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In Kids of Character, David Shumaker and Robert Heckel posit that certain changes in American society are inimical to fostering character and moral rectitude in the nation's youth. The authors seek to meliorate the situation by providing readers with useful information, insights, and suggestions on promoting positive moral development. Their primary thesis is that despite the plethora of corruptive influences facing today's youth and the fact that one's character is partially shaped by biological factors, parents still have the ultimate power and responsibility to properly facilitate their children's moral growth.
Dr. Shumaker serves as an instructor in the Massachusetts General Hospital Department of Psychiatry's Children and the Law program. Dr. Heckel is Distinguished Professor Emeritus in Psychology at the University of South Carolina. This book represents the authors' second literary collaboration. In 2001, the pair wrote Children Who Murder: A Psychological Perspective, a study which they occasionally reference in this work.
The book is divided into eight chapters. In the first chapter, Shumaker and Heckel outline the history of moral development. They survey the progression of the field from the pioneering theories of Piaget and Kohlberg to the implications of current research findings. The chapter culminates in five main points that set the stage for the remainder of the text. Chapters two through seven serve as focal points for six realms of influence on character development: family, peers, community, schools, religion, and sports. Each of these chapters proceeds in largely the same format. First, the authors describe how cultural changes have impacted the role of the moral domain in question. Next, they present and analyze research findings (both historic and recent) that are germane to that particular topic. Finally, the authors discuss implications of the research, recommending resources and strategies for promoting positive moral development within the relevant domain. In the closing chapter, entitled "Conclusions: A Plea to Parents," Shumaker and Heckel offer a synopsis of their work, revisiting what they take to be twelve major lessons offered in the book.
While they discuss a good deal of scientific research, the authors present their views in a plain English, exoteric writing style. Their message is aimed primarily at parents, though some points are directly relevant to school administrators, coaches, instructors, clergy, and even concerned citizens. In one section, for example, Shumaker and Heckel present a step-by-step guide that explains how active community members can reform their neighborhoods from within to create a positive environment for children (97). Academics should note that while there is scholarly value in the research literature that the authors reference, the book offers little in the way of theoretic innovation. As the subtitle indicates, Kids of Character functions chiefly as a guide to aiding the moral development process. In this capacity, the work incorporates a favorable combination of theory and praxis.
For the most part, the authors' recommendations are relatively uncontroversial. Shumaker and Heckel endorse parenting methods that call for vigilance, attentiveness, and affection. They discourage disciplinary strategies that involve power-assertion or love-withdrawal, instead favoring techniques that are based in empathy and reason. They encourage parents to model pro-social behaviors early on, as even very young children are perceptive and impressionable. The authors also express caveats about poor social interaction at school, relocating too frequently, excessive indulgence in television and video games, and other potentially harmful influences. A recurring theme in the book is that many of the support systems that were once available to parents (extended family, involved community members, schools, social clubs, churches, etc...) have considerably diminished. Shumaker and Heckel suggest that citizens reclaim these resources in order to cultivate and fortify the moral health of America's children.
Despite the book's positive and proactive message, this work is not impervious to criticism. Among the more questionable assertions in the text are that being popular bodes well for a child's moral development (71) and that parents should "push" their children to pursue close social interaction with peers (73). While Shumaker and Heckel cite empirical support for their claims, a critic might charge that the authors undermine the value of individuality and neglect the possibility that a shy or non-conformist child could grow into a virtuous adult. One worry is that parents who take this section to heart might over-emphasize peer status at the expense of character development, failing to recognize that they are two different things.
A second criticism is that the authors are a bit too dismissive of the view that it is not the place of school teachers to morally educate children. Shumaker and Heckel suggest that it may be "immoral" for instructors and school administrators to refrain from promoting moral education in schools (126). They argue that there are or should be universal values that could be taught without infringing on parental rights. I found the section on school-based character education extremely fascinating and informative, and I think that the authors make an excellent case for their position. However, insinuating that a school teacher who wishes to teach strictly academic subject matter is a "narrow-minded" individual with his or her "head in the sand" (140) may be going a bit too far.
Criticisms aside, Kids of Character represents a laudable effort to provide readers with useful information and insights on the moral development process. It is clear that the authors are very knowledgeable and passionate about the interests of young people, and their work has the potential to redirect focus toward the import of children and character education. If it succeeds at accomplishing nothing beyond this, then it will still have been a valuable project. I recommend it as a worthy addition to any parent's resource library.
© 2007 Monique Wonderly
Monique Wonderly is a graduate student in Philosophy at Western Michigan University.
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