by Charles Debelak
This article was written for the community by Birchwood’s Head of School Charles Debelak and appeared in the June 2021 Westlake Neighbors magazine. Mr. Debelak’s writing provides parents with information about sound educational principles and child development issues gleaned from history, contemporary research, and his 50+ years of educating, coaching, and counseling children, young adults, and parents.
Notice the progression. From thoughts to words to actions to habits to destiny. It is a sequence of development and hints at the work parents can do to affect progress in character development. Keep in mind that good character is learned behavior, and because it is learned behavior parents should be hopeful, because if you educate and guide your children in word, action, and habits you will aid them in framing strong character, and this strong character will play a central role in their quality of life.
I am not discounting the impact that genetics may have on the development of character. Habit formation does not tell the whole story. But my purpose in referencing this timeless adage is to highlight the deliberate action that parents and educators can take to influence that development. Although we cannot control or manipulate all the variables that merge to create character, there is much we can do to shape habits through word and action.
Cognitive research has shown us that the brain can grow. It can be shaped depending upon environmental stimuli. Marian Diamond, professor at UC Berkeley and head of the Diamond Lab, summarizes brain research during the last half of the 20th century, “The emerging message is clear: The brain, with its complex architecture and limitless potential, is a highly plastic, constantly changing entity that is powerfully shaped by our experiences in childhood and throughout life. Our collective actions [toward children] are a powerful shaper of both function and anatomy. What’s left for the wise parent or teacher, hoping to promote their children’s healthiest mental development, is to pick the right experience at the right time” (“Magic Trees of the Mind,” pg. 2-3).
Summarizing the portrait of brain development gathered from PET scans, Diamond comments, “More than any other organ, the brain can be shaped by stimulation and use, by disease and trauma, by dull routine and disuse into a center of thought, sensation, and regulation most appropriate for a given individual’s life. The dendrites, the magic trees of the cerebral cortex, retain their ability to grow and branch, and it is this lifetime growing potential that enables us to continue learning and adapting. However, childhood is a particularly crucial time for the brain because of the neural sculpting that goes on; for many of our abilities, tendencies, talents, and reactions, those that get “hardwired” in childhood become the collective mental platform upon which we stand and grow for the rest of our lives. (pg. 56-57).
Diamond breaks down complicated neuroscience to make practical its implications for parents and educators, “. . . input from the environment helps shape the human brain. . . [We should ask ourselves] what kinds of environments are we creating for children, and how will these affect their developing minds?” (pg. 64).