Character Development in Young Children Matters

In his article titled “The Character Factory”, David Brooks reminds us that character and behavior (e.g., resilience, conscientiousness, prudence, perseverance, ability to delay gratification, having a growth-mindset, personal drive, self-control, ability to maintain focus and attention, etc.) influence academic achievement as much as cognitive skills do. He tells us that “sages over years have generally found at least four effective avenues to make it easier to climb.” He delineates them as follows:

First, habits. If you can change behavior you eventually change disposition. People who practice small acts of self-control find it easier to perform big acts in times of crisis. Quality preschools, K.I.P.P. schools and parenting coaches have produced lasting effects by encouraging young parents and students to observe basic etiquette and practice small but regular acts of self-restraint.

Second, opportunity. Maybe you can practice self-discipline through iron willpower. But most of us can only deny short-term pleasures because we see a realistic path between self-denial now and something better down the road. Young women who see affordable college prospects ahead are much less likely to become teen moms.

Third, exemplars. Character is not developed individually. It is instilled by communities and transmitted by elders. The centrist Democratic group Third Way suggests the government create a BoomerCorps. Every day 10,000 baby boomers turn 65, some of them could be recruited into an AmeriCorps-type program to help low-income families move up the mobility ladder.

Fourth, standards. People can only practice restraint after they have a certain definition of the sort of person they want to be. Research from Martin West of Harvard and others suggests that students at certain charter schools raise their own expectations for themselves, and judge themselves by more demanding criteria.

What Brooks does not emphasize in his article is that the best way to get to the character development and necessary behaviors for academic achievement and societal mobility is via language and social-emotional modeling. He lightly brushes broad strokes on a canvas, telling us that quality preschools, K.I.P.P. schools, parenting coaches and exemplars for children make a difference in children and families with regards to increasing upward mobility and realizing dreams. However, he doesn’t tell us about the details of how and why these programs or ideas work. Unless children, families and communities get what the those in the top income quintile already get (e.g., top-notch exposure to the language, social, emotional and sensory stimulation, excellent role models, amazing mentors, etc.), they will continue to flounder or move at a glacial pace toward change for the better.

In the U.S., experts do a great job giving broad advice. Doctors tell us to eat a healthy diet. Educators tell us to read and talk to our children right from the start. The media, presenting us with evidence from research, tells us what needs to happen for this, that or the other thing to happen. But, rarely do we get specific details about what one needs to do consistently and across time to be successful and to make for real and permanent change.

I agree with Mr. Brooks whole-heartedly that success in life has to be about helping children and adults learn the character and behavior skills proven to lead to success in life in terms of being happy, self-motivated and self-sufficient, and a good citizen, amongst other revelations of success. But what the next 1 or 2 generations of children, families and communities from the bottom quintile of society need is specific, detailed, carefully taught advice that is then monitored and encouraged by those who know, specifically, what it takes to succeed and who have achieved success themselves.

I can’t use words such as “specific” or “specifically” enough on this matter. The bland advice parents, families and communities have received is clearly not working. It’s time to get to the nitty-gritty of what leads to success.

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