July 20

Nailing Jell-O

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I was having a discussion with a family member about how to improve schools, and his answer was to improve the “basics”…math, reading and writing. What’s the evidence this could be true? He cited how much parents spend on tutoring nowadays to help their children get ahead. The city where he lived ranked number three in the country on investment in tutoring.

I don’t doubt the data on tutoring, but my thoughts went to the fourth basic that could be delivered practically free compared to the other basics–character training, of these same children, to improve schools. I think we need all four.  

However, character training is like “nailing Jell-O to the wall.” (It’s likely no coincidence that this phrase is often associated with raising teenagers.) Why? Everyone’s familiar with the concept, but name one person you know who’s done it using a process. How great would our world be if you could? 

You may be thinking character training is the parent’s job, not the schools. I agree, and in my experience, any training parents receive to do so is by chance which is why the schools should be the resource center for families (parents and children). For example, years ago, my wife and I were told about a character training program for young children for establishing first-time obedience with our five children. The goal of this training amounted to calling their names and they came when they were called the first time. Believe me, it was life changing. The kids earned additional freedoms like staying up later when they demonstrated first-time obedience and the parent’s retained their sanity. This happened by chance though. 

Years later, again, by chance I met someone who had developed a “families of character” program. Over a 25-year period of looking for character training, that is all I have found.  

How do you ensure character training is done through schools as a resource instead of leaving it to chance? Well, at school, you have sports, affinity clubs of all kinds, scouting, student government, and spiritual opportunities. In my experience, what’s missing is context to unbundle the value of these potentially character-building experiences. 

By context, I refer to:

  1. Defining words each opportunity uses associated with character like integrity and leadership among others. 
  2. A process that fits any opportunity and makes it’s character training tasks and roles visible, and 
  3. A way to measure to tie it all together. 

What am I getting at? For example, we all know sports can be character-building – learning to work with team members, sacrifice, and overcoming obstacles. But actually helping the player see what’s in it for them and chart their character growth isn’t something I’ve seen in my life as a player or parent. That’s the context that’s missing. In other words, if the player’s growth is visible and measurable, IT’S REAL. 

The context is the “what’s in it for them” that would enhance the value of the character training opportunities and results. Scouting for example, involves completing merit badges to advance in rank. Completing merit badges involves learning and applying new life skills which many believe build character, but how? As a parent of an Eagle Scout and a volunteer, that’s where context helps tremendously.  

If schools deliver the basic character training, it could be the parent’s job and it wouldn’t be by chance. 

About the author 

Darren Smith

Darren Smith is Co-Founder of the Authentic Leadership Institute. He is a native Texan and a graduate of Dallas Jesuit and Texas A&M University. Over the past 25 years, Darren has visited 35 countries and led 100 strategy programs. He and his wife have five children.


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