How to Teach Your Son Good Character When His Middle School Won’t

How do you raise a compassionate, honest, and respectful son in an age that is anything but?

Too often, character education seems “tacked on” at America’s middle schools (as one English teacher describes): signs posted—and ignored—in the hallways saying “share with others” and “be honest,” single-semester classes unconnected to the rest of the curriculum.

“All middle schools say they address character but not all schools really have made a commitment to it,” says Lulu Kellogg Middle School Head at The Fessenden School.

You want your son to treat others kindly. You want him to have the integrity to tell the truth and stand behind it. You want him to work hard, but not at anyone else’s expense. How can you pick up the slack when his middle school fails to impart these values?

Watch the news and discuss current events with your son.

“Every day, things come up that require people to make decisions,” Lulu says. “Some decisions are good and some are bad. That brings up so much about character: What could have happened differently? What do you think it would be like to be in that situation? What would you have done?”

Some images on the televised news can be disturbing. In those cases, Lulu advises, try listening to the news on the radio or reading about it online.

Teach Your Son Good Character But, she says, it may be better to talk about current events with your son than shelter him from them.

“I think not talking about current events is more harmful at these ages. As a parent, I sometimes thought living in a news vacuum was the safest thing to do with my kids. I’m not sure it always was,” Lulu shares.

Try a physically active service learning activity.

The idea that service experience leads to good character is nothing new. But, Lulu adds, the more physically active the activity is, the more eager middle school boys will be to do it.

“Boys take great pride in what they’ve done physically,” she says.

Lulu suggests rewarding physical activities such as:

  • Pulling weeds at a community garden.
  • Serving in a soup kitchen.
  • Mowing lawns and shoveling driveways for elderly and disabled people.

Lulu recalls some Fessenden students telling her how many driveways they shoveled one snowy weekend this winter.

“I asked, ‘Did you get paid for that?’ They said, ‘No. We just volunteered and it was really fun,’” she recounts. “They enjoyed the shoveling as much as they did the service.”

Find a school that integrates character education into everything.

When surveyed, one of the most consistent reasons parents cite for seeking out a school like Fessenden is that character education is not an afterthought here. It is a core element of the curriculum.

“It’s not enough for a school to just say, ‘We use teachable moments,’” Lulu counsels. “If you’re serious about character education, look for a school that’s been very intentional about creating a program that has it built in.”

For example, students at The Fessenden School participate in service learning days. Time is set aside each week for students to work in groups on building skills like respect and compassion. Teachers are specifically tasked with planning character-building activities and overseeing character education as a center of education.

“It’s not by accident it happens here,” Lulu says. “It goes all the way back to our motto: Labor Omnia Vincit, ‘work conquers all.’ The idea of ‘work’ is not so much ‘success conquers all,’ but really being a good person and a good worker will conquer all.”

How do you help your middle school son build character?

Have you tried service learning activities or discussing the nightly news with your son? How has it helped him grow positive character traits? Share your experiences in the comments section below.

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