Building Character in Homeschooling (Part 2)

Wouldn’t it be great if there was a fail-safe, five-step program for building character in children? A handbook we could buy that would lay it all out? Or a class we could enroll our children in that actually made a difference?

Unfortunately, character building is too complex and time demanding to be so easily accomplished. Instead, it’s the result of a series of learnable “moments” spread over a period of years. Each of these moments is unique to the child and his environment. And nobody really knows the results until the child is far into adulthood.

Still, there are some aspects of character building that appear to be universal. And all of them have implications for homeschooling. Here are three of them:

Good character is not innate. It is learned.

Good character is a learned behavior. Children learn it from the people around them. If you surround children with people of poor character the odds are pretty strong that they will embrace at least some of the poor character traits for themselves. The converse holds true if you surround children with people of good character. Parents should be vigilant about making sure their children have good influences in their lives.

As a group, the people with the poorest character are children. And it’s not even close. Children have undeveloped moral codes. They don’t always understand the essence of right and wrong. And they are often too self-absorbed to even care. Sending your children to school so they can spend all day learning character from other children is a mistake. Unless you (the homeschooling parent) exhibit less character than a third grader, then homeschooling is an excellent choice for building character.

Good character is grasped and executed as people become convinced it assists in the accomplishment of personal goals and rewards.

This view of character may seem a little jaded, but it’s the reality of how people, both young and old, function.

Because young children are so pre-occupied with immediate self-gratification, most early character progress comes as a result of understanding that good character leads to immediate, personal gain. A very young child soon understands that he can avoid punishment if he engages in certain behaviors. Or he can impress a person if he uses a certain word. Or he can win a reward if he executes a task in a diligent way. These are the first baby steps of character building.

As people mature, they are able to see the benefits of good character as it relates to long-term goals. The goals may seem more noble, but they still stem from a desire for personal gain. The student who diligently does his homework so he can get a good grade. The athlete who practices hard so he can help his team. The young professional who throws himself into his job so he can support his family. Even religious people oftentimes engage in the best behaviors because of the ultimate, personal rewards involved – a “clean slate,” a place in heaven, community with God.

Since God leads his people with exhortations, promises, and systems of rewards and punishments, I think it’s reasonable for parents to institute similar methods for character building in their children. In young children, the rewards must be concrete and immediate for good behavior – a moment of praise, a hug, a privilege. As children get older, we can start to reason with our children, explaining the benefits and giving them reasons to delay short-term gratification in order to achieve long-term goals. This is also the time when we can start talking more about how the pursuit of God ultimately leads to personal happiness.

Acknowledging man’s selfish motivation in exercising character helps parents to know how to teach it. Saying to a child “do this because I said so,” probably isn’t very helpful because it leaves the wrong impression about character. It suggests that good character is something we do under orders and for no reason. Instead, we should always be making the connection between good behavior and reward for our children. They must learn, through exhortation, demonstration and personal experience, that at all behavior has consequences and that their choices define their future happiness.

Character building can be accelerated by placing children in activities that inspire and require good character.

Parents should always be looking for ways to motivate and engage children in character building activities. In our family, we often turn to sports for this, but there are other types of activities that can do it well.

In looking for character-building activities, there are three characteristics that I feel are essential for effective outcomes.

1. The activity must be fun or engaging. The activity must be able to grab the attention of a child and hold it over a period of time. Things that mom and dad would like to use to build character – like academics and chores– often don’t work because they don’t engage the child.

2. The activity must have positive consequences for success and negative consequences for failure. It can be difficult for parents to see a system of positive and negative consequence being meted out for their children, but it’s critical to the learning process. In sports, children begin to understand that when they don’t practice, they don’t play. When they don’t play well, they sit the bench. When the entire team plays poorly, they loose. Eventually, the child learns that these negative consequences can be replaced by positive consequences if he (and his team mates) begins to apply good character to the process.

3. Participation in the activity must have a big pay-off in the end. This step is the key to the process working from beginning to end. The nature of the activity engages the child in the beginning and the consequences adjust behavior over time. But the child will not stick with something unless there is a substantial pay-off in the end.

Sports have held that appeal for our children. Both the personal and corporate (team) results are easily measurable and children can see how their contribution has affected the results. The fun and satisfaction of going through this character building process with peers increases its appeal and impact.

However, keep in mind, the sports team (or whatever activity you choose) has to have a serious component to it. If the activity is “just for fun,” there is no big pay-off in the end because the child sees no real meaning or significance to what he is doing. The fun component grabs his attention, but it’s the significance of what he’s doing that will motivate him to devote himself to positive outcomes over a period of time.

If your child is not sports minded, there are many other activities that have the potential to be excellent character building opportunities. Theater and dance are two of my favorites because of the challenging performance component. Other possibilities are gymnastics, Bible-quizzing, and academic challenge teams, to name just a few. What all these activities have in common is they immediately engage students because of the team component. And they inspire and require good character because of the competition and/or performance component.

In my homeschool, I give more priority to these kinds of activities than I do to academics. If my children can learn to be self-disciplined and develop a strong work ethic, they can do anything – in school or beyond.

Until next time…Be fearless.

 

Building Character in Homeschooling

When I first started homeschooling, someone very wise and wonderful handed me a gem of a book titled “Things We Wish We’d Known,” by Diana Waring. The book consists of a collection of 50 essays written by long-time homeschooling moms about things they would have done differently to homeschool their children had they known in the beginning what they knew in the end. Imagine getting this kind of advice from 50 homeschool veterans when you are just starting out!

