Good Character Starts with Teaching Respect
By Bill Carlson, Middle School Assistant Principal
One of the biggest responsibilities and challenges in our schools, homes, and communities is teaching our youth respect. While researching for this article, I found a plethora of information regarding this subject. The most common problems noted in my research were: school/community culture, lack of accountability in the home setting, exposure to violent media and deficient adult example; particularly in professional sports, the entertainment industry, media and political arenas. The negative influences of today’s secular culture are causing considerable impairment to our youth’s understanding of the value of respectful, courteous behavior.
Every person who is in contact with youth has a responsibility to model and teach courtesy and respect. However, this responsibility falls most acutely on the shoulders of the child’s parents and adult mentors. Our youth observe our every interaction, both at home and in the community. They watch closely how adults verbally and physically interact with one another. They learn how to interact and conduct themselves from these examples. Our youth need and desire a clear understanding of what is expected of them. Sadly, due to the problems listed above, our youth are often inundated with mixed messages, poor examples and unclear expectations.
Apart from family, school educators and extracurricular staff spend the most time with youth during their ‘formation’ years. These adult mentors and their school districts play a very important role in the character development of their students. Teachers, coaches, advisors, directors and support staff are all role models to their students. Modeling good character and leading by example is imperative to a healthy school culture. The vast majority of my research supports the implementation of Character Education Programs district wide. These programs are adaptable and can be used in the classroom setting, advisory setting or in the home.
Community youth leaders and coaches also play an important role in helping our youth develop good character. Many of our local churches have faith formation and youth groups that meet on Wednesday’s during the academic school year. These environments offer our youth many positive examples of integrity and self-giving. Community and association based coaches/adult mentors have the perfect opportunity to reach and teach our youth important lessons in sportsmanship and positive character development. If character development is not a principal element in any of your child’s extracurricular activities, there is something deeply lacking. It is up to us as parents and adult mentors to bring about this change.
Like with most elements of mastering a skill or desired behavior it takes clear expectations through direction and education, consistency in practice, encouragement, opportunity and guidance. All these things need to be offered to our youth by their adult mentors. It is important however, for adults to recognize that youth don’t always get it right; that they need, ‘do overs’, and, as an adult mentor, being flexible instead of rigid will get you much farther in your desire to teach these important life skills. During my research I noted a common thread: that most parents desire to be their child’s, ‘friend’. It is felt that this parenting approach is actually detrimental, and causes confusion and mixed messages for the child. Youth want to be friends with their peers. They need the adults in their life to be their guides, mentors and disciplinarians. Adults need to listen to young people, their reasoning and opinions. In doing this we are showing (modeling) respect. Having the attitude, ‘It’s my way or the highway,’ does not teach respect, it teaches fear and resentment. It closes doors to teaching opportunities instead of opening them. Sometimes as adult mentors we need to be strict about enforcing rules regarding conduct, but that does not mean being reasonable is removed from the equation.
I will end this with a favorite quote that has circulated for years in the arena of character development.
“Watch your thoughts, they become words. Watch your words, they become your actions. Watch your actions, they become habits. Watch your habits, they become character. Watch your character, it becomes your destiny.”