Did anyone else recoil at the presumptuous sound of Christmas carols playing on TV way back in September? It seems to me that the holiday advertising season began extremely early this year. As “Black Friday” became “Black Thursday”—cutting into our already-precious family time—the media continuously flaunted gifts as “the be all and end all” of the holiday season. Amid such an intense commercial focus on material items, how do we help children navigate so that they can appreciate the importance of helping others, model good character, and instill in them the notion that community is what ultimately uplifts us, not how many presents you receive?
There is no easy answer, but I have certainly seen schools attempt to address this in a variety of ways. I have also heard quite a few parents talk of their attempts to help their children find value in the holidays beyond the latest toy or gadget wrapped in bright packaging. Here are a few suggestions for connecting the two arenas to reinforce lessons learned on both fronts.
*Give children, and indeed the whole family, a common vocabulary of shared values and desired character traits. Many schools incorporate character-building lessons into their daily practice. At my school, we have a learner profile comprised of ten key character traits that all school community members (students and teachers alike) try to exhibit and strive to improve upon every day. They include qualities such as being open-minded, caring, inquiring, balanced, etc. This common vocabulary helps children focus on their strengths and weaknesses, manage challenges or conflicts, and share in what everyone can achieve equally regardless of academic or social differences. Students at my school use these terms frequently to discuss how they work individually, how they work with others, and how they would like to see the community work together. Incorporating your school’s vocabulary at home, or developing your own list of positive qualities, will underscore for your children the importance that you place on these values. Whatever vocabulary you choose will serve as an important foundation for discussions and experiences that will help your children develop the character traits that we hope everyone will exhibit.
*Role model these character traits yourself. Children likely won’t learn to be thoughtful, open-minded, and help others unless you are as well. Show children the importance of putting the needs of others first rather than always seeking attention for themselves. Point out chances for them to use good manners and to perform acts of kindness to help people wherever or whenever they notice a need. Empower your child to feel like they can be a change agent through giving and charitable actions, from small to large. I have seen children, through the use of teacher-directed role modeling, easily master how to resolve issues with peers and move on to much bigger, self-initiated tasks such as fundraising and community service projects aimed to help those less fortunate. Let your children know that what may seem like small gestures—such as inviting someone who’s playing alone to join their group, or standing up to others who are being selfish or inconsiderate—are really wonderful leadership qualities.
*Reinforce good character traits when displayed through praise. As parents, we can often focus too much on our children meeting their peers’ milestones or academic benchmarks rather than on their own personal development. As a teacher, I saw students glow when recognized for displaying the character traits that I had been working on with them. Children blossom when their efforts are validated, and they will be keen to repeat them when praised. However, avoid buying gifts or giving food treats in recognition. Ideally, we want children to be mindful of others and thoughtful human beings without expecting something in return.
*Encourage your child to mentor younger children and model the very traits that they, themselves, are mastering. Children love showing others what they know and have learned. Children also love to be taught by other children. Lessons seem more easily learned and far more acceptable to master when they come from older kids or peers.
So let’s ring in the New Year with words like “principled,” “caring,” and “open-minded” rather than “spoiled,” “indulged,” or “privileged.” If our children are, indeed, our future, surely we want to inspire them to enjoy and gain personal satisfaction from helping others rather than just wondering what’s in it for them.
Dianne Drew is Head of School at Dwight School, a 141-year-old independent school in New York City. A native of Melbourne, Australia, she is an internationally recognized educator with over 20 years of experience in teaching, curriculum development, and educational consulting in both public and private schools in Australia, Asia, and New York City. Also serving as Vice President of the Middle Years Program for the Guild of International Baccalaureate Schools in North America, Dianne recently gave birth to her first child.