My four-year-old son knows that he should “be nice with his friends,” and yet it’s so hard for him to do. Something disappears in the moment— Felix loses control in frustration, gets bored and so acts out, or is unable to control his excitement. As I wrote yesterday, it’s frustrating trying to figure out how best to teach him to behave.
When it comes to educating our kids, it seems like all we parents do is worry. Are our kids understanding the material? Are their skill levels improving? Will they make it to the next grade? Are they learning all the stuff that they need to know?
Knowing your ABCs and 1, 2, 3s is essential, no doubt. Equally important to success, and perhaps, I’ve come to think, even more important, are the values that can’t be easily taught or measured. Creativity. Kindness. Lightness of heart. But wait, every minute of school should lead to some quantifiable gain! Obsession with data and statistics ranks high in American culture, especially among educators. (“Ranks high” — Oy. Even I can’t avoid sounding like a statistician.) If we can’t test it, then it doesn’t belong in the classroom. I don’t know if I agree with that approach.
When I taught at a private school in East Harlem, the administration developed a character rubric which kids used to assess their values, ranking how kind or patient they believed themselves to be. Teachers filled out the chart as well, and then each child sat down for an evaluation, like a performance review, to find out how they were doing not academically, but attitudinally.
Just like some kids have a knack for words, or memorizing facts, so too did some children have an innate kindness in them, or demonstrated natural leadership abilities. The question was, of course, how do you help the kids gain the virtues that they’re lacking? I don’t think you can, at least not in the same way that you instruct them how 1 + 1 = 2.
The most important life knowledge is impossible to teach. We develop our personalities over years, and even as adults we change and shift. Some situations profoundly affect us, but more often our values set slow, over time. We tell our kids to “be nice” or “have good manners,” but it takes years of repetition before they finally get it, if they ever get it at all. At some point, something clicks. We just have to believe that they’ll get it one day, and continue delivering the message in the sweetest, gentlest, and least annoying way possible.
With that in mind, I made a list of the values that I hope my son has when he reaches adulthood — or wait, let’s give him some leeway and say: these are values that I hope he holds by the time he’s thirty. How I’ll teach him these, I don’t know. By example, I guess. And I can only hope that he pays attention.