What Research Shows
Character education is a shared responsibility. The work of raising children to be good human beings starts in families and extends to all those who shape the values and character of the young—including educational institutions, faith communities, youth organisations, businesses, government, and the media. Researchers and practitioners agree that at the heart of effective character education is a strong partnership between parents and schools (Ryan and Bohlin, 1999; Lickona, 2004; Arthur, 2014; Pike, Lickona, Hart, and Paul, 2017).
The family is the first school of virtue. It is where we learn to receive and give love. It is where we learn about commitment, sacrifice, and faith in something larger than ourselves. The emotional bond between parent and child deepens the impact of a parent’s values and example. Parents are positioned to surround a child with a spiritual heritage that provides a vision of life’s meaning and ultimate reasons to lead a good life. The family lays down the foundation on which all other formative institutions build.
A large body of research underscores the importance of parents. The family is the cradle of learning. Children do better in school when they feel cared for at home; when the family environment stimulates curiosity and learning; when parents encourage self-discipline and perseverance; and when parents limit TV, monitor homework, and ensure regular school attendance (Barton and Coley, 1992).
In their Journal of Moral Education research review, ‘Fostering Goodness’, Berkowitz and Grych (1998) identified five ‘core parenting practices’ that contribute to children’s social and moral development:
- demandingness (high expectations and support for meeting them)
- reasoning (helping children understand how their actions affect others)
- nurturance (warmth and responsiveness)
- modelling (setting a good example in the treatment of others)
- empowerment (practices that give children a voice in, and responsibility for, helping to create a happy family).
How parents foster the virtue of love—one of our six Narnian virtues—was the focus of a landmark study, The Altruistic Personality, by Samuel and Pearl Oliner. They interviewed 406 people who helped save Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe and compared them with persons in the same countries who did not get involved in rescue. Rescuers were much more likely to describe close family relationships in which parents modelled and taught caring values. Whereas non-rescuers more often described their parents as using physical punishment to discipline, rescuers remembered their parents as more often ‘explaining things’, telling them that they had made ‘mistakes’ or hadn’t understood the other person’s point of view. Rescuers’ parents were also much more likely to explicitly teach tolerance—positive attitudes toward different cultures and religions—and the obligation to help others generously, without concern for reward.
Parents can remain formative influences through the challenging adolescent years. Building a Better Teenager (www.childtrends.org), drawing on hundreds of studies, concluded that the most academically motivated and morally responsible teens—the ones most likely to flourish in school and the least likely to engage in anti-social or risky behaviours—were those who enjoyed warm and involved relationships with their parents and whose parents set clear expectations and monitored their activities in age-appropriate ways.
The Potential of the Home-School Partnership
Most parents want help from schools in fostering the development of good character in their child. A recent study by the University of Birmingham’s Centre for Character and Virtues (www.jubileecentre.ac.uk) found that 87% of parents believe that UK schools should include a ‘focus on character development’.
In their review of 33 effective character education programmes, Berkowitz and Bier (2005) found that 26 included parent and/or community involvement. The 2015 pilot test of our Narnian Virtues programme was one factor leading us to partner with parents in a more systematic way. In students’ journal entries on their everyday character challenges, they often gave examples drawn from home life. It became clear that their relationships and conflicts with siblings and parents were a key ‘character lab’ where they could learn to apply the virtues they were studying in the novel. One 12-year-old boy, for example, wrote:
Edmund [in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe] showed deceit by lying to his siblings; I’ve shown deceitfulness when lying about breaking something—I blamed it on someone else [such as his brother]. I wouldn’t do that again.
Strengthening the collaboration between school and home requires finding ways to reach and involve parents. Our project’s strategy is to make students the bridge to home. We give every student a Character Passport book with a series of curriculum-related home activities to do with their parent(s).
After the 2016 implementation of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe semester of our three-year curriculum, we interviewed a sample of parents to determine their experience of the home activities (Pike et al., 2017). A dominant theme was that it legitimated parent-child conversations about character (‘It gave us a new reason to focus on this’). For example, one mother wrote:
It’s been a good opportunity for my daughter to reflect on the virtues and vices in the books and how they relate to her own character traits.
Most of the interviewed parents rated the family activities as valuable and the home activities as having had ‘some’ or ‘much’ impact on their child. Some parents cited very concrete examples of positive behavioural impact. One mother said that in the weeks after the ‘Turkish Delight’ family activity on self-control, their son had been able to ‘manage his time [on PlayStation] exceptionally well’.