Who's Responsible for Teaching Children Character Development and Social Skills?

According to a PEW Research Center report, almost all parents agree that of all the values their children should be taught, “being responsible” tops the list.

The U.S. Department of Education defines “being responsible” as follows:

Being responsible means being dependable, keeping promises and honoring our commitments. It is accepting the consequences for what we say and do. It also means developing our potential.
People who are responsible don't make excuses for their actions or blame others when things go wrong. They think things through and use good judgment before they take action. They behave in ways that encourage others to trust them.
People who are responsible take charge of their lives. They make plans and set goals for nurturing their talents and skills. They are resilient in finding ways to overcome adversity. They make decisions, taking into account obligations to family and community.
Children need to learn that being part of a family and a community involves accepting responsibilities. When each of us acts responsibly, our families and communities will be stronger.
What You Can Do
* Make agreements with your child and expect him to follow through.
* When things go wrong, help your child take responsibility for her part and make a plan to do things differently next time.
* Encourage your child to find out more about the world and how his actions may affect others far away.”

Whether we refer to “being responsible” and other such things as values, traits, qualities, or characteristics, according to the U.S. Department of Education, people with “strong character” become “responsible citizens.” In its article What Does ‘Strong Character Mean? Helping Your Child Become a Responsible Citizen, the Department states the following:

Character is a set of qualities, or values, that shape our thoughts, actions, reactions and feelings. People with strong character
* show compassion,
* are honest and fair,
* display self-discipline in setting and meeting goals,
* make good judgments,
* show respect to others,
* show courage in standing up for beliefs,
* have a strong sense of responsibility,
* are good citizens who are concerned for their community, and
* maintain self-respect.”

Assuming that parents want their children to develop “strong character” and become “responsible citizens,” should the authority for teaching children such things lie exclusively in the hands of the parents themselves?

The reason I asked the question is that many parents believe that social upbringing and the teaching of empathy to children should be exclusively reserved for parents and should not be taught in school. In fact, many parents would rather send their children to private school or homeschool them than have them taught such things in public school.

Such a position is based upon parental rights, “the rights parents hold regarding the ability to see and raise their children.”

In fact, the following information is from ParentalRights.org:

We are concerned parents and citizens who care about children and are concerned by how parental rights are slipping away…. Children need to be raised and represented by parents who love them, not by disconnected government officials. When it comes to raising children, parents are better than the government…. Yet more and more, parental rights are not being upheld in courts. We are working to preserve parental rights through a Parental Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, as well as through state and federal legislation that will protect children by empowering parents.”

What’s interesting and distressing is that nowhere does that organization mention anything about parental responsibilities. In fact, that seems to be a pattern among parental rights advocates and parents demanding their parental rights.

The following is from an article titled Parental Rights and Liability published by FindLaw:

There are many facets of parenting. Two of these are the rights that parents hold regarding the ability to see and raise their children and the responsibilities they have for supporting their children and their children’s actions. Not every family is the same, so determining these rights and responsibilities can be difficult….
The legal concept of parental rights generally refers to a parent’s right to make decisions regarding a child’s education, health care, and religion, among other things. If parents are separated or divorce, these rights can extend to custody and visitation….
Parents can also be legally responsible for their children’s behavior. State laws can vary, but from the time a child is around 8 years old and until he or she reaches the age of majority (18 in most states), parents could be subject to civil lawsuits or even criminal sanctions for the negligent or criminal acts of a child. In civil cases, if a child’s negligence causes an injury to another, his or her parents may be ordered to pay damages or restitution. In the criminal sense, parents could be punished for their children’s delinquency or absence from school, gun crimes, or Internet crimes.”

You see, along with rights come responsibilities. Throughout history, we have been reminded that with rights come corresponding responsibilities.

Consider the following information set forth within Harvard University’s Making Caring Common Project’s report titled The Children We Mean to Raise: The Real Messages Adults Are Sending About Values that was published in 2014:

Selfishness and indifference to others among both children and adults are commonplace. Too often, students who are different are mocked or bullied, too many children are disrespectful to both other children and adults, and too few children and adults feel responsibility for their communities ... Our findings suggest that youth’s fundamental values are awry ... Youth appear to value caring for others less as they age ... When children don’t prioritize caring, they’re also less motivated to develop the social and emotional skills, such as empathy, needed to treat people well day to day ... [Instead,] they are at greater risk of many forms of harmful behavior, including being cruel, disrespectful, and dishonest. These forms of harm are far too commonplace...
Any healthy society depends not only on developing in youth the urge and ability to care for others but also on instilling in them other ethical values. Perhaps especially, a civil and just society depends on developing in youth a strong commitment to fairness ... Our research suggests that we are not preparing children to create this kind of society ...
At the root of this problem may be a rhetoric/reality gap, a gap between what parents and other adults say are their top priorities and the real messages they convey in their behavior day to day ... Can we as adults ‘walk our talk’ about child-raising? After all, almost all of us believe that raising caring, ethical children is crucial. It’s also no small matter that adults’ basic credibility is at stake if young people, with razor sharp alertness to hypocrisy view us as saying one thing while consistently prioritizing something else. Moreover, the costs of inaction are high, given not only the risks to both our children’s social, emotional, and ethical capacities and happiness but other threats, including increasing political factionalism and incivility at a time when we face huge problems that need to be addressed collectively ...
The solution is straightforward, but not easy. To begin, we’ll have to stop passing the buck. While Americans worry a great deal about children’s moral state, no one seems to think that they’re part of the problem. As adults, we all need to take a hard look at the messages we send to children and youth daily.”

