America’s Next Frontier: Family-Based Character Education

<strong>Present schools focus on what students can do, not on who they are,</strong> relying upon competition, not curiosity,
Present schools focus on what students can do, not on who they are, relying upon competition, not curiosity, to motivate them.

The Wall Street Journal recently featured an article that stated that nearly a third of American children experience anxiety by age 18, and suggested how parents might help them with that disorder. Several unrelated recent articles included sobering references to the effects of bullying on children, including its connection to youth suicide.

This reminded me of the overwhelming sense of shame researcher Brene Brown has statistically discovered in our society, as well as our fear of being vulnerable.

Our children are suffering this inner turmoil for what purpose? To successfully compete, especially in academic competition. A Washington Post headline early in that week: “U.S. school children tumble in international reading exam rankings.”

Considering our past 60 years of educational reform, Einstein’s definition of insanity came to mind: Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

This insanity has given our children an inferior education to many others, one that subjects them to conditions that limit their well-being and their flowering as individuals.

Present schools focus on what students can do, not on who they are, relying upon competition, not curiosity, to motivate them. This leads kids to be preoccupied with status and inadequacies, depersonalizing the student culture, an environment that tends to promote bullying.

School never becomes a sanctuary young people can trust.

As a teacher, coach and administrator, I came to believe our educational system did not effectively prepare kids for life, and ultimately, I founded a school to try something new.

My premise in 1966 was that every individual has a unique potential, which I sought to support with a new college prep curriculum centered on character, specifically: courage, integrity, concern, curiosity and leadership. If it didn’t work, I trusted it would lead to something that did.

It did work, changing the primary focus from what students can do to who they are (akin to Socrates’ Know Thyself.) As students gain self-awareness, character and confidence, their motivation spurs performance, and their unique potential begins to emerge—and lead.

Now, many years later, we have seen this concept of education work in a number of different school communities with some 15,000 alumni families.

The changes in both family and school—and in their partnership—to support this new self-awareness process has helped students—and parents—lead meaningful and fulfilling lives.

In character development, parents are the primary teachers and the home is the primary classroom. Schools must realize their ultimate success with students depends upon how well they are able to integrate parents and families into their educational process.

Parent effectiveness requires a major change from being an adult authority figure to a model of growth. Children cannot identify with our achievements, but can identify with our goals, struggles and growth.

However, our child is not us, so we don’t know what our child will take from our sharing our growth experiences. We must simply trust that as we seek our best in life, so will our child.

Further, a helpful note: our child reads our heart, not our mind. So we must be sure to communicate what we feel to our child. Getting that right builds trust.

At a deep level all children want parents who will help them

  1. Realize their best;
  2. Become self-sufficient.

If parents do this, how does the school change?

First it must recognize the need to change—to transform itself.

We need to accept that 60 years of reform have not worked; that apparently, what works educationally for other countries does not work for America.

America was uniquely conceived and developed; our personality and strengths are unique. The fact that our present educational system is like all the others condemns it. Time to build our own family-based character educational system.

This will encourage teachers to also share their goals, struggles and growth with students, leading to their acceptance as mentors for the family. If their primary concern is helping the student Know Thyself, they will develop a natural bond of trust with parents.

While this does require a major school transformation, note what it accomplishes:

  1. Students now control their performance with best attitude and effort, thus eliminating anxiety and other disorders connected with competitive schooling.
  2. Curiosity replaces competition motivation, creating better scholarship, and also a community student culture that will reject bullying.
  3. The school is increasing empowerment to support the family’s best.
  4. The focus on each student and family will maximize America’s unique values and strengths.

Challenging this educational frontier will empower the American Spirit.

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