Don't Use Character Curriculum. Do This Instead to Teach Virtue

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Don't Use Character Curriculum. Do This Instead

Though there are many worthy reasons to homeschool, many parents homeschool to instill their values and morals in their children. I find that a worthy goal.

Beyond homeschoolers, I've noticed that others desire to teach morality, or its more old-fashioned synonym virtue. Many business schools have added ethics courses to their MBA programs. And over the past five years or so, I've had people from three different countries approach me to see how I might recommend teaching virtue or character development to people of their land.

How not to teach virtue

In the market, it seems there are a few main models of character curriculum. I personally cringe at the thought of using moralistic tales to try to teach virtue. A moralistic tale exists merely to teach children morals. Generally, I find such stories dull and non-memorable.

And I'm not at all convinced that worksheets effectively inspire kids to develop character. Children can read a paragraph on George Washington and answer some questions about honesty, but does that stick with kids and inspire them? I just don't think we capture kids' hearts with either the worksheet or moralistic tales model.

Sonlight's approach to character development

For at least these reasons, Sonlight does not provide a stand-alone character development program.

When I consider how Jesus taught, he often used parables or stories. For example, when I think of his parable of the widow who pleaded consistently for justice from the unrighteous judge, I learn about persistence, even though Jesus does not use that particular term.

Based on Jesus' approach and lots of personal experience, I think families can truly learn about virtues from the stories we read. In fact, I would humbly propose that this is probably the best way to learn.

Our children develop true heroes through reading the Bible, great fiction and biographies. As they see their heroes face the complexities of life and make both mundane and difficult choices, they gain examples of people to imitate. They learn and make adjustments in their understanding of how they should live.

And great books provide examples of people we do not want to imitate as well. In the characters whose stories they read, children see the real-life consequences of sin and poor choices. In doing so, they gain opportunities to learn those lessons through reading instead of making those mistakes in their own lives.

When these examples of virtuous and non-virtuous living are presented in living books rather than moralistic tales or worksheets, they are much more believable and gripping. They have a power to grip children's hearts and inspire them in a way that other methods seem to lack.

You can be your children's personal guide

As a parent, you have the opportunity to do more than simply read with your children. You can use great books as natural springboards for formative discussion. After all, your children probably also have a real life hero—you! What a privilege for you to actively guide them in their understanding of virtue and character.

As you read with your children, talk about the characters you meet.

  • What do you admire in them?
  • How do you want to imitate them?
  • What character traits do you see in them?
  • What happens when they live with honesty, generosity, love, faithfulness, etc.?
  • Is one character always good or always bad?
  • What happens when someone makes a mistake?
  • Is there forgiveness and reconciliation available?

These are just a few of the questions that will naturally spring up when you discuss the books you're reading with your kids.

Name the virtues in the books you read

One thing I wish I had done more intentionally with my own children was to name the virtues we saw in characters. For example, when we read Carry On, Mr. Bowditch, I could easily have mentioned that Nate marvelously demonstrated perseverance as he overcame multiple obstacles and accomplished much.

Our General Manager here at Sonlight served as a military officer for years. When I asked him if he thought it was important to actually name the virtues, he immediately responded with a resounding yes. He felt his military training focused on virtues and provided words that helped him recognize the behavior. He thinks it is helpful to have the term as a shortcut in communication.

Teaching virtue through stories and film

A fun and engaging introduction to the concept of finding virtues in stories comes in a new book by Robert Velarde, one of our curriculum developers here at Sonlight. In (affiliate link) The Wisdom of Pixar: An Animated Look at Virtue, Robert proposes that we can learn and understand various virtues through certain Pixar films (e.g., Toy Story and A Bug's Life).

I found the book both enjoyable and thought-provoking. Robert defines virtues as character qualities valued as being good in and of themselves. He highlights virtues such as

  • justice
  • friendship
  • humor
  • family
  • courage
  • ambition
  • love

I personally like Robert's approach to discussing virtue. He names and defines the virtue, takes a familiar story (in this case a Pixar film), explains what virtue he sees in it, and fleshes out his understanding of the quality in light of Scripture passages and thoughts about the passage. As an example:

On one level, A Bug's Life is an enjoyable family film about believing in yourself and doing the right thing. On another level, however, it addresses questions of justice by telling a story filled with injustice, persecution, and oppression bordering on slavery. Does this sound a bit melodramatic? It may be, considering it's just a movie about a bunch of bugs. The deeper point, however, is that the vice of injustice demands the virtue of justice.

God requires of us justice, kindness and humility (Micah 6:8), not injustice, cruelty, and pride.

Moreover, seeking justice may result in persecution and suffering. We are to pursue justice not because it is always easy—it's usually hard—but because it is right. Pursuing justice requires the virtue of courage and means taking a meaningful moral action in a troubled world.

The Wisdom of Pixar: An Animated Look at Virtue, Robert Velarde

What do you think? Since Jesus desires us to live virtuously, how do you think we ought to impart virtuous truths to ourselves and into the lives of our children? Should we just let our children pick them up as we live before them, or should we be more intentional in our approach? How does that look in your homeschool?

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