This series of articles was written for the Birchwood community by Head of School, Charles Debelak, and can be found in the Birchwood School of Hawken 2020-21 Clipboard Newsletter. The purpose of Mr. Debelak's Clipboard articles is to provide parents with information about sound educational principles and child development issues gleaned from history, contemporary research, and Mr. Debelak's 40+ years of educating, coaching, and counseling children, young adults, and parents.
The becoming life, a life of growing, thriving, and flourishing, is built upon the development of intellect and character. Developing the intellect requires education and training in how to think analytically, critically, and creatively. It also points the way toward learning and mastering bodies of information that lead to achievement and productivity.
On the other hand, developing good character nurtures desires and aspirations toward leading a good life. A good life, as it has been defined historically and as we use it at Birchwood, has two factors. First, it requires temporal provisions and pleasures – a good job, good family, financial security, recreation, etc. But more so, the good life identifies a “pathway of excellence.” It is a collection of behaviors, which are called virtues like courage, self-control, compassion, justice, humility, gratitude, and wisdom. The practice of these virtues as a way of life is the highest and surest pathway to lifelong happiness and satisfaction regardless of temporal arrangements.
This is the focus of character development. Inspire children to lead a good life. Inspire them to practice virtue. Inspire them to do the right thing in every situation. Inspire and motivate them to build up their character as thoroughly and diligently as they would their intellect.
The task is not that hard, but it requires the right focus.
An effective character education program introduces children to stories about virtuous and noble people. Stories provide the materials for children to frame and build their own stories. Children, without consciously realizing it, observe the lives of people in their world. They watch, they listen, they interpret, and they collect behavioral data for their own use. They gobble up stories because it is through hearing and seeing stories about people that children frame their own thinking on how to live.
Since stories are a natural and essential influence on child development, it is obvious that educators and parents should provide stories that model excellence. Stories that inform good character development illustrate men and women who exemplify courage or compassion or justice or gratitude. Whether stories are about famous people or the neighbor next door, children learn from these stories and are influenced toward virtuous behavior.
At Birchwood, we reserve the first 15 minutes of each day to read stories to children. Sometimes we watch movies together or memorize great speeches or quotations. In any case, we are keenly aware that children’s minds need to be filled with pictures of human beauty and integrity. Given time, these pictures will not only stick with them but also influence them far into the future.
This year, during the pandemic, we developed the 4M program (Movies, Models, Meaning, Motivation) to offer children in fifth through eighth grade more stories about virtuous people, hoping these stories will instill wonderful pictures of great human conduct. We may not see the results this year or in the next few years, but seeds have been planted. They will have their effect.