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Character-Centered Families and Schools

Interview With Psychologist Tom Lickona

CORTLAND, New York, APRIL 20, 2006 (Zenit) - The goal of Catholic character education is to form children in the character of Christ, says a developmental psychologist.

Tom Lickona is a professor of education at the State University of New York at Cortland, where he is the founding director of the for the 4th and 5th Rs (respect and responsibility).

He is the author of seven books on character development in the family and school, including the co-authored "Smart and Good High Schools."

In this interview with us, Lickona speaks about the role of parents and educators in helping children to flourish and become persons of character.

Q: What is the reason for the growing awareness of the need for character-education programs for children?

Lickona: I think there are at least six factors that have driven the current character education movement:

One, the weakening of the family; as families do less character formation, more kids arrive at school without social skills and a sense of right and wrong, and schools have to take up the slack;

Two, the rise of the mass media and the popular and marketplace culture as a powerful, largely negative influence on the values and character of youth;

Three, the perception of widespread moral breakdown in society; in one recent poll, for example, nearly three of four American adults said they believe people in general "lead less honest and moral lives than they used to";

Four, troubling youth trends suggesting that societal moral breakdown is particularly reflected in the values and attitudes of the young;

Five, the conviction that non-directive, relativistic approaches to values education -- notably "values clarification" -- have been part of the problem instead of part of the solution; and

Six, the recovery of the belief that there is common ethical ground even in our intensely pluralistic society -- that there are basic qualities of character such as honesty, hard work, justice and caring that virtually all people agree we should teach in our schools, families and communities.

Without the recovery of shared ethical wisdom, the first five factors would not have been sufficient to bring about the renewal of character education.

Q: What are the most important strengths that you suggest forming in children and adolescents?

Lickona: One of my recent books, "Character Matters," identifies 10 "essential virtues" that are affirmed by nearly all philosophical, cultural and religious traditions: wisdom; justice; fortitude; self-control; love; positive attitude, including hope and humor; hard work; integrity; gratitude; and humility, which motivates us to strive to be a better person.

In a recent report, "Smart and Good High Schools," Matt Davidson and I suggest that it's helpful to think of two big parts of character: performance character -- those qualities such as self-discipline and perseverance that enable us to give our best effort and do our best work in any performance context; and moral character -- those qualities such as honesty, justice and caring that enable us to have successful relationships, live and work in community, and assume the responsibilities of democratic citizenship.

Bringing performance character into the picture helps schools see that character development is essential for academic achievement.

Q: What are some ways that the Catholic faith shapes our ideal of character education?

Lickona: Our Catholic faith would say that to be a good person, we need to develop the 10 essential virtues such as wisdom, justice, fortitude and so on.

These human virtues then give us a foundation for seeking to become not only good but holy.

As St. Gregory reminded us, the ultimate goal of a virtuous life is "to become like God." At the end of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, "Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect."

The goal of Catholic character education is not simply "good character" but the character of Christ.

That means developing not only the cardinal virtues of wisdom, justice, etc., but also the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity, and the supporting spiritual virtues of prayer, frequenting the sacraments, and a radical obedience, in imitation of Christ, that surrenders our will to God.

These theological and spiritual virtues are essential for our transformation in Christ -- our life's purpose as Christians.

As we become transformed in Christ, our task is to transform the world -- into what John Paul II called "the civilization of truth and love," God's Kingdom on earth, as we pray in the Our Father.

In a Catholic school, that begins with creating a moral and spiritual community in the school that is a living incarnation of Christ.

Sister Mary Carole Gentile describes beautifully how the award-winning St. Rocco Catholic school in Providence, Rhode Island, does that through a devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus; an annual school theme -- one year it was "We are God's family of peacemakers"; a Good Deeds Journal in which children made daily entries; community service; a partnership with a sister-school for the deaf that pairs every St. Rocco student with a hearing-impaired child for varied activities over the school year; "school families," which group children across grade levels for special events and promote a strong schoolwide sense of community; and a peer-mediation program.

Many Catholic schools, sadly, are miles from this kind of intentional and comprehensive character education.

A father told me of his ninth-grade daughter entering an area Catholic school, being frozen out by the girls there, walking the halls alone at lunchtime, and wanting, at year's end, to go back to her old public school.

Q: In a culture where the medication of children for depression or behavioral problems is becoming more prevalent, where does character education fit in?

Lickona: In some cases, medication for depression, hyperactivity, ADHD [attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder], etc., may be helpful or necessary, but even those children also need character education.

A simple definition of becoming "a person of character" is "becoming the best person you can be."

How do we help every child do that -- in their families, schools, and communities? By providing loving relationships, good models, high expectations, firm and fair discipline that holds them accountable to those expectations, and concrete regular experiences to develop and practice the virtues.

No matter what a child's biology or handicapping conditions, they need these supports for character building.

Q: How can the practice of excellence and ethics contribute to mental health and the good of the person as a whole?

Lickona: When we strive for excellence, we develop our God-given gifts, the talents that enable us to become fully the person God means us to be and to contribute to the human community.

When we strive for ethical behavior, we exercise our God-given capacity for goodness, and love each other in a way that reflects God's love. In both these ways, we are being fully human -- the best way to be mentally healthy.

Q: What advice would you give to parents with busy schedules and educators with academic priorities, so as to not lose sight of the importance of forming these character strengths in their children?

Lickona: For both families and schools, time can be the tyrant that keeps us from living out our deepest values.

Deep down, most parents want their children to be moral people who use their talents to help others.

Deep down, every educator wants to touch the lives of students in a way that makes an enduring difference and that helps to build a better world.

If we keep these goals in mind, we will organize both family life and school life to be character-centered. To see how to make this happen, we can look to families and to schools that have made character development a high priority. All of us learn from example.

There are now abundant good examples out there -- in books, Web sites, curricular resources, and the regional and national organizations that are providing leadership in character education.

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Keywords

Families, Schools, Lickona, Respect, Responsibility

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