The Best Way to Teach Character

Recently I saw the movie Slumdog Millionaire. At the heart of the movie was the theme of a yearning for love. The main character the orphan boy Jamal found his love connection with Latika another orphan. It was not the passionate kind of love story we are accustomed to in the movies but a longing to be loved and to be needed.

Seeing this movie caused me to reflect on my own childhood. My maternal grandfather was a man so big hearted that at his funeral every one of his nine grandchildren believed they were his favorite. I cannot remember an occasion in which he didn’t tell me how wonderful and cherished I was. The strength of his words helped nurture a resilience in me for those difficult times of disappointment, failure, criticism or whatever threatened to harden my heart.

Knowing this I can’t help but wonder why most parents fail in this most important job. Imagine how changed you might be if every day your spouse, your children or whoever shares you life told you how wonderful you are. This kind of loving commitment and confidence would inspire everything you do all day long.

I fail at this as well. Sometimes I feel that my contributions to my family imply all of this but in my heart I intuit that this is not enough. I only realize it anew when I experience an emotional shift like in watching the movie Slumdog. Sometimes it happens in a yoga class, sometimes while listening to music. The important thing is I have reminders to do what matters most in life.

Which brings me to teaching character. Character is a deep well of behaviors that create a loving home, a peaceful neighborhood, and a civil and just society. Without character what matters most will be sacrificed for what’s advantageous, profitable, and pleasurable. Not only will our institutions suffer but as individuals we will all suffer and become like the orphan boy Jamal searching for our heart’s truest desire.

For thirteen years I supervised a disciple program in a middle school. The purpose of our program was to provide discipline that taught a lesson rather than punished. The character component was critical. What I discovered over the course of my work was the greater number of students had little experience with character and values. They viewed fairness in relation to only how they had been treated. If they thought a teacher was unfair it gave them permission to react unfairly. Despite creating a quality environment that worked toward building respectful relationships I had the same number of repeat students with the same and sometimes disappointingly worse behavior problems.

Much time was devoted to developing this program but what was lacking was the right kind of will. The changes needed to be systematic. As an institution we had not acknowledged the most critical component in teaching children – the need to be loved, to feel accepted and to belong. We all understood the basic needs paradigm but were unable to implement it because doing so meant a radical change in our own thinking.

It is not enough for a school to provide quality instruction it must also be prepared to nurture the hearts and spirits of their students. Not all children come to school outfitted with the right balance of emotions, spiritual and mental health. Schools can be better by embracing a mantra of “you are important here.”

The best way to teach character is to show love. The rest flows from there. The commitment to hard work, perseverance despite failure, the belief in your own worth and ability come after knowing how special and important you are. Children must believe they matter. More money, more teachers, greater technology will not do what we all know deep inside. It is our heart’s truest desire to be loved first, and then and only then will we be tested to share it.