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Intentional Character

    I grew up in a small town near Santa Cruz, California. Progress was a little slow. One frustrating aspect of this slow progress was how long it took the town to put in a stoplight at increasingly dangerous intersections. There were usually several accidents that occurred until finally the city decided it was time to do something about the problem.

    Society, in general seems to operate in a similar manner when it comes to children. Ask any parent or teacher and they will speak chapter and verse on how important it is to listen to kids and be there for them. Most adults understand how critical it is to guide children on their path to adulthood.

    Now ask yourself when the last time was you explained to a two year old the importance of manners, or when you instructed an eighteen month old to help clean her mess. If a three year old is caught lying, is it worth much effort to correct them, or are they just too young to know better? Dr. Thomas Lickona, author of Raising Good Children, Bantam Books 1994, discusses the critical importance of intentionally teaching kids character traits that will allow them to succeed in life. It is a fact that most kids are born "good." But is this enough to face the challenges our world is presenting to kids today? Let's look at statistics offered by Dr. Michele Borba, author of Building Moral Intelligence; The Seven Essential Virtues that Teach Kids to Do the Right Thing, Jossey Bass, A Wiley Company 2001.

    Crime: Every 7 minutes a child is arrested for a violent crime. US kids are 10 times more likely to commit murder than comparably aged youths in Canada.

    Suicide: Adolescent suicide has increased 400% in 30 years. The United States has the highest youth homicide and suicide rates among the 26 wealthiest nations in the world, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.

    Peer Cruelty and Bullying: 160,000 children miss school every day due to fear of attack or intimidation by peers. The National School Safety Center calls bullying "the most enduring and underrated problem in American schools."

    Behavior Problems: Hyperactivity and attention deficits have increased 700% in two decades. One in 30 youngsters 5 to 19 years old is using Ritalin, according to the American Medical Association. Adolescent depression has increased 1000% in 40 years.

    Violence: 24% of high school students say they took a weapon to school at least once in the past year. 73% of 10-to 18-year-olds hit someone during the year because they were angry, according to the Josephson Institute of Ethics.

    Stealing: According to the FBI, in 10 years juvenile theft has increased 22%. Almost half of middle and high schoolers admitted stealing from a store during the year; 25% said they did so at least twice, according to the Josephson Institute of Ethics.

    Underage Drinking: One out of five fifth-graders has been drunk; two-thirds of eighth graders have used alcohol, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.

    Premature Sexual Activity: Three million teenagers-about one in four of those sexually active-acquire a sexually transmitted disease every year. Teen pregnancy rates are much higher in the United States than in many other developed countries, according to the Alan Guttmacher Institute.

    The signs point to a clear crisis of character in today's youth. Research indicates virtues CAN be easily taught to kids through consistent methods by role models they respect. Scientists' say it takes twenty-one days to learn a new behavior. The approach is straightforward, practical and can be fun. Simply choose a virtue you INTEND your child to learn and spend twenty-one days nurturing this virtue. You can use calendars, stickers, or any method that is simple and provides on going accountability.

    In my home, stickers are really popular since my kids are so young. Experts caution strongly against the use of money as an incentive. Use privileges, special outings with parents, or some kind of special recognition. Maybe a special chair at dinner, or plate to eat from, or sitting in the front seat. The important thing is for kids to see natural consequences from their actions. For example, if you want to teach responsibility, then when they achieve their goal, new privileges would be appropriate. If kindness is your goal, then reward them with kind deeds in their favor. If patience is what you are working for, reward your child with something involving your patience. They need to see the their efforts connect to something good. Then the new behavior makes sense and they are motivated on their own to continue the behavior. We must make this effort to intentionally teach the virtues of character. If we don't the result is tragic: an increase in insensitivity, dishonesty, aggression, incivility, cruelty, hatred, and injustice. We must be deliberate.

    Children are amazingly receptive and most are thrilled to behave in ways that they know are right and good. If we take the time to intentionally guide their behavior from very early ages, they will naturally grow into adults who possess the traits of a strong education in character and moral behavior.

    � Anne Leedom

    Anne Leedom is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of parentingbookmark.com. She has been quoted in national print including Parents, Redbook and Nick Jr. Magazines and has been a guest on National Public Radio Affiliate WHWC on the show "Mental Health Today with Dr. Minette Ponick." Anne writes a regular column in Northern California and can be reached at anne@parentingbookmark.com.