What struck me about the book is almost all the essays had similar themes. Essay after essay, veteran homeschool moms talked about how they wished they had concentrated less on academics in their homeschools and more on character building, faith development, and simply spending time with their kids. None of the 50 moms said they wished they had worked harder on academics, covered more subject matter, or prepared their children better for college. Instead, as a group, they pleaded with new homeschooling moms to relax and not do “school at home.”

If I were to write an essay for this book, mine would be similar to the other veterans. Early on, I focused way too much on academics, frustrating my children and our relationship at the same time. But as the years wore on, I garnered the courage to set aside preconceived notions and other peoples’ expectations and begin to homeschool my children in ways I knew would be best.

Today, I think more about building character in my children than academic preparation for college. The surprising truth that has emerged from this focus is an understanding that character building IS the best way to prepare your children for college. Knowing and understanding huge bodies of information has only limited returns and those returns are predicated on figuring out what children need to know, learning it, and then retaining it until they need to use it. That’s a pretty tall order.

By focusing on character, teachers can put aside the relentless goal of preparing students’ brains for everything and, instead, prepare their character for anything. The truth is, we are never fully prepared for life, whether it be college, career, or personal circumstances. But, if we have the desire, resourcefulness, and personal discipline to overcome our shortcomings, we will succeed.

This reality proved true for me throughout school, college, and my career. In college and throughout my 20’s I worked in the journalism field as a general assignment reporter. Each day I would arrive at work, meet with my editor, and then launch into a day of assignments that ran the gamut from politics, to business, to education. On a daily basis, I had to speak with important people who were experts in areas I knew little about. There was no way my education could have prepared me for the range and depth of subject matter I would encounter as a news reporter (nor in college, for that matter). Instead, I had to rely on my resourcefulness, my good sense, a healthy work ethic, and other character strengths to get the job done.

One of my most embarrassing news reporter stories happened the first day on the job as the news editor of my college newspaper. I was told to interview the college president about a change in the tuition structure for state universities. With a deadline just three hours away, I had to get background, complete the interview, and write a story about a very complicated and detailed process governed by both education and politics. I was scared.

I walked into the interview with the university president that day a nervous wreck. I was intimidated by the president’s position and, truthfully, I didn’t have a good grasp of the subject matter either. My desire to make a good impression on the president added to my anxiety.

I launched into the interview; systematically going through the list of questions I had prepared. After the third question, the president paused, looked directly as me, and said in a very serious, but kind manner, “You really don’t know what you are talking about, do you?”

It was a horrible moment that lives with me to this day. But it taught me an important lesson: Being smart is not about having the right answers. It’s about asking the right questions. Wise people don’t know everything, but they know how to find out. And they have the desire and character to see the process through.

I eventually learned how to interview important people on important topics. I even established a good relationship with that college president who would welcome me many times over into his office to talk about news items of interest to my readers.  I found that the key to working in this or any career environment is not having the answers, but listening, adjusting, and then applying what you have learned.

In our homeschools, it’s vital to focus less on providing and teaching the  “answers” to children and instead focus on building the kind of character that will create lifelong learners. This is the way to prepare students for success.

In my next post I will share some concrete ideas about about how to build character through homeschooling.

Until next time, Be fearless.

What I Learned About Teaching from a Basketball Coach

Monday night’s NCAA National Championship game was a heartbreaker for a University of Kentucky basketball fan like me. But it has been a fun season to watch and learn from a master teacher – University of Kentucky Basketball Coach John Calipari.

Here are three things I learned about teaching from John Calipari.

1. Preparation and ability position children for success, but it’s character that ensures it.

All of us have been frustrated at one time or another with children who have all the ability in the world, but often don’t rise to the occasion. The child who misses half his math problems because he forgot to check his work. The high school student who turns in a three-sentence essay. The college student with the high SAT score who ends up flunking out. These are not cognitive problems. These are reflections of a person’s character.

The same is true on the basketball court. As talented and heralded as the UK freshmen were this year, they landed on campus without the ability to consistently win basketball games. By the middle of the season, the pre-season number one team was nothing better than ho-hum. But then the team started winning. Game after game, heartfelt effort after heartfelt effort. The difference? The execution of character.

All people, especially children, struggle with the challenge of matching performance to ability. Without determination, diligence, self-discipline, and other important character traits, students fall short of their goals, even when they possess superb athletic, cognitive, or artistic abilities. As teachers, it’s our responsibility to help students understand the importance of character, inspire them to execute it, and continually put them in environments where they can learn to apply it. This pursuit should be a significant part of our homeschooling objectives.

2. When something isn’t working, STOP!

When the Kentucky basketball team was struggling this past season, Coach Calipari instituted the infamous “tweak.” It changed his team from losers to winners.

There is always – ALWAYS – a new and better way of doing anything. Put away the old textbook. Try a new teaching strategy. Take a vacation. Maybe it doesn’t even matter what you do because sometimes it’s the change itself that sparks renewed interest and effort. Whatever you do, if something isn’t working, just don’t keep doing it the same way you always did it before.

3. Make your own kind of music, if you want to sing your own special song.

Not afraid to challenge the status quo, forge new paths, or try new approaches, Coach Calipari has re-invented himself, his teams, and maybe even the game of college basketball itself.

As homeschool parents, I think we often settle for the same strategies, have the same expectations, and feel gratified by the same passing grades. We have the opportunity and the freedom to accomplish great things in our homeschools. Instead, we settle for things like “covering all our bases,” and “getting my child through high school.”

In homeschooling, we can rewrite the lesson book on raising and educating children. We don’t have to do it like everyone else does. Because we can do it better.

Until next time….Be fearless.