respect, admit to your children that you don’t live it out as well as you would like, and then ask your children to help hold you accountable when they see you falling short.  This is a great way to counter-balance your own weaknesses and team up with your children in search of a higher good (always a great way to teach!).

Character Series, Part 6: Honesty

Honesty is not the black-and-white topic we learned about in after-school specials growing up.  It is actually really complex and abstract once you throw intentions, compassion, passivity, and self-awareness in the mix.  It will take conversations, role-modeling and accountability for kids to navigate, and the conversations will evolve as they get older and situations grow more complex.  When kids are young, it can feel like a lie to say something to make someone feel good, and not feel like a lie to tell a tall, entertaining story. Their emotional perception of a situation may be factually inaccurate, but true to their experience.  As they get older, should they tell the truth even if it sells a friend out?  Should they lie to get someone off their back?  We tend to send pretty mixed signals to our children, most of which are unavoidable.  So how do we teach them?

First, getting caught is always the best thing for the child!  Trust, but verify anything you get a sneaking suspicion about. The more often a child lies without being discovered, the easier it becomes to lie and the harder it is for them to sort the truth from the alternate story.  When they are caught, they are more likely to assume they will get caught the next time and it becomes a deterrent.

Whenever they are caught red-handed in a self-serving lie, they need immediate and proportionate consequences.  They need to feel the significance of it.  The act of lying is usually a bigger transgression than the act they are trying to cover up and the consequences should indicate that.  They should receive consequences for the initial misbehavior, and then additional consequences for the lie.

When the situations are gray, harsh consequences may not be appropriate, but softer, logical and natural consequences might be in order.  If a child doesn’t have the strength to be honest and stand up to a friend, maybe they shouldn’t be hanging out with that friend until they’ve developed more courage. If a child tells lots of tall tales, then folks are likely not to believe a truly amazing story, and when that happens, you can gently connect the dots for them.

Lastly, you will need to be a role model and discuss your choices with them.  Are you willing to call them in sick to school when they’re not?  Have they seen you fib to a policeman when you have been pulled over or to a friend when you want to avoid a situation?  Do the lies that you tell show compassion for others or do they save you from inconvenience?  Do they fit your code of ethics or do they allow you to avoid consequences?  This is worth pondering because your kids will notice, even if you don’t.

There are layers and it’s complex, so talk it through and ask them to hold you accountable too, as they get older.  It’s a great opportunity to share your values and pass on your beliefs.

Character Series, Part 5: Compassion

There are three elements to teaching compassion.

The first is living it. If you are living a compassionate life, your kids will imitate it.  And of course, there are many ways to be compassionate. Whether you’re serving food at a homeless shelter on Christmas Day or simply being kind to someone at the DMV, your kids are observing all of your behavior over the years and processing it as they get older. They will see major activities more clearly when they are younger, but as they get older they will notice details and subtle acts of compassion. They will remember what you do regularly — your habits and traditions.

Secondly, they need to practice it. Give them opportunities to choose some toys to give away, to clean up a mess so the janitor or waiter doesn’t have to, to give way to others. Take them to see different situations and circumstances, to serve others. Expose them to other compassionate people and go out of your way to encourage the ideas they come up with themselves.

Lastly, kids learn best when observations are paired with verbal processing. This means discussing it, reflecting on it, and brainstorming about it. Talk about what compassion means hypothetically and philosophically (as appropriate for their age) but also practically. How does it feel when you are compassionate and why? Yes, it feels good but might also be painful, requiring forgiveness or sacrifice. When they come home from school crying about another student being mean, discuss it. When they are annoyed with their sibling, a teacher, a stranger or a celebrity, talk about why they’re frustrated. When they don’t want to take care of their pets because it’s cold outside or they don’t want to visit grandma because they want to sleep in, come up with some pros and cons.

The bottom line is that the more effort we put in to making it part of their lives, the more likely it is to be a part of their lives. It’s hard, and none of us will do it as well as we hope, but whatever we can do will be so important for their future and the future of the world.

Character Series, Part 4: Responsibility

Responsibility requires meaningful practice (there’s definitely a pattern here) to develop. Dr. Montessori said that children seek independence by means of work. Having real responsibilities in the home and at school brings meaning and purpose to their lives and helps them prepare to shoulder more responsibilities as they grow, developing stamina and resilience.

Responsibility also teaches life skills–from laundry and cleaning (neither of which come naturally!) to time management and forethought. “The data emerging about the mental health of our kids only confirms the harm done by asking so little of our kids when it comes to life skills, yet so much of them when it comes to adhering to the academic plans we’ve made for them and achieving more, ever more academically.” -Julie Lythcott-Haims (Stanford dean and author of “How to Raise an Adult”)

Meaningful work means that there is a chance to fail; parents cannot follow behind their children fixing or changing their work. If the child forgets to take out the trash, the whole family needs to suffer until he take the trash out.  If she forgets her lunch or homework, don’t bring it to her. Let your children figure out a solution with the help of another adult. It’s not meaningful responsibility if nothing changes when they don’t do it. Their pebble has to produce ripples.

Kids who have true responsibilities may gripe or roll their eyes, telling you that no other parent is so mean, but there is no substitute for their pride at all they can accomplish and the maturity that develops as a result.

Character Series, Part 3: Self-Confidence

The key to self-confidence is knowing that you can do things, try things, complete things, and succeed at things.  It means being okay with yourself if you fail. This is something that we can discuss with children, but they really only learn it through experience. They cannot develop self-confidence without a certain amount of independence and freedom to take initiative. When we throw a rock into a pond, we see the ripples it produces.  Confidence comes from seeing the ripple effects of our actions. Positive or negative, we need to know that we have a real effect on the world around us.  When there are positive effects, we need to feel appropriately proud, and when there are negative effects, we need to feel appropriate regret, but also comfortable that we will survive the disappointment.

