The Teaching of Values
By Dr. Kenneth Shore
The process of instilling values in children begins at an early age. By the time children enter kindergarten, they have already taken a course in values, one taught by their parents. It is only appropriate that parents should assume primary responsibility for shaping the values of their children. They should be their moral anchors.
Yet parents are not the only adults who influence children’s values. A coach may convey to children the value of determination and teamwork. A scout leader may teach about self-reliance and honesty. And a minister or rabbi may help children learn about spiritual values. But for many children the most important influence on their emerging value system other than their parents is their teacher. This is not surprising when you consider that a child may spend as much time during the school year with her elementary teacher as she does with her parents.
Some parents want teachers to check their values at the door when they enter the classroom. In reality, there is no such thing as value-free education. Teachers are communicating values to their students almost all the time. And values are embedded in more than just the teacher’s lessons or the teaching materials.
The teacher’s appearance, speech, manner of relating with students, sense of humor — all teach lessons to students about ways of acting, thinking, and feeling. A teacher who shows an interest in the culture of a child from another country is teaching her students to respect children from different backgrounds. A teacher who encourages a child to handle a problem on her own is promoting the value of independent thinking. This hidden curriculum may not be evident in the course descriptions or the curriculum guides but they are nonetheless an important part of your child’s education.
That teachers convey values to their students is not necessarily cause for concern, unless the values being taught are objectionable or being taught poorly. Indeed, many believe that values education is an appropriate role for teachers. Martin Luther King Jr. had this in mind when he said “Intelligence plus character — that is the goal of true education.” Given that teachers are communicating values almost all the time, the question of whether schools should teach values is beyond debate. The more important question is: What values should be taught and how should they be communicated?
The values clarification programs initiated in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s are less in vogue today but values education is still an important part of the school landscape. These lessons begin as early as kindergarten when children are taught, among other lessons, to wait patiently in line, to raise their hand rather than yell out, to be considerate of their classmates, and to be accepting of children who are different.
Different teachers accent different values. Some emphasize being courteous and kind to classmates; others stress being obedient and respectful of authority; others place a priority on being dependable and responsible; and still others convey the importance of thinking for yourself and standing up for your beliefs. Some school districts employ formal programs to teach peaceful methods of resolving conflicts. As students move into higher grades, these same issues may be discussed but in the context of the larger community and at a more conceptual level. Social studies provides a natural opportunity for examining these issues. Students gain valuable insights by reading about great figures in history and learning how they coped with moral issues.
It is one thing to teach core values relating to standards of behavior — matters about which most parents agree. It is quite another to teach about deeper moral values. Teaching about morality is a delicate task because moral issues do not lend themselves to consensus. Parents will have differing views about virtually any moral issue so that teaching about morality risks offending some parents. This does not mean, however, that schools should sidestep issues of morality or steer clear of controversial subjects. Students should not learn in a moral vacuum. Sensitive issues such as the Holocaust or AIDS and controversial topics such as gun control or homelessness should be discussed although schools must weigh the students’ age and maturity level in deciding when and how to raise these issues.
When discussing controversial issues, the teacher’s role is to provide information, raise questions, and stimulate discussion while making sure not to project her personal views. The goal is to expose students to differing points of view rather than to indoctrinate them in one point of view.
What public schools cannot do is promote religion in any way. To do so is a clear violation of the Constitutional principle of the separation of church and state. The Supreme Court ruled that schools may not read excerpts from the Bible or conduct prayers even if the prayers are non-denominational and participation is voluntary. While efforts to legalize official prayers in the public schools have been unsuccessful, some states have enacted a minute of silence during which students are allowed to pray or meditate. These laws have been upheld as legal as long as they are not found to have a religious purpose. While schools are thus barred from promoting religion, they are permitted to teach about religion.
If there is one area which calls out for parents to assume the role of primary teacher, it is sex education. Yet many parents shirk this responsibility and schools have been called upon to teach about such matters as sexual reproduction, pregnancy, contraception, sexually transmitted diseases including AIDS, dating, emotional commitment, and personal responsibility. Schools too have sometimes shied away from educating children in matters of sexuality perhaps because of fears of dealing with parent reactions. Yet, as the alarming rate of teenage pregnancy and the AIDS epidemic make poignantly clear, sex education is more needed than it has ever been. And sex education seems to work. Studies indicate that adolescent girls who were given candid information about human sexuality were fare less likely to become pregnant accidentally.
School districts which provide sex education often make it part of the health program. The quality of these programs vary dramatically. A good sex education teacher is well-informed and comfortable teaching the subject, covers a variety of topics including both the physical and emotional aspects of sexuality, and gears the method and content of instruction to the age and maturity level of the students. Many states give parents the right to remove their child from the sex education program if they are opposed to its contents.
If you are considering removing your child from the program, also consider her possible awkwardness if she is the only student not participating. Whether your child receives sexual education in school or not, take your role seriously in teaching your child about sexual matters. Listen to her concerns and respond candidly. Research shows that children who have discussed sexual matters with their parents are less likely to engage in sexual activity at an early age.
The values education your child receives in school will help to shape the kind of person she becomes so pay careful attention to the kinds of messages your child is receiving. Of course, the surest way of instilling desirable values in your child is to teach them to her at home. Yet many parents feel as if their own efforts at values education are stymied by the competing forces of television, peers, and the mass media.
While it is undeniable that children are affected by these factors, nonetheless parents can have a profound impact on their child’s values and moral reasoning. To maximize your influence on your child, reflect on the kinds of values you cherish and want to communicate to their child. Consider what you are doing to communicate those values to your child but be aware that what will influence her most is not what you say but what you do. And children are expert at noting inconsistencies between a parent’s actions and words — the parent who is often rude to people but lectures her child about treating others with respect, the parent who stresses honesty but keeps excess change given to her by a salesperson, or the parent who preaches the virtues of forgiveness but holds a long-term grudge against a family member.