July 02, 2014

Teaching values is a full contact sport

In my line of work, I see all kinds of kids, all kinds of parents, and all kinds of families. I see fully involved parents (working, single, privileged and disadvantaged) with well-rounded kids. There are also plenty of kids who struggle in the "building good character" department. And that can be for a number of reasons.

I've been teaching for more than 10 years. My first year, I wore myself out planning perfect lessons late into the night...lessons that rarely turned out the way I expected. I struggled to survive and made few personal connections with my students. It concerned me that the content just wasn't being covered because we never seemed to get anywhere.

Basically, I was playing football as if it were tennis...or long-distance running. Any profession that involves kids, including parenting - because let's face it...it's probably the hardest job on the planet, has to be handled like a full-contact team sport. I'm not saying we should literally be tackling each other...but follow my metaphor for a bit.

In a team sport, there's a coach or a captain and each of the remaining players has a particular function. Everyone has to do his or her part, or the team will fail. We've all seen those players who seem to think they are playing the game by themselves. The MVP's who become the face of the team. It flies in the face of what team sports are about.

Adults who work with kids (or raise them) are the coaches and captains, and the kids are the players. Some players are naturally good. Others take more one-on-one. Some are good leaders and will become captains or coaches themselves. Still others are much better at taking direction and running with it; they are cooperative and know how to succeed as a unit. Some need to be taken down a few notches as their egos grow, and a few need to built up and supported until they find their own abilities.

Our teams benefit from all types of coaches and all types of players. Some are better paired than others, but no matter what our style as parents, as long as we are trying, we are doing the right thing.

Unlike a football team, however, we can't trade our players, and not all of us have a fantasy team. We have to make the team we have the best one we can. We take them as they are (and ourselves), and we turn them (and us) into the best damn team we can.

History is full of really hard working coaches with heart and determination. Inspirational movies are made about them all the time. And if you've seen any of them, it's hard not to see that creating a successful team is less about playbooks and rules and in-born talent, than it is about trust, connection, and never giving up.

Sort of like families.

And how we train our little players is up to us. We have to mold our coaching style to their needs (even if it means some intense soul-searching on our parts). Some kids need tough coaches. Other kids need patience and a lot of time. Some need a lot of praise. Other need to be left to struggle it out on their own.

And when it comes to values, character building...well, we teach those in the same way we teach anything else. Character is a skill, like any other. We aren't born knowing right from wrong, how to be empathetic, how to work with others. Without training, I believe we'd, like animals, do whatever we had to survive. We'd lie, cheat, and steal our way to a full belly and a comfortable home.

We have to be taught why we should be good. We need to see what good looks like, not just be told. We have to practice it a million times and see success with it to really understand why it's better than taking the easier way.

And that's where we, as coaches, tend to go wrong. We talk a lot. We expect the team to listen. We might even show them our brilliantly drawn out plays. We might tell them loads of stories about how we learned to do it. But, we don't spend as much time just having them run the plays over and over and over and over.

We're much better at it when our "players" are young, especially before they can really talk. We play charades and "show" them everything. And then, when they become verbal, we starting talking at them incessantly, but we often stop "showing" them. Or we might assume that now they can speak, they understand our words. But we would be mistaken.

If it were that easy, we could just sit our kids in front of a video about sharing and afterwards they would miraculously just start sharing, willingly.

But, it doesn't work that way.

Today, my little player wants to sit on his computer and play video games all day. I he were left to his own devices, that's just what he'd do. I could tell him not to, and just sit here typing away. He'd stop, because he has no choice, but he wouldn't be internalizing the lesson of why he shouldn't spend his whole day that way.

It's my job to physically show him and let him practice it. We can go on a walk or a bike ride, and he feels better, more energized. We can make muffins, learning about fractions and following recipes. Or he can head outside and play with his dogs, climbing trees and playing with sticks and frogs. Anything that gets him away from the computer and shows him that other things are just as fun...or more so...that's how he will learn why he shouldn't be on the computer all day. Me just telling him to stop makes me the bad guy...the killer of fun. The rigid authority figure who just doesn't understand.

I can't just say stop, and assume the lesson will be learned. I have to say go to something else, and then go with him.

It's a lot of work, yes. It's takes patience, which is in short supply in this family. And it takes full contact. Hands-on activity.

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