By Louise Perrotta
An editor for The Word Among Us.
Slightly modified by the Central news desk of L'Effort Camerounais
As the new school year begins discussions have come alive with suggestions for success in the schoolroom. There's enthusiasm, and often good advice, for parent-teacher teamwork, helping kids learn, believing in your child's potential, and making this "the best school year ever."
Provided it's well directed, enthusiasm is a gift! Every effective educator has it; every learner needs it. So as we gear up for the academic year, how about also stirring up some enthusiasm for improving the instruction that our kids receive year-round? I'm talking about the "school of virtue" that meets every day in our own homes and lays the foundation for academic achievement.
And our kids' moral and spiritual formation goes hand-in-hand with the intellectual development that also begins at home and then unfolds beyond it, with the assistance of teachers and school systems. As Catholic psychologist and educator Thomas Lickona puts it, "Education has always had two great goals: to help people become smart and to help them become good."
In fact, helping children become good helps them to become smart. You may not realize it now, but your insistence that Jenny do a good job on her weekly chores is teaching her far more than how to clean a bathroom. She's also learning thoroughness, hard work, perseverance, and responsibility-virtues that will stand her in good stead some years from now when she is writing her doctoral dissertation or PowerPoint presentations to the vice president for marketing.
As teachers are refining their lesson plans, then, why not do a little planning on the home front? Talk with your spouse about what virtues you would especially like to build in your family this school year. Asking the Holy Spirit to lead you, choose just one or two character traits to focus on. You might decide on one of the three virtues discussed below, which are especially relevant to academic achievement: respect, honesty, and responsibility.
Whatever virtue you target, expect the Spirit to be teaching you, too. When it comes to growing in virtue, we're all lifelong learners! You can also trust him to equip you for that role of primary educator. Ask him for what you need, including renewed enthusiasm and vision.
Respect is a foundational virtue. It takes many forms, including respect for self and others, for life in all its forms, for legitimate authority, and for people's rights. At its centre is respect for human life because it is sacred.
To focus on respect, ask these questions: Do you treat your children with respect? Entrusted by God to your care, your children are persons in their own right-individuals with rights, free will, and unique personalities and abilities. Is this truth reflected in the way you deal with them? Do you treat them like persons? Are you fair? Taking account of their ages, do you make an effort to explain your reasons when you disagree? Do you listen to their opinions? Invite their ideas? Does your tone of voice, as well as your words, communicate respect?
Do you require respect from your children? Are you teaching them to honour God? Consider areas like behaviour in church, respect for God's name, respect for those consecrated to his service. Are you instilling respect for people who exercise legitimate authority? Could you improve on the way you're teaching courtesy? Consideration for others? Manners? And what about "honour your father and your mother"? When your kids treat you disrespectfully, do you overlook it or correct it?
About this last point, the best policy toward disrespectful speech and behaviour to parents is zero tolerance. Ignoring or excusing disrespect from our kids will only increase their bad attitude and erode their respect for other adults.
Schools everywhere are experiencing the effects. "Teachers Get No Respect as Student Rudeness Rises," ran a recent headline in a newspaper. Quoting high school teachers and administrators, the article described today's students as increasingly ruder, sassier, and harder to teach, with a "you-can't-make-me-do-that" edge that undermines the learning environment. This attitude of disrespect is insidious, creeping into even the best of schools. Parental training on the home front is the best prevention.
But make sure you are maintaining respect, too, urges one counsellor at a Catholic high school. "All the time, kids come to me complaining that a teacher is incompetent, no good, and needs to be fired. 'You can't talk that way about your teacher,' I'll say. And the kid will answer,' Why not? My dad says it.'"
So don't erode respect for teachers with remarks like, "What a stupid assignment." If there's a problem, take it to the teacher and watch your tone at home. You'll be helping your kids to be learners rather than perpetual criticizers who find it hard to accept that anyone is qualified to teach them anything.
