Children Learn What They Live
By Dorothy Law Nolte, Ph.D.
If children live with criticism, they learn to condemn.
If children live with hostility, they learn to fight.
If children live with fear, they learn to be apprehensive.
If children live with pity, they learn to feel sorry for themselves.
Many children spend more waking time in the presence of their teachers, than their parents and caregivers. Therefore, it may be a safe assumption that children growing up in the twenty-first century are learning what they live based on their school experience–their teachers–just as much (maybe some cases more) as they are from their caregivers. While teachers have been taught about behavior management, best practices and given scripts for curriculums, not many are required to take college courses on developing executive functioning skills or more specifically character. Yet, they may be responsible for a large part of character development for the students they teach on daily basis.
In recent years, this is become quite obvious as there has been the push for character education to return to school curriculums and the creation of character report cards that grade children on the development of their character. This is a useful tool if character is being taught, modeled and monitored throughout the semester.
If children live with ridicule, they learn to feel shy.
If children live with jealousy, they learn to feel envy.
If children live with shame, they learn to feel guilty.
If children live with encouragement, they learn confidence.
While the intent of these two movements are originating from different sources; they are sending a similar message: children today are not naturally developing and/or aware of their character. The former was in response to the increase in bullying and ostracization of students; the latter was the rude realization that while schools were producing high school graduates capable of earning a high school diploma and acceptance into college; these same students were not only struggling once they reached college, but were dropping out.
Enter Dr. Angela Lee Duckworth. Her research uncovered that grit and self-control are better predictors for academic achievement than IQ, socio-economic status (family income) among other factors. Her research states that “Grit is the tendency to sustain interest in and effort toward very long-term goals (Duckworth et al., 2007). Self-control is the voluntary regulation of behavioral, emotional, and attentional impulses in the presence of momentarily gratifying temptations or diversions (Duckworth & Seligman, 2005; Duckworth & Steinberg, in press). Her definitions for grit and self-control mirror two concepts found in executive function skills: goal-directed persistence and response inhibition. However, regardless of what they are called, the fact remains that these skills appear essential to success; yet adolescents today do not possess these traits upon graduation from high school and pay for it dearly. So some critical questions remain: Can anyone possess these characteristics or skills? How does one acquire them? Who is ultimately responsible for “teaching” them?
If children live with tolerance, they learn patience.
If children live with praise, they learn appreciation.
If children live with acceptance, they learn to love.
If children live with approval, they learn to like themselves.
If viewed from an executive functioning perspective, the answer to the fist two questions is relatively straightforward. Yes, anyone can possess them; some people appear to demonstrate more natural strengths or abilities in particular skills than others, but strategies to strengthen or accommodate areas of weakness exist and yield successful outcomes. The last question is more difficult to answer.
If viewed from a character perspective, researchers and the U.S. Education System answer the first two questions in a similar fashion. Anyone is capable of possessing these characteristics. They are acquired through direct instruction, modeling, and life experience. They also offered a straightforward answer to the third question: it is the responsibility of both schools and parents to teach character.
What happens then, if teachers themselves have never been taught or simply demonstrate a weakness in the character traits they are expected to teach and model? Or what happens if parents and teachers view these skills through different lenses?
If children live with recognition, they learn it is good to have a goal.
If children live with sharing, they learn generosity.
If children live with honesty, they learn truthfulness.
If children live with fairness, they learn justice.
Mostly likely, that is happening right now. Character traits like grit and self-control may or may not be taught in schools and in homes. If they are taught, perhaps they are taught differently which leads to children experiencing mixed-messages and putting a hybrid of the two into practice. This may work for some, but for others it leads to dropping or failing out of high school or college. The origins of character education are synonymous with an academic education. Character education changed in the 1960s and 1970s when the focus shifted to the process of making moral decisions versus the content of morality. It has now reemerged in the past decade most likely as a result of the publicized findings on college success rates of KIPP Academy students and theories as to why it was so low.
Yet, the re-introduction of the curriculum does not mean the mastery of skills by those expected to teach it. If teachers haven’t been taught, are never asked to self-reflect and evaluate their own areas of strength and weakness the result inevitably is they don’t know what they don’t know. So, how can they teach it?
The oversimplified truth is they can, just not effectively. It has been shown that children not only learn what they live, they live what they learn. Teachers are children all grown up; they too now live what they learned. And they can only be expected to teach what they have been taught. Maybe it is time to share the focus on how we teach our children with how we teach our teachers.
If children live with kindness and consideration, they learn respect.
If children live with security, they learn to have faith in themselves and in those about them.
If children live with friendliness, they learn the world is a nice place in which to live.