Thursday, February 21, 2008

The Formation of Character

If I am to present on the principles of Lev Vygotsky in just under four months, I better get cracking on the book Awakening Children's Minds by Dr. Laura Berk. Let me see . . . I can finish Chapter 2 this week and knock out the remaining five chapters by doing two a month. All I need to do is stick to that schedule. BAH-HA-HA-HA! I might need a little gentle chiding to keep me from doing what I do best: procrastinate!

What Charlotte Mason called the formation of character, Laura Berk calls acquiring cultural beliefs and values in Chapter 2 of her book. According to Vygotsky's theory, parents and teachers pass on values most effectively through dialogues with children and share real and fictional stories that carry important life lessons. Research shows that Chinese children have the most self-control because narrative, fortified by the family's lifestyle, is a crucial element of the Chinese parenting style. Walking the walk AND talking the talk has more impact on a child than direct and imperative ways of teaching moral lessons. (It sounds like Jewish carpenter that I know). Laura concludes,
The most important lesson we can take from Miller's provocative findings is that when parents and teachers take time to construct narratives with and about the young child, they create a "zone" that spurs children to weave moral and social rules into their self-definitions and to behave accordingly (page 59).
She also recommends the best contexts for such dialogues are everyday routines and duties and mealtime conversations. One of my favorite books for illustrating this concept is Big House in the Little Woods, which I believe is a primer for doing Charlotte Mason with children under the age of six. Pa and Ma involved the girls to the best of their abilities in household routines. At a young age, the girls learned to work alongside Pa and Ma. Even with challenging tasks, like making lead bullets, Pa would ask the girls to watch him carefully to see if he made any mistakes. When Laura was naughty on a Sunday afternoon, he told her a riotous story about how her grandfather got into even worse trouble when he sneaked out of the house for a sled ride on a Sunday afternoon. Mealtime conversations are vital, especially for parents who work outside the home with children who spend their days at school. Laura Berk points out that children who eat at least one meal a day with a parent have "early childhood mental development, no matter what the child's socioeconomic or ethnic background" (page 66).

One thing that does not promote the formation of character is unlimited television viewing. I know that viewing television can help autistic children pick up language and even conquer fears (Pamela started riding elevators after a ten-year sabbatical thanks to Toy Story 2). Wait! Before if you have a sudden urge to channel surf to another blog, read how one mom planned and survived a one-week video vacation with her autistic son without going stark raving mad! (Breathe! Deep cleansing breaths!) You do not have to throw out the one-eyed monster. According to Laura,
Parent-child co-viewing creates conditions in which adults can raise questions about the realism of televised information, assist children in making sense of the story line, and express disapproval of negative on-screen behavior and commercial messages, thereby teaching children to evaluate TV content rather than to accept it uncritically (page 68).
Charlotte Mason considered the development of character as the main work of education! She recommended very similar strategies when forming a child's character. Since she loved providing a narrative to explain her points, I shall attempt to do the same. Some children in the autism spectrum are perfectionists: suppose Jeff explodes into tantrums every time he makes a mistake. Such behavior interferes with loving relationships and makes learning more difficult since all humans err. The key is for Mother and Father to focus on a new habit with the zeal of nursing him through the flu.

During daily routines, Mother models how she reacts to mistakes in full view of Jeff. She accidentally puts salt into her coffee (but avoids the silliness of Mrs. Peterkin) and brightly announces, "How silly! Jeff, can you believe I just put salt in my coffee? I wonder what I should do." She looks at him expectantly and hopefully to see if he has an idea. If not, she solves her problem out loud and gets a new cup of coffee. Whenever anyone in the family makes a mistake, rather than crying out with dismay, Mother comes up with different strategies for handling mistakes: start again, fix the problem, laugh gently and tactfully, tell a story about the silly things she did as a child, recall a similar situation from a book, etc.

The trickiest strategy is to do her absolute best to prevent any more outbursts from Jeff. He usually blows up over having to erase a mistake during copywork because he ends up erasing a hole into the paper. Mother scaffolds him by sitting next to him with an eraser. She says excitedly, "Hey, I have a great idea! How about you be the writer and I be the eraser!" Then, whenever he makes a mistake, Mother says, "Awesome! Now it's my turn!" Jeff spills his milk on the floor at breakfast, and, before he can pitch a fit, Dad says, "I was just going to give Kitty some milk. You just saved me the trouble of getting out a bowl. Here, Kitty, Kitty." He usually gets frustrated at folding his chore of folding clothes because he spends so much time fretting until each every T-shirt looks perfect. Dad finds instructions for building a T-shirt folding machine online, and they spend an hour together building and test driving it. Jeff and Mother are making pancakes when he drops a cup into the bowl of flour, sprays them both with flour in the face. Before Jeff starts crying out, Mother laughs and says, "Do you remember when Almanzo sprayed soot all over the parlor? I am so glad this is not soot!"

