Should schools or parents teach kids to be good members of society?

Should Schools or Parents Teach Kids to Be Good Members of Society?

Should Schools or Parents Teach Kids to Be Good Members of Society?

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July 11 2015 7:24 AM

Should Schools or Parents Teach Kids to Be Good Members of Society?

classroom students.
Is it teachers’ jobs to teach their students to be good citizens?

Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Thinkstock.

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Answer by Jonathan Brill, parent of three kids, two dogs, and two fish:

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Yes, schools should teach and reinforce lessons consistent with what's commonly accepted to be good citizenship, or at the very least social best practices—if for no other reason than these kids have to be trapped in confined, highly social spaces with one another for something like 13 years. They should know how not to be beastly to one another for the 30-plus hours a week they're spending at school.

At my daughter's school, there are various awards for academic and sporting achievements, which is normal, but they save the best random rewards for spontaneous acts of kindness, like going out of one's way to help a teacher clean up, helping other kids, or being proactively inclusive. I've found this to be normal among progressive schools in our area.

As nice as it is to have the school reinforce that social sharing and contribution are worthy of reward, I've found that they don't meddle in much of the important emotional intelligence stuff: how a kid deals with friction, conflict, social sacrifice, compassion, and so on. They teach empathy and provide examples, but they don't have the resources to monitor them or know the children well enough to get if they are developing empathy properly in practice.

I've found that there's no real substitute for just being very aware of your kid's expressions and how they relate to actions, so you can mentor at the source. Talking through these things softly and in private in times of little or no stress seems to be way more effective and compassionate than it would be for a teacher, in front of a peer group, when they're dealing with 100 other things. In this way, I can have neutral, peer-level conversations with my kid about the benefits of socially responsible actions that doesn't come across as authoritative or achievement-based.

One challenge with teaching the “good members of society” thing is that unlike some other things, this really has to be modeled. Whereas it's expected that your kid will be exposed to and have some options for learning art, music, sports, or something that you're not into, core values like philanthropy can't just be taught—they have to be seen and understood. Even then, the benefits are not obvious and have to be both explained and experienced.

Beyond the basics, I'd assume that motivating kids toward some kind of organized social endeavor in school (like the armed forces or large charity) would be pretty controversial. Nevertheless, many schools do this but stop short of recommending this as life's work. At least in the U.S.