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The Indianapolis Star
Darcia Narvaez: Hoosier Focuses On Kids' Values
BY JOHN J. SHAUGHNESSY
June 22, 2003
Darcia Narvaez walked into a TV studio, taking her spot as the expert panelist on a show about ways parents can help develop good character in children.
Narvaez, 50, has ridden a remarkable wave of success in the past year: The University of Notre Dame professor was one of just five people invited to speak at a White House conference on character development. She also joined first lady Laura Bush on a nationally televised program on character education.
And the former music teacher now is being considered for a presidential appointment to the board of a new national institute on educational sciences.
"She's one of a small number of researchers who actually have research findings on character education," says John McGrath, a senior director with the U.S. Department of Education. "She also makes a good television guest because she can speak in plain language, and that's important for parents."
McGrath arranged for Narvaez to appear on "Helping Your Child Become A Good Citizen," which aired this spring on The Learning Channel, Channel One and some PBS stations.
For Narvaez, character lessons evoke memories of her parents -- her father, a professor from Puerto Rico, and her mother, a journalist and homemaker who grew up on a Minnesota farm.
"I remember my father saying frequently, 'This is what we do to be considerate of others.' Whatever parents point out to children and focus their attention on -- those are the things the child begins to believe are important.
"If the parent's focus is on acquiring more stuff or being thin and looking good, that gets transferred to the child. If the emphasis is on helping others, that gets transferred."
When she was 8, her family began living in Mexico, Colombia and Spain. She was shocked when she saw children in Mexico and Colombia selling gum on the streets to support their families. She was overwhelmed when her family visited their maids' homes.
"They'd live in hovels -- places that had no running water, no indoor plumbing," she recalls. "They'd have one set of clothes to wear."
Her parents, she recalls, "gave our maids money and clothes. They would invite people over to our house. They were not arrogant about their place in the world."
Narvaez doesn't see that approach in the United States. Instead, she sees emphasis on being cool, acquiring things and seeking personal pleasure.
"That's the message we get a hundred times a day," Narvaez says. "Most ads are concerned with personal agenda, rather than concern for others."
Adults should challenge that influence and offer a moral approach to life, she says.
"Parents and teachers need to make it clear what a good action is, catch the child doing the action and then link the behavior to the child's identity."
" 'So you helped your little brother; that's what good people do.' Kids with these moral identities are more likely to do those actions again."
Narvaez is developing a system to rate the ethical value of books and films. She has developed a federally funded, research-based way to help educators teach character skills.
Notre Dame student Anna Gomberg, 21, offers an insight:
"The first time I received criticism from her was unlike any criticism I've ever received. I knew there were a lot of flaws, but I never felt more supported in someone's criticism. Instead of walking away discouraged, my passion was ignited."
Call Star reporter John Shaughnessy at 1-317-444-6175.
About Darcia Narvaez
Profession: Psychology professor at the University of Notre Dame; considered leading expert in character education of children.
Quote: "The constant pointing out of ways to help others is a way to build sensitivity in our children, as well as the motivation to do it."
What are we teaching our children?
"How To Prepare Moral Failures" is a stunning title for a tip sheet created by a woman whose focus is character education for children. But she has a definite purpose in offering these guidelines:
* Get them to focus on posturing, being cool, having things.
* Focus on, "How does this affect me and what I want?"
* Have them watch lots of violence to desensitize them, especially when young. Have them watch violent heroes.
* Encourage prejudice. Encourage an "us vs. them" mentality; how I am better than you.
* Make sure the person knows mostly about celebrity, fame, fortune.
Darcia Narvaez, a University of Notre Dame professor, created the list to show the wrong way to create moral children, basing it on influences from the media and popular culture that children often are exposed to.
"Unfortunately, the media decide to point out all the negative things these days," she says. "Unless you're watching PBS, you're learning how to be cool, how to hurt people, how to be No. 1."
The list's flip side
Narvaez has a second list, "How To Create Morally Motivated People." Tips include:
* Raise self-expectations, encourage moral expectations.
* Reassure people by focusing on serenity and security so they are more likely to behave pro-socially.
* Draw their attention to moral things.
* Read about people who are different than you, who have gone through experiences of injustice. You can learn a lot from them.
* Try to expand your horizons by watching movies that give you different sensitivities.
-- John J. Shaughnessy