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When Inappropriate Behavior Is Just Plain Wrong

William Damon

Developing moral language and moral action are goals of character education.

Not long ago I was on a radio call-in show about character education. A parent telephoned and described this incident: Her fifth-grader had come home with a note from his teacher saying that she had caught him taking money out of his classmates' backpacks. This had been going on in the school for weeks, and they finally caught her son in the act.

As you'd expect, the mother was very upset. She called the school right after she got the note and said, "What can we do to stop this? I don't want him to develop a habit like stealing."

The teacher said to her, "Now, just wait, Mrs. Jones. We were obliged to send you the note, but, at this point, we'd like to ask you to stay out of this. We are dealing with the problem in school in a professional manner. In fact, we just held a conference about it, and we decided not to say that your son was caught stealing. That would only give your child a bad image of himself. We are calling it 'uncooperative behavior.' We've told your son that if he acts this way, he's not going to get along very well with his friends. This is not the way to behave if you want to have a nice life."

Mrs. Jones was taken aback, but she figured that the teacher must know what she was doing. Later, however, when Mrs. Jones did try to talk with her son about the incident, she said, "He just wouldn't take it seriously. He told me, 'Look, Mom, the teachers aren't making a big deal of this. Why are you?'"

Talking About Shared Values

I hear stories like this all the time, and they illustrate some of the things we need to work on if we're going to build character in our schools. It's absolutely critical that we are willing to use a moral language with kids when discussing the consequences of their behavior. There are such things as good and bad behaviors—not just choices that lead to instrumental consequences, such as being popular and getting along. Some actions are wrong no matter what. Even if everyone in school thought that stealing was the coolest thing in the world, it would still be wrong.

Another disturbing element of Mrs. Jones' story is the separation between the teacher and the parent. The school sets itself up as an enclave of professional expertise—it knows better than parents, who after all aren't trained-rather than seeing itself as embedded in the community, sharing its values.

When I talk about values, I mean core moral values, which are universal, not culturally specific, not discriminatory against people from different backgrounds. If you speak to parents from any culture or background, they don't want their kids to lie; they don't want their kids to cheat and steal; they don't want their kids to be disrespectful or to harm other people. Even though these values may seem elementary, a lot of young people have to struggle with them. And they need guidance in that struggle from adults they respect.

Educators are not always willing to make clear statements about right and wrong. I've been in schools where they've had cheating scandals, and the teachers have not been able or willing to communicate the standards to the children. The adults are ambivalent about whether cheating is even wrong. They'll say the tests themselves are not fair, the tests are too hard, the kids are acting out of loyalty to their friends. I've read about cases where teachers even encouraged kids to cheat in order to get higher test scores, thus making the teachers look good. This is an example of cynicism on the part of adults, or at least of a failure to understand that there is a moral agenda to teaching.

Character Education Outside the Classroom

That agenda is not just worked out with individual children in a classroom setting. The classroom is part of a school, which is itself a community that is part of the larger community. As young people travel through all those domains, it's essential to give them lots of occasions to hear the same kinds of good values from all the adults they come in contact with—as they play sports or work at after—school jobs, for example.

The whole idea of a school sitting on the hill, which is separate from the parents and the community, is not the wisest approach to communicating values to kids. No matter how pristine a program you set up in character education at the classroom level, it's going to be insufficient if it doesn't find deep and full connections to other people and events in the child's life.

And no matter how brilliantly you teach ethics in school, if you don't bring the subject to action, you don't bring the child's self to it. You have to get the child involved in something that requires sacrifice-doing something for somebody else-and then link that to the ethical issues.

It used to be routine for kids to do service. When I grew up, we had things called "chores." We weren't as affluent as kids today. Mom and Dad really needed us to wash the car because they weren't going to spend five bucks at the car wash. Now, even in families that have more money, it's still important for children to do these jobs—not so much because of what the chore does for the family but because of what the chore does for the child.

Children are capable of a great deal. We know that every kid has feelings of empathy and feelings of responsibility, no matter how troubled the background or how problematic the behavior. Every kid has capacities; we need to figure out what they are. Peter Benson, president of the Search Institute in Minnesota, has what he calls a "developmental assets approach." The idea is that when you work with kids, you find out what they can do, what their strengths are, and what their virtues are, and then build on them.

This is not to say work is a magic formula. But we ought to think seriously about what kids can accomplish. If we give them something productive to do—something that brings out their talents, that challenges them and gives them responsibility—we can go a long way toward true character education.

William Damon, director of the Stanford Center on Adolescence, is the author of The Moral Child, The Youth Charter, and Bringing in a New Era in Character Education.

This article was originally published in Issues in Ethics - V. 13, N. 1 Summer 2002.

November 10, 2015