November 2018
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J. Saunders: The Family as the Crucible of Character

We all know that parents are their children’s first teachers. This includes teaching children about good character. The family is the veritable crucible of character.

Yet many parents feel at a loss when it comes to molding their children’s characters. In the information age, children are exposed to many other influences beyond the home through the internet, text messaging, CDs, and movies. It is hard for parents to keep up with, let alone control, these influences. What is more, children spend a great deal of their day in school, where they interact with many people the parents don’t know. How to mold children’s characters in a world like this?

Of course, parental example is the best teacher. John Gray, whom readers may remember as the author of Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus, has written a book about parenting called Children Are from Heaven. In it, he reassures parents that if they are responsible people, their children will turn out to be responsible grown-ups—in spite of all evidence to the contrary!

In addition to parental example, many families find it helpful to gather together in the morning or evening for some sort of character-focused reading. It is a beautiful tradition in some religious families to read a portion of their religious tradition’s scriptures together. Other families might, for a variety of reasons, choose to augment their family’s daily scriptural readings or conversations with character education readings. Parents may find character education texts age-appropriate, helpful parenting tools.

An advantage that the character education series, Discovering the Real Me, offers parents is that most of the books are story-based and there are suggested discussions, activities, exercises, and written reflections to help in getting the lessons across. Younger children will delight in the adventures of animal characters and fairy tales presented in Books 1-4. Intermediate children will find contemporary stories of children facing pressures—dividing one’s time and loyalty between family and friends, school issues such as cheating, social issues such as relationships with the opposite sex, negative and positive peer influences—in Books 5-8. The high school age child will find expositions on topics of meaning, such as purpose in life, leadership, preparing for marriage and career, conflict resolution, and others in Books 9-12.

Because reading a story or exposition is one step removed from the parents directly instructing their children, it allows for such impartial questions as, “What did you think of that story? Did you think the characters did the right thing or would you have done things differently?” This is particularly helpful when dealing with older children and teenagers who like to be asked what they think and who will absorb the material better if they are allowed to participate in analyzing it.

However, even for older children the charm and instructiveness of a short fable should not be overlooked. Older children may absorb the lessons of a fable read to their younger siblings and benefit from it themselves (as many an adult has!). “The Flies and the Honey Pot” from Book 2, Wise and Wonderful, is a good example of a simple story that has a lesson in it for everyone.

Asking an older child, “What would be a real life example of a person in this kind of a situation?” could stimulate a good discussion.

Here is a sample lesson from the character education series Discovering the Real Me.

The Flies and the Honey Pot

One day a bee farmer left a small pot of honey on a table outside his house. Honey, because it is so sweet, is a delicious treat. This honey attracted a family of flies. Flies are quick to find any leftover food, so as soon as they discovered the honey, they flew over to the pot. This wasn’t just a dab of honey. This was a whole pot! Yummy!

The bees that had made the honey were nearby, and as soon as they saw the flies, they buzzed a warning, “Watch out! It’s not safe!”

The flies didn’t realize that, although honey may be sweet and delicious, it is also very sticky and dangerous for tiny creatures like flies.

The flies kept flying around the honey pot, getting ready to land, while the bees continued to warn them, “Don’t go there, you’ll get stuck!” The bees buzzed as they tried to block the flies from reaching the honey.

The flies were now so close to the honey pot they were getting more and more excited to taste its sweet contents. They managed to get through the wall of bees that were trying their best to protect their fellow insects, and the flies landed in the sticky honey. They ate and ate and ate, not noticing that their wings and legs were now heavy with sticky honey. The bees sadly watched as the flies tried to fly or walk out of the honey pot and couldn’t. The flies all drowned in the honey.

When the bees flew back to their hive, they told the Queen Bee all about it. She listened to what they said; then she shared her thoughts.

“You did the right thing to warn them of danger. Too bad they didn’t listen!”

The lesson plan suggests the teacher or parent ask, “Can you think of a time when you were warned not to do something, but you did it anyway? How many of you have been told not to play with matches? Yet how many of you have played with matches?
What happened?” The text urges the teacher or parent to solicit stories from the children about times when a friend or someone else they know did not listen to warnings and then had something bad happen. Explain that sometimes things that are bad for us seem very sweet! A part of us wants to do them.” Older children can readily be made to see the parallels between the temptations of drug use, premarital sex, alcohol use, smoking cigarettes, etcetera.

An activity in the student book could be adapted for the home. In the books, students look at common warning signs and learn of their meanings. In the home, perhaps the children could be sent on a “scavenger hunt” to find warning signs on electrical appliances, medicines, etcetera. Each person has to bring back or point out a warning sign for the family to discuss.

Perhaps an older child could then be encouraged to read one of the chapters from the middle school or high school books related in theme to this story. For instance, in Book 8, Going Through Changes, Chapter 4 deals with a “Dangerous Attraction”. In this story, the attentions of an older boy, Peter, who is about eighteen years old, seem very sweet and flattering to Marilyn, who is about fourteen. They’ve been writing letters to one another since they met. Then Peter unexpectedly comes to Marilyn’s home when her parents are not there and tries to force a physical relationship upon her. Fortunately, her parents arrive home just in time.

This is a good discussion take-off point about whether younger girls should date older boys; what risks they run; and how members of the opposite sex should treat one another respectfully. The student book and teacher’s manual also have Questions for Reflection such as “What are some of the dangerous sexual attractions that we may face in our lives?” The parents may underscore that sexual attractions feel very sweet, but without the maturity to make the commitment of marriage, such “dangerous attractions” can lead to getting stuck in something like the flies got stuck in the honey—something sweet but treacherous.

Using stories like these to instruct children in morals and character helps the children “see” the point themselves from the outcomes of the story and from reflecting upon them. They are more likely to “own” the moral lesson of the story if they arrive at it themselves through “leading out” by the parents, which is the literal meaning of the word “education”.

Of course, as was said above, parents lead by example. If a parent is a good, conscientious, responsible, faithful, loving and kind person, it is very likely that the children will turn out to be so too. Yet we can all learn more about being virtuous. These stories are often good reminders for young and old alike, and a family can grow together in moral vitality as they share them