Fostering Beliefs and Value Structures in Children
All families have commitments, values, and priorities. Some of these sentiments are explicit and well defined, but often many are only implied, and this is especially true for marginalized families (Garbarino & Abramowitz, 1992). Some family values and goals are more immediate and are often expressed as wishes or “as what we are trying to do.” Some families have both long-range goals and those planned for a limited period of time, whereas other families are able only to plan from one day to the next.
A number of writers point out that children’s attitudes, beliefs, and values resemble those of their parents (Coles, 1997; Goleman, 1995; Scarf, 1999), but all allow that schools and communities extend these considerably. Educating about stealing, lying, and disorderly conduct is normal for most families, although the instruction can take different forms. Some parents teach morals and values through intimidation and punishment, whereas others approach the challenge by explaining children’s problems and the impact of one’s actions on others. The latter approach results in stronger development of conscience and internal control (Sadker & Sadker, 2005). Families who focus on values, morals, and attitudes characterized by modeling behaviors, reasoning through solutions, and labeling the behavior when seen in public (see Figure ) give children a much-needed sense of purpose and direction in their lives.
Whatever the organizational structure of the family, children absorb these values and goals and their role in accomplishing them. As children grow older and other events happen to families, such as the birth of a child with exceptionalities, what children learn about themselves can be vastly different and can be quite contrary to school or the societal expectations of families. The following vignette shows one family’s approach- a strongly goal-oriented one by societal expectations. The second vignette demonstrates how this family adapted its expectations after the birth of a child with Down syndrome.
Every morning before her children left for school, Mrs. Martinez wished each child a good day in Spanish. She would remind each of strongly held family principles. She then asked each child to make a small commitment for the day. Studying hard, practicing the piano, or improving at shooting baskets were acceptable goals. At dinner one evening when the family shared accomplishments and worries, José told his family he wasn’t going to read with Louie (a child with a learning disability in his class) anymore because Louie was “just too hard to deal with.” The older brothers and sisters sympathized with José, but they also reminded him of the ways they had read to him when he was little. Mrs. Martinez hugged José hard a few days later when he told her, “I’m going to read with Louie. I found out yesterday he can read lots of words if you start them out and whisper the real hard ones.”
In the Martinez family, the mother was a strong and dominant influence. She believed in goal setting and certain family values and made them clear and explicit for her children.
Whether values and goals are stated each day, written, or merely implied, notions of having purpose and direction in one’s life are modeled and communicated to children. Such strong purposes can help a family adjust and adapt to an unexpected event as the Martinez family experienced.
At the end of José’s third-grade year, Manuela, a child with Down syndrome, was born to the Martinez family. José was thankful for his earlier school experiences with Louie, for they helped him and his family as they weathered the many and dramatic effects of this event. The strong sense of unity in the family allowed them to adjust their lives so that all shared in the responsibilities for this child. José always came home on Tuesdays to help his mother. He was faithful to his task and enjoyed watching Manuela develop. The following vignette demonstrates how one strong family helped the school to change its policies and also helped their child cope with conflicting expectations.
One Tuesday, José’s teacher informed the class they would all have to stay after school because of their rowdiness. José, greatly dismayed, tried to explain to her why he couldn’t, then walked out of school and went home. His mother was both pleased and dismayed, for she had received a phone call from the office, telling her about the event. When José explained that he hadn’t been rowdy and he couldn’t let his mother down, the two of them began to work out plans for communicating their needs to the school personnel. Mrs. Martinez then called the school to make an early-morning appointment with the teacher and principal. At this meeting, many important changes between home and this family began to take shape. Besides being a step that enabled the teacher and principal to reevaluate how they worked with families’ changing needs, Mrs. Martinez showed José how, by being proactive, she could make things happen.
Most families have expectations for their children to undertake responsibilities within the home. Some responsibilities may be explicit, and others implicit. In some families, the responsibilities are fairly consistent with changes being negotiated, but in others they may be haphazard and even confusing to children. They may be communicated in dictatorial fashion, explained reasonably, or expected to be learned through observation. As with José in the vignettes just described, changing family circumstances and expectations can affect children’s behavior in schools.
At times, home expectations can be in conflict with school expectations. Children can’t always express or explain conflicting values. When this happens, children become caught in the middle. In the preceding vignette, parents were able to handle the situation and seek school support. In other families, negative attitudes can result in poor school and family relationships, with which both parents and schools must struggle. If you are to support the growth of all children in your community center or classroom, you must recognize that children and their families come with different skills, values, and circumstances.
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