In theory, the character education movement has always recognized what Principle 10 of the 11 Principles of Effective Character Education affirms: Parents are the first and most important character educators of their children.
If we take that principle seriously, we’ll do everything possible to honour the importance of parents and support them in their vital role. We need to tell parents, again and again, how important they are in their children’s lives.
Schools should share with families what the research shows. For example, the National Study of Adolescent Health found that “family connectedness,” a feeling of closeness to parents, was the most important factor in keeping teens from engaging in anti-social or high-risk behaviours such as juvenile delinquency, violence, substance abuse, and sexual activity. Regarding sexual behaviour, the study found that teens who believed that their mother disapproved of their engaging in sex were more likely to delay sexual involvement.
We should also share stories that bring the research to life. Permit me to share one from my own experience as a father.
When our younger son Matthew was a sixth-grader, he got pressure—notes from girls such as “I’ll do anything for you and I mean anything!”—the likes of which his older brother had never experienced. He told us that many of his classmates had started to “go with” girls. On the way home from school, they were playing “truth or dare” in the pine trees. The “dare” to a boy was sometimes to go to the centre of the circle and French-kiss a particular girl. Later he told me that several of these boys had announced to their male peers that they planned to have sex with their girlfriends when they got into seventh grade. “What did you say when they said that?” I asked.
“That you’re not supposed to do that until you’re married,” he said. I was relieved to know he had absorbed our family values. Matthew is now grown and married and the sexual pressures on even elementary school children have only intensified.
When I shared my son’s story with a parent group in a small village in rural central New York, a mother recounted her daughter’s recent experience: “Last year, when Kelly was in third grade, a boy kept sending her notes: ‘I love you, let’s have sex.’”
Disturbed by these notes, Kelly showed them to her mother. Her mother then showed them to the teacher, who forbade the boy—who was from a classroom across the hall—to go near Kelly for the rest of the school year.
But this year, Kelly says, in fourth grade, many boys are sending such notes to many girls—and the girls are pleased to get them. And beyond sending notes, many young people are “sexting”.
Kelly’s mother said, “I’ve asked other mothers if they are aware of the sexual note-passing. I haven’t found one who is. The conversation usually ends with the other mother saying, ‘We don’t talk to our child about sex, and she (or he) doesn’t talk to us about it either.’”
What conclusions can we draw from these stories?
The parents of Kelly’s schoolmates were unaware of the sexual note-passing in third grade, just as I’m sure the parents of Matthew’s classmates were unaware that their sons were talking about having sex in seventh grade. These children, it seems fair to say, were getting their sexual moral values from a highly sexualized, media-driven popular culture—television, movies, entertainment stars, the internet, and the like.
How can we help parents respond?
Parents can work to
- develop a close relationship with their children from an early age,
- monitor what’s happening in their children’s lives,
- reduce their exposure to negative media influences,
- help them make appropriate moral judgments about what they experience outside the home.
Parents need to be especially vigilant about the dangers posed by a debased sexual environment that is the legacy of the sexual revolution. Although teen sexual intercourse, births, and abortions have all declined since the early 1990s, the most recent federal Youth Risk Behaviour Survey finds that about half of high-school age youth become sexually involved. Parents, in addition to repeatedly communicating their own moral and religious beliefs about sexual morality, can give their children a good book that encourages wise sexual decision-making. One that I regularly recommend to parents and teens, Sean Covey’s The 6 Most Important Decisions You’ll Ever Make, includes an excellent chapter on dating, romance, and sex. Many parents and young people say they’ve also found helpful my article, 10 Emotional Dangers of Premature Sexual Involvement.
Strengthening overall parent-child communication is also important. Our Center offers tools parents can use to increase meaningful communication with their children on a daily basis (“What was the best part and the hardest part of your day?” “What’s a way you helped someone today, or that someone helped you?”, “What is a problem you’re having that somebody in the family might be able to help you with?”…)
How can educators respond?
Character educators can do more to help parents in this crucial area. One elementary school principal sends home a list of TV shows that are developmentally appropriate and wholesome for children and a list of other shows that aren’t (and why). KidsinMind.com and screenit.com are helpful parent guides to appropriate movies. A good resource for helping schools and parents communicate better is the Harvard series: Helping parents communicate better with schools.
If schools don’t join forces with parents in protecting and fortifying our children against the toxic influences of the culture, we’re throwing our kids to the wolves.
Tom Lickona, Ph.D. is author of Raising Good Children, Character Matters, and, with his wife Judy, Sex, Love, and You: Making the Right Decision (for teens). He directs SUNY Cortland’s Center for the 4th and 5th Rs (www.cortland.edu/character) and serves as an advisor to the president of character.org. This article is reproduced from Character.org with permission.