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By Dr. Arthur Schwartz 

This past week the Association of Children’s Museums invited me to talk to teams of 23 museum leaders from across the United States. Each museum recently received a planning grant from the Lilly Endowment to develop a full proposal to design and implement their own unique museum program to “encourage the development of character in children and youth.”

I started my presentation by sharing different perspectives, strategies, and approaches to character development. I emphasized the diversity of terms and definitions within our field. For example, I explained that while some schools use the word virtues, other schools will use the phrase core values, character strengths, or assets. I encouraged each museum team to select words and terms that are best for their community. 

During my presentation, I made a promise. I gave my word to everyone attending the convening that my blog this week would explore the following question: How can children’s museums inspire and equip parents and caregivers to teach and model the core values they want their children to consistently practice and care about?

I spent my flight home reflecting on the insights and approaches that might be most helpful to each museum. Almost immediately, I decided that I would not focus on their physical exhibit. Rather, I wanted to explore how each museum could inspire and equip parents and caregivers via a series of visually-captivating “character content.” Here are 5 ideas:

  • We are what we repeatedly think, say, and do

Ben Franklin developed a character development practice for himself that emphasized 13 different virtues. Inspired by Franklin’s approach, could each children’s museum encourage parents and caregivers to emphasize one core value each month? Let’s imagine a museum selects kindness for the first month. Throughout the month, parents and caregivers would receive fun and easy-to-use tools and practices that foster kindness. The second month might focus on curiosity or gratitude, and so on. The idea is to create “character newsletters” that parents and caregivers can’t wait to open and share. 

  • Visual cues and reminders work

We know from research that visual cues and reminders can help us develop positive habits of character.  Could children’s museums encourage children to draw a picture about a particular character strength, such as honesty or caring?  Beyond inviting parents and caregivers to prominently feature their children’s drawings at home (read: refrigerators), could children’s museums spotlight a subset of these character-inspired drawings on their website or even inside their museum? Beyond drawings, could children also share with their local museum how a particular photo or digital image inspires them to be honest or caring? 

  • Inspiring stories matter

I regret never asking my father, before he passed away, to talk to my children about a core value or character strength that was important to him. Could children’s museums encourage parents and caregivers to ask a grandparent or family friend to talk to their children about a core value or character strength that means a lot to them – and why?  This idea may be particularly salient for older children. Several years ago, I interviewed a cadet at the Air Force Academy who shared with me that he wanted to be known for his perseverance and grit. When I asked him why, he told me about when his grandfather told him that “overcoming adversity” was a family keepsake. The cadet was 12 at the time. His grandfather’s “voice” has been stirring inside him ever since. 

  • Positive sayings, expressions, and affirmations

Remember the movie The Help? During a memorable scene, Octavia Spencer tells two-year-old Mae Mobley to keep repeating the phrase: “You is kind. You is smart. You is important.” We know from recent research that positive affirmations are mental nutrients that enable us to refute the negative self-talk that too often spirals inside our heads. Can we envision a future where all parents and caregivers, with support from their local children’s museum, are teaching their children about the power of positive affirmations?

  • Soaring with our strengths

Too many kids today seem to magnify and obsess over their weaknesses, whether it’s because of social media or parenting styles. Yet research shows that we soar with our strengths. Could every children’s museum find a way for kids in their communities to learn their superpower or character strength they consistently use when they are at their best? For example, with support from their local museum, can we imagine children learning about their “signature” character strength via a short video recorded by a family member or close friend?

I hope the ideas above may spark the imaginations of everyone who works at a children’s museum. My friends, your collective mission inspires me. On behalf of the board and staff of Character.org, we would be honored to help every children’s museum across our nation elevate the importance of character.

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  1. Phil Brown

    What a great opportunity for character.org to be invited in at this early stage of a significant infusion of funds to children’s museums that aligns with our purpose. In your blog I particularly resonated with the phrase ‘positive affirmations are mental nutrients’. That is such a powerful and seductive image that could be useful for kids. Acts of kindness and caring truly shift neuro-chemicals, which can be sensed and felt … and encourage growth.

  2. Arthur Affleck

    My colleagues and I were so fortunate to have you as a speaker. During the December convening and through this excellent blog post, you shared many useful and stimulating ideas, strategies and approaches for fostering character in kids. By incorporating these strategies, children’s museums can build on the important hands on, interactive, playful learning exhibits and experiences they provide. They can do more to become vital spaces for nurturing well-rounded individuals with strong character traits that will serve them well throughout their lives. By doing so, I believe ACM member museums will play a major role in shaping the future generation of caring, responsible, and engaged citizens.

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