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“If you want to be happy for the rest of your life”

| August 24, 2016 | 0 Comments

By Iliana Heideman

What makes our hearts sing?

Religious or spiritual faith, career success, hobbies, pastimes, sport, travel – all lift our spirits and enrich our existence. It is in personal relationships, though, that we find the greatest happiness. Central to relationships is our engagement with others – practising acts of kindness, tolerance, forgiveness and empathy – all part of emotional intelligence that is critical to the development of young people and their future success, as individuals and members of society.

There is so much that we teach children, even from the tender age of four: how the planets revolve around the sun in the solar system, how to do simple sums, how Napoleon was defeated at the Battle of Waterloo, and that water is made of hydrogen and oxygen in a structure that vaguely resembles Mickey Mouse. And we ensure that we teach all this valid and useful information well, so that it sits in their beautiful knowledge space forever.

Do we neglect character education?

However, when we look at the problems that plague children, their parents and all of us as teachers, our education system falls short in the ethics and values domain. How good are we at teaching our children to be kind to one another, so that it becomes second nature? Is enough done in educating them to stay away from verbal and physical abuse so that they don’t become regular and active victims of violence? Perhaps, as we focus on the “final product” in our educational endeavours, character education is neglected somewhat. I believe that ethical and values-driven issues should form the backbone of our education framework. Ethics and values enable children to use logical and rational reasoning skills in common, difficult situations they encounter, and promote openmindedness as we prepare them to become sound decision-makers. These lessons empower them with capabilities and attitudes that foster the promotion and protection of their personal development, as well as the well-being of their families, their friends, our society and, ultimately, the world.

Investigating ethics

The issue of ethics was firmly in the spotlight recently at SAHETI School in Johannesburg, Gauteng, as part of a whole school theme that explored questions of values and responsibilities in ethical thinking and action. Quick to take up the challenge was SAHETI Pre-Primary School, where a programme of activities and discussion was incorporated in the curriculum by Grade R educators, producing spontaneous and positive responses from young minds.

The aim was to focus on concepts and ideas around the questions: “What are we living for? What is my purpose in life? How can I be the very best I can be?” – all of which relate to ethics and values. Should these types of questions not be the starting point of education? We need to encourage our children to seek out and examine the logic that shapes their judgements, opinions and feelings and that builds rather than erodes their own – and others’ – confidence, self-worth and self-esteem.

During the initiative, we helped pupils identify and talk about their emotions and how to have empathy towards others through warm/fuzzy as well as cold/prickly pictures and puppets with sad, angry, scared, excited and happy faces. We used activities like baking not just to produce delicious cookies, but also to foster cooperation and teamwork, and a sensitivity towards others’ needs. We discussed issues around smart choices versus not-so-good choices by telling stories, sharing experiences and describing scenarios in which we asked: “What would you do if you were in this situation?” And through their participation in socio-imaginative and fantasy play (always popular with preschoolers), they were able to see vividly the implications of their actions on others.

Using multiple resources

One of the main issues addressed was bullying, where children were open about what this meant. They were encouraged to come up with ideas that would enable them to stand up for themselves, feel empowered rather than victimised and assist others in difficult situations. Educators used books on this topic, such as the Let’s Talk About’ series by Joy Berry1 and I See, I Learn’ series by Stuart J Murphy2, which gave further guidance and support through specific strategies that reinforced appropriate, constructive behaviour. Other issues addressed included dishonesty, manipulation of others’ feelings, rule bending, exploitation of the environment, animal cruelty, unfairness, unkindness and lack of compassion and humanity. Instead of trying to arrive at a standard or all-encompassing rule of what is ethical, the depth and variety of issues that underpin discussions about ethics was demonstrated through ageappropriate activities.

What it means to be human

There is a wealth of valuable information available on this topic, all of which reinforces that true happiness and success in life as a child and as an adult come from appreciating our blessings and getting involved in the things that we love to do. But interacting with other people in an ethical and values-driven way is central to our emotional well-being and self-worth. It brings us back to basics and reminds us of what it means to be human. Perhaps we sometimes need to pause the pursuit of pure knowledge, and pay more attention to the timeless principles of ethics and values.


1. Berry, J. (2010) Let’s Talk About Feeling Angry. Illinois: Jo Berry Books.
2. Murphy, S. J. (2011) Camille’s Team (I See I Learn). Massachusetts: Charlesbridge Publishing.

Category: Spring 2016

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