Before long, they survive an entire week without outbursts. Mother remains persistent and vigilant in tantrum prevention because she still needs to transfer the ability to control outbursts to Jeff. She assigned him the book Anne of Green Gables to give him perspective on blunders because her scrapes were far worse than his were. When the pastor preached about Martha and Mary in his sermon, the family talked about it around the lunch table. They agreed that Jesus preferred spending time with Martha and Mary to having everything done perfectly because relationships matter more! Mother and Father make the most out of every little life lesson in helping Jeff to view mistake-making in a new light.

Finally, Jeff seems ready to take control of his behavior. Father and Jeff reminisce about their favorite books while fishing. He mentions Pollyanna, and Father follows up on that cue by asking, "Do you remember the being glad game?"

Jeff: "Yes, Pollyanna was so good at that game!"

Dad: "Mrs. Snow was so grumpy before she started playing the game."

Jeff: "It helped Aunt Polly, too!"

Dad: "I was thinking about how this game could help you. Do you remember how angry you used to get about making mistakes?"

Jeff: "Yes, I haven't done that in awhile."

Dad: "Well, Mom and I have been trying to help you to stay calm, but I think you are ready to try it all by yourself."

Jeff: "I think I could! I could play the being glad game. Or maybe, a new game. . . The keep cool game!"

Dad: "I like that name! You have always been clever with word games."

They go back to fishing and, thanks to the keep cool game, outbursts over mistakes became a thing of the past.

In case you want to dig more deeply in the Charlotte Mason's writings, she spent an entire book outlining how to form character. She understood how to handle kids who have meltdowns, low attention span, perfectionism, moody, trouble with telling the truth, and more. She entrusted older children with their own self-management by devoting an entire book to them about recognizing their own strengths and weaknesses and how to govern themselves. She carried a variety of tools in her toolbox to address these issues: habit training, masterly inactivity, living books, the way of the will, and the way of reason, everyday routines and duties, and dinner conversations:
  • Habits - "Character is the result not merely of the great ideas which are given to us, but of the habits which we labour to form upon those ideas" (Volume 3, page 99).
  • Masterly Inactivity - "We shall give children space to develop on the lines of their own characters in all right ways, and shall know how to intervene effectually to prevent those errors which, also, are proper to their individual characters" (Volume 3, page 35).
  • Living Books - "Students can use living books to "discern character and perceive how character and circumstance interact" and "get lessons of life and conduct" (Volume 3, page 180).
  • The Way of Will - "The one achievement possible and necessary for every man is character; and character is as finely wrought metal beaten into shape and beauty by the repeated and accustomed action of will" (Volume 6, page 129).
  • The Way of Reason - "Therefore children should be taught as they become mature enough to understand such teaching that the chief responsibility which rests upon then: as persons is the acceptance or rejection of ideas presented to them. To help them in this choice we should afford them principles of conduct and a wide range of fitting knowledge" (Volume 6, page 139).
  • Everyday Routines and Duties - "In the home a thousand such opportunities occur; if only in such trifles as the straightening of a tablecloth or of a picture, the hanging of a towel, the packing of a parcel––every thoughtful mother invents a thousand ways of training in her child a just eye and a faithful hand" (Volume 1, page 180).
  • Dinner Conversations - "The career of many a young person has turned upon some chance remark made at the home table. Do but watch the eagerness with which the young catch up every remark made by their elders on public affairs, books, men, and you will see they are really trying to construct a chart to steer by; they want to know what to do, it is true, but they also want to know what to think about everything" (Volume 5, page 228).


poohder said...

Excellent Tammy! I am so glad you are writing this out, since I won't be able to attend the CM conference.

Prince Andrew and the Queen Mum said...

So are these like the cliff note;) I just dug the book out last week and am trying to make myself get thru chapter one but I might just skip to chapter 2!

MasterpieceMom said...

Beautiful! Just what I needed to read. I can really see how all that silly behavior can help with perfectionism by your real life examples. Thanks Tammy!!

walking said...


The nice thing about the conference is that it is forcing me to take all of the scattered seed on all of these blog posts and tighten up my thinking! Hopefully, you will be able to access audio files and, after the conference, I will post the handout at applicable email lists!

Queen Mum,

It is unlike Cliff Notes because I am adding the Charlotte Mason perspective. Maybe, you could call it comparative analysis of Charlotte Mason and Lev Vygotsky!


Who's silly? :-)

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Tammy, for posting this in such detail. Our dd is always very anxious and has great difficulty with perfectionism. We and her speech therapist have been trying to help her with this for years - slow process. We've kind of used your ideas, and I'm motivated to do this more intensively.