Essentially, to be honest means to live in the truth. We train our kids in honesty because we want them to become people of integrity who don't lie, cheat, or steal. To put it another way, we want the "Spirit of truth" to live in them as fully as possible, leading them into all the truth" (John 14:17; 16:13).
In many ways, the world around us gives our kids the cynical message that it pays to lie and cheat. Many are buying it. Consider the "2004 Report Card on the Ethics of American Youth," released by the California-based Josephson Institute of Ethics, which surveyed 25,000 high school students nationwide. According to its findings, nearly two-thirds cheated on exams, more than one in four stole from a store, and 82 percent lied to their parents about something significant within the past twelve months. (The statistics may actually be worse: 29 percent admitted that they lied on one or more of the survey questions.)
In the classroom, technology is giving students more ways to cheat. Many kids copy information off the Internet, with no concern for plagiarism. There are Web sites that sell term papers. Cheating on exams is facilitated by graphing calculators, cell phones, handheld computers, and two-way pagers.
"It's hard to keep up with the technology," a Catholic school teacher told me. "And when we do catch someone cheating, they typically say they don't see anything wrong with it because 'everybody does it.' And they want the grades." Her advice to parents:" Start early talking to your kids. Explain: What is honesty? What is stealing? Let them know it includes copying from other kids, taking other people's ideas and information. From the get-go, talk about academic integrity."
If we want to cultivate honesty in our children, we must of course take a good look at the example we're giving them. But "practice what you preach" must go hand-in-hand with "preach what you practice," says educator Thomas Lickona in his book Raising Good Children. You have to "teach by telling"-forming conscience through direct moral instruction that explains why some things are right and others wrong. He writes: Teach kids that a reputation for being honest is one of the most valuable things they can have. Help them think clearly about violations of honesty. Why is it wrong to lie or break an agreement? Because it violates trust, and trust is essential in any relationship. Why is it wrong to cheat in school? Because cheating is a lie (it misrepresents your knowledge); it's a violation of your teacher's trust in you; and it's unfair to all the people who aren't cheating. Why is it wrong to steal? Because there's a person behind the property. Theft violates that person.
You might find it helpful to review the Catechism sections on offences against the seventh and the eighth commandments (see especially 2401, 2412, 2450-54, 2464-92). And don't forget to teach your kids how to make things right with God and others by going to Confession and making restitution for stolen goods.
"I went to a party, and it ended up with no chaperone and lots of alcohol. I called my mom to pick me up. Instead of reprimanding me, my parents said they were proud. Now if I'm in that situation again, I know I don't need to be afraid to go home."
The high school senior who tells this story acted in a responsible way. Responsible persons exercise their freedom of choice in ways that are good. When they make mistakes, they accept the consequences of their actions and deal with them without making others suffer.
If you want your kids to learn responsibility, give them something to be responsible for. Even young children can help around the house and yard and feel proud of their contribution to family life. Assign chores, commend and correct as needed, and don't allow them to weasel out.
Children who are in school have the important responsibility of doing their personal best to make the most of their education. One of many ways we can help our kids take responsibility for their learning is to facilitate doing homework. Let them know you see it as a priority. Establish a regular daily time for homework. Designate a study area where they can work without distractions; have necessary supplies on hand. As appropriate for their age, oversee their work.
Do not, however, do it for them! And if, through their own fault, they fail to do their work, resist the temptation to cover for them. Don't be like the parents described by an Illinois teacher:" They're at their kids' beck and call-doing their work, running late papers in for them, making excuses and blaming teachers. How will their kids learn accountability if they never experience the consequences of their actions?"
Whether it's responsibility, honesty, respect, or some other virtue that you target as your "school of virtue" curriculum this semester, be encouraged! The Lord is with you as you help your kids to become both smart and good.
Let's all take our cue from that outstanding man of God and master teacher, Pope John Paul II, whose enthusiasm for youth was on display for over a quarter of a century. You are the future of the world, he told kids. You have an immense potential for good and for creative possibility. Let's make that our perspective too.