What role do we, as educators, play in forming a child's moral character? Early Childhood Today put this question to Thomas Lickona, PhD, who specializes in this important area.
EARLY CHILDHOOD TODAY: Why is character education so important for our children?

THOMAS LICKONA: Civilizations decline when their moral core deteriorates. One of our most basic responsibilities as adults is to sustain our civilization by passing on the values that are the foundation of our society.

ECT: What does character education really mean?

LICKONA: I believe character education is the deliberate effort to cultivate virtue - that is, objectively good human qualities that are good for the individual person and good for the whole society. That doesn't happen accidentally or automatically It happens as a result of great and diligent effort.

ECT: How do children develop good character?

LICKONA: Children are most likely to become persons of character when they grow up in communities of character, where there is an effort on the part of families, schools, churches, temples, mosques, the media, the government, sports leagues, the chamber of commerce - everyone who has the opportunity to influence the values of young people - to both model and teach these character qualities. That's a huge challenge. And we've seen, for at least three decades, a decline in the quality of everyday moral life - in things as simple as civility, people's manners in public places, and courtesy on the road. It requires a society-wide effort to restore the moral fabric.

ECT: Which values are really important?

LICKONA: I would include qualities such as honesty, compassion, courage, kindness, self-control, cooperation, diligence or hard work, all the kinds of qualities that we need to both lead a fulfilling life and to be able to live together harmoniously and productively.

ECT: How are these virtues addressed in school?

LICKONA: Character education develops these virtues through every phase of school life. In our work, we promote what we call a comprehensive approach to character education. We encourage schools to think about the moral life of the classroom in the school or center as a whole. Our classroom components include the teacher as model, developing a moral classroom community, positive peer relationships, using discipline as a tool for character development, and building a democratic classroom so the children are involved in helping to make decisions to solve real classroom problems.

ECT: Why is it important that guidance comes from both the home and the school?

LICKONA: Historically, character formation of the young has been shared by three institutions: home, religion, and school. These work together to pass on a legacy of values to shape the character of the next generation. The family lays the foundation, which gets built upon by the other institutions. Adults have to come together to maximize the chance that we'll have a generation of young people who are mature enough and good enough to build a collective future in the next century. It's important that there be a partnership. The Character Education Partnership, the leading national organization promoting character education, is called that precisely to convey a very clear message that it is not the job of schools, families, or religious institutions alone.

ECT: Can you describe some examples of positive collaborations between parents and teachers or homes?

LICKONA: Some examples are schools communicating to families that the family is the primary character educator of the child, helping parents to know how powerful they are, sharing some of the basic research that shows the difference parents make by spending time with children.

ECT: How can we respond to negative influences from the media?

LICKONA: The media has emerged as a powerful social institution competing for the conscience of the child. The electronic media has enormous influence. Schools can help in several ways. For instance, teachers and directors can develop media literacy to help children think critically about what they're watching on the TV set or in movies. Schools can encourage parents to monitor what children watch, making sure that the programs they are viewing convey positive values rather than negative ones. Finally, they can also encourage parents to cut back on the amount of television the family watches. Some elementary school principals send home a letter saying, "If your child is second grade or younger we encourage you to limit TV to a maximum of 1/2 hour a day. If the child is third grade and up, a maximum of one hour a day " They also give a rationale: "We find that if children watch less TV, they're more likely to do their homework and get more sleep, and they're less likely to fight and quarrel and put each other down."

ECT: What do you recommend to teachers or families who want to begin a character education program?

LICKONA: Form a leadership committee that includes an administrative leader, several key faculty, support staff such as counselors and custodians, and parents. Alternatively, a school can establish two leadership groups: one comprised of school staff, the other comprised of parents. A parent representative can serve on both committees. In either case, the mission of the parents is to solicit input from other parents, inform parents about the goals of the character education program, and send materials home that enable parents to reinforce the values being taught at school. 


Dr. Thomas Lickona is a developmental psychologist and professor of education at the State University of New York at Cortland. He currently directs the Center for the Fourth and Fifth Rs (Respect and Responsibility) and is on the board of directors of the Character Education Partnership.

This interview originally appeared in the April, 2000 issue of Early Childhood Today.