When my son was little, his aunt sent him a VHS tape of a TV character; Barney the purple dinosaur.  At the end was an “educational” message from Sandy Duncan, a celebrity attached to the series: “And remember kids, real friends come and go but imaginary friends are forever.”  I almost put my foot through the TV screen.  I only mention this here as an example of how far off we typically are from identifying what really influences positive development in children, including character and virtues.  In my book, You can’t teach through a rat, I devote an entire chapter to how far off educators often are in identifying the most powerful positive influences on child development.  One of my favorite thought experiments with teachers is to ask them to privately identify one of their own character strengths and then reflect on its source, “How did you come to be that kind of person?”  I have done this dozens of times with groups all around the world.  No one has ever said their character came from a curriculum, a lesson, a public recognition, a character award, a song, or a book.  Never.  Not once.  What do they say?  Almost uniformly, their parents as role models of the character strength.

This reinforces that parenting is the single most powerful influence on a child’s character.  The research on this is clear.  We have identified five key parenting strategies that influence the character development of children, and we call them DENIM.  The D stands for Demandingness, which means setting high expectations.  They need to be realistic, consistent, and supported (no sink or swim here).  The E is for Empowerment, which means to authentically make space in family discourse for children’s perspectives and voices to matter; for them to be democratic partners where appropriate.  The N is for Nurturance, which means that kids need to know that they are loved.  The I is Induction, which is a form of sending evaluative messages (both praise and reprimand) that focus on justifying the evaluation with an emphasis on the consequences of the child’s behavior for another’s feelings.  And the M, of course, is for Modeling; being the character you want to see in your children.

Yet another critical way parents can influence children’s development (and in this case learning as well) is through positive involvement in the child’s education.  While this gets a bit complex, the general lesson to be learned from the research is that parent involvement in schooling has the potential to significantly enhance the child’s academic success and character and virtue development.  In fact, the vast majority of effective character education programs include parental involvement as an element.  Research shows that the impact of parental involvement is most positive when parents have high aspirations and expectations for their children’s success.  It is worth noting that schools can help parents hold such expectations and should intentionally do so.  Research also says that parents need to know the language of schooling, both generally and specific to the school or even particular classroom.  Lastly, parent involvement is most impactful if it is active.  When parents are actively involved in helping children learn, ideally through supplemental or participatory teaching, the impact is greatest.  Just showing up at events is not enough.

Character education initiatives are no different than other aspects of school in that they often fall short of the mark.  They don’t help parents see how good their children can be.  They don’t help parents learn the language of character and the virtues.  And they don’t find ways for parents to be active partners in character education.  More typically they treat parents as an audience to be informed (in the loop) or perhaps as deficient “clients” who need the school to help them too.  Ideally they should respect the parents for what they can bring to the table and enlist them as authentic partners.

Even when schools want to do this, one final obstacle is that parents often are unmotivated to be involved.  There are four key motivational blocks.  Parents may not understand that this is important.  Second, they may not feel competent to participate in schooling.  Many parents are intimidated by schools and educators.  Third, they may not feel welcome at school.  Schools often think they have an “open door” policy but it sure doesn’t feel that way to the parents.  Fourth, even when the school is welcoming, the children may send messages to their parents that contradict this.  Once kids approach adolescence, they not only don’t want their parents at school, they don’t want anyone to know they even have parents.  Schools need to identify and tackle each of these motivational obstacles if they want to avoid throwing the power of parents out with the bathwater.

Dr. Marvin W. Berkowitz, Sanford N. McDonnell Endowed Professor of Character Education, Co-Director, Center for Character and Citizenship, University of Missouri-St. Louis

A full Insight Paper titled ‘Involving Parents for Good‘ by Drs. Marvin Berkowitz and Melinda Bier is available on the Jubilee Centre Website.

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