Two of the biggest threats to self-confidence are praise and too much assistance.  Disproportionate praise sets a counter-intuitive expectation that kids actually begin to feel they must meet.  When we say “you’re so smart” or “you’re so beautiful,” they begin to believe that they have to be smart or beautiful next time, and the ideal they have to live up to becomes crushing.  Secondly, as we touched on with independence, our assistance can send the message: “you cannot do this,” or “you are not good enough at this.” Even if we subtly remake their bed after they have made it, we are sending the message that they didn’t do it well enough.  There are times when we want to send that message, but more often than not we send it inadvertently and they learn that their efforts are not worthwhile.

Unfortunately we cannot “give” kids self-confidence.  They have to earn it or build it through their actions and repercussions.  The good news is that if we give them the space to earn it, holding ourselves back a little, it will come pretty naturally for most kids!

Character Series, Part 2: Independence

INDEPENDENCE
Dr. Maria Montessori believed that independence was the most important trait to develop in our kids.  She believed it was key to their self-confidence, their ability to learn, their sense of identity, and would enable them to contribute to the world.  Developing independence calls for a balance of hovering and neglect.  One mantra for Montessorians is remembering that the child is saying, “Help me do this all by myself.”  We have to create space for independence and then support from a distance. If the point of childhood is to become a functional adult, then we have to work backwards from 18, 22, 25 (when do you expect them to wear the full weight of adulthood?) and create steps for independence.

Dr. Michael Thompson, an expert on friendship, warns parents to let kids work things out themselves unless there is physical danger.  Dr. Julie Lythcott-Haims and Dr. Wendy Mogul both have best-selling books teaching parents how to balance their child’s academic needs with their needs for independence.  These authors and many others tie the national depression and anxiety epidemic in teenagers and young adults with a lack of independence (especially through disappointment and hardship) when children were younger.

When we do something for the child we are telling them, “You don’t do this well enough.” Sometimes we want to say that (sometimes they really shouldn’t have certain privileges), but other times we are focused on our own needs or standards and they actually completed the task well enough for their age. If we’re thoughtful and purposeful about it, we will find that there is a lot they can do on their own, while we stand back and observe and maybe encourage — patiently available.

Character Series, Part 1: Initiative

At The Fulton School, we believe character traits are like muscles–you have to practice them to get strong. We have identified nine key character traits that we look for daily in the kids:

Initiative
Independence
Confidence
Responsibility
Compassion
Honesty
Courage
Respect
Gratitude

We believe these traits are both timeless and timely, and we know that the children’s lives will be more fulfilling and more successful (on many levels) if they are well developed. But how do we develop these traits in our children? I will spend the next nine weeks exploring what research and literature say about developing these traits in our children.

INITIATIVE
Many of these nine traits overlap substantially, as you will see in the coming weeks.  They feed and reflect each other. Initiative, independence, and confidence are like three points of a triangle; today I will hone in on one point of that triangle.

The tricky part of encouraging initiative is that the child has to start it–you can’t!  We develop initiative in our children most directly when we implement a new idea they have. If your child suggests a change in the bedtime routine and you think it’s a good suggestion and you implement it, you have just sent her the message that her ideas are contributing to positive change. It’s rewarding and stimulates more growth in initiative. If your child gets up to take his dishes to the sink unbidden, state your appreciation; if he does his homework on his own, tell him you’re impressed; if she puts away toys or gets dressed before you ask, tell her you like her initiative. You are encouraging something that is undervalued in adults. Sometimes we hover so much, we don’t give our kids the chance to stretch these muscles.

If you have a child who shows little initiative, have a conversation with him at a neutral time in a neutral way to let him know you would like to see more initiative. Depending on the child’s age and why you think he resists, you can brainstorm ways for him to take more initiative. If he follows through on it, practice it, acknowledge it, and go with it! Sometimes you may need to set the stage for him and let others know that this was difficult for him in order to pave the way. When he experiences success a few times, he will continue taking initiative on his own and hopefully it can take root as a habit.

What do you do when your child has a lot of initiatives that you cannot or do not want to implement?  Thank her for her creative thoughtfulness and explain why her idea won’t work. Or maybe take part of the idea and tweak it.  Here at school, we will go some distance to give an idea credit and action–whatever morsel of productivity we can find in it.  We believe deeply that in doing so, we are nurturing initiative in our students.

Screen Time Series, Part 3

The Benefits

Last week was just the tip of the iceberg in terms of reasons for minimal screen time, but there are wonderful benefits for the screen time that we do allow.  As with most things in life, the benefits increase the more proactive we are about them. The internet brings infinite opportunities for research and learning to our fingertips.

There is a wealth of informative videos (informally on sites like YouTube or formally on something like Khan Academy) that we can use to teach kids. The opportunities are mind-boggling. From how car engines work to what happens when you drop a ping pong ball three stories into a pool, this is all content that can support curiosity and learning.

Watching a show or movie with your child and discussing it together is a completely different cognitive experience for a child than watching something alone.  Such shows provide great content for discussing your values, social situations, and decision making.

Apps and websites can make rote drills more fun — typing programs, math facts, names of countries/capitals, etc. through websites like JetPunk, Sheppard Software or Quizlet.

Connecting with friends and family is amazing (this just needs to be supervised and limited with kids).

There are options to organize kids who aren’t naturally organized (take pictures of assignments, homework apps, Google Docs).

And there are great coding practices for kids headed into STEM. The list goes on and on.

Back to my dessert metaphor: there is SO much good and joy and, better than dessert, really constructive uses of screen time.  We don’t need to stay out of the candy store, we just need guidelines about how much we’re going to eat and how long we’re going to be in there (and who’s going to enforce that).