As the U.S. Department of Education sees it, “being responsible” includes “accepting the consequences for what we say and do. People who are responsible don't make excuses for their actions or blame others when things go wrong. They think things through and use good judgment before they take action.” What you can do to teach such things is to “encourage your child to find out more about the world and how his actions may affect others far away.”

Meanwhile, many parents who believe that social upbringing and the teaching of empathy to children should be exclusively reserved for parents and should not be taught in school also blame children who commit suicide on their low self-esteem.

What about the strong link between bullying and suicide?

In recent years, a series of bullying-related suicides in the US and across the globe have drawn attention to the connection between bullying and suicide. Though too many adults still see bullying as ‘just part of being a kid,’ it is a serious problem that leads to many negative effects for victims, including suicide….
The statistics on bullying and suicide are alarming:
* Suicide is the third leading cause of death among young people, resulting in about 4,400 deaths per year, according to the CDC. For every suicide among young people, there are at least 100 suicide attempts. Over 14 percent of high school students have considered suicide, and almost 7 percent have attempted it.
* Bully victims are between 2 to 9 times more likely to consider suicide than non-victims, according to studies by Yale University
* A study in Britain found that at least half of suicides among young people are related to bullying
* 10 to 14 year old girls may be at even higher risk for suicide, according to the study above
* According to statistics reported by ABC News, nearly 30 percent of students are either bullies or victims of bullying, and 160,000 kids stay home from school every day because of fear of bullying
Bully-related suicide can be connected to any type of bullying, including physical bullying, emotional bullying, cyberbullying, and sexting, or circulating suggestive or nude photos or messages about a person.”

People who blame children’s suicides on their low self-esteem and completely ignore the connection between such suicides and bullying are blaming the victims. With all due respect, how does a parent with a blame the victim mentality teach their children about “being responsible”? For that matter, what’s such a belief demonstrate about their compassion, honesty and fairness, self-discipline, good judgment, respect for others, self-respect, courage, and other aspects of involved in developing a “strong character”?

It bears mentioning that “people with self-respect also respect others. And, “courage can mean standing up for beliefs and making hard decisions on the basis of evidence rather than on what is the easy or popular thing to do. It means being neither reckless nor cowardly but facing up to our duties and responsibilities.”

It’s been found that “emotional intelligence influences 58% of success across every type of job.”

Circling back to the PEW Research Center report, the values parents agree are “especially important to teach children” are as follows:

  • Being responsible – 94%
  • Hard work – 92%
  • Helping others - 86%
  • Being well-mannered – 86%
  • Independence – 79%
  • Creativity – 72%
  • Empathy – 67%
  • Persistence – 67%
  • Tolerance – 62%
  • Obedience – 62%
  • Religious faith – 56%
  • Curiosity – 52%

Notice that curiosity is on the bottom of that list.

Interestingly enough; however, as social science researcher Brene’ Brown explains, “Researchers are finding evidence that curiosity is correlated with creativity, intelligence, improved learning and memory, and problem solving.”

Empathy and tolerance fall in the middle to bottom of the list. However, absent empathy, how can children “find out more about the world and how his actions may affect others”? Consider the fact that this question relates to what “being responsible” entails.

The Cambridge Dictionary defines empathy as follows:

The ability to share someone else’s feelings or experiences by imagining what it would be like to be in that person’s situation.”

How can someone imagine what it would be like to be in other person’s situation if they lack the curiosity to understand that person and their circumstances?

Without tolerance of those who differ in terms of their appearance, beliefs and other such things, where’s the concern for how one’s actions may affect them?

In other words, many of these values, traits, qualities, or characteristics are intertwined. If “being responsible” tops parents’ list of that which is “especially important to teach children,” it’s impossible to do so without teaching the set of qualities or values that form a “strong character” and the skills that make up emotional intelligence, including empathy.

Good intentions aside, the research demonstrates that parents are typically not raising the children they “mean to raise.”

Harvard University’s Making Caring Common Project’s report titled The Children We Mean to Raise: The Real Messages Adults Are Sending About Values, described the problem and solution as follows:

At the root of this problem may be a rhetoric/reality gap, a gap between what parents and other adults say are their top priorities and the real messages they convey in their behavior day to day….
The solution is straightforward, but not easy. To begin, we’ll have to stop passing the buck. While Americans worry a great deal about children’s moral state, no one seems to think that they’re part of the problem. As adults, we all need to take a hard look at the messages we send to children and youth daily.”

If so many parents are failing their children in this regard, where are their children to learn such values, traits, qualities, characteristics, or skills if not in school?

To the extent that parents would rather send their children to private school or homeschool them than have them taught such things in public school, where are their children to learn such things? If your answer is from their parents, my response is that the research clearly shows that isn’t happening. Furthermore, if parents are removing their children from public school for just that reason, I can guarantee that those same parents will not be teaching such information to their children.

ParentalRights.org may be correct in its assessment of “the erosion of parental rights in America.” However, it ignores the cause of the problem, which involves parents demanding their rights and failing to adequately exercise their corresponding parental responsibilities. The organization’s entire position is based upon the conclusion that, “When it comes to raising children, parents are better than the government.” If that’s true, how do you explain the information set forth within Harvard University’s Making Caring Common Project’s report titled The Children We Mean to Raise: The Real Messages Adults Are Sending About Values?

For what it’s worth, “social and emotional learning programs for youth not only immediately improve mental health, social skills, and learning outcomes but also continue to benefit children years later, according to new research from UBC, University of Illinois at Chicago and Loyola University.”

This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.
CONVERSATIONS