Shaping Character in a World Dominated by Social Media and AI.

Opinion by Kieran Galvin

For Kipinä parents, it’s no surprise that we prefer children under four to engage in activities other than playing with mobile devices, apps, or watching TV. We believe that human interaction and creativity offer more valuable learning experiences than these passive forms.

Those first cute moments of a child holding a tablet or phone in their tiny hands could not be further from a potentially dehumanising future driven by surveillance capital and social media networks that are fueling an epidemic of loneliness, polarised opinions, learned helplessness, moral uncertainty, indecision, emotional fragility, and mental health issues.

These qualities are not high on the list of hopes we have for future generations in a world where we face a juggernaut of change with the evolution of Artificial Intelligence.

We are not helpless in the face of these challenges and changes. Nor do we need to reject the benefits that social networks and artificial intelligence bring. But we can prepare children better for the future by helping develop character traits such as robustness, integrity, bravery, empathy, curiosity and reasoning.

While it’s tempting to look back on our own childhoods with a degree of nostalgia, we have to be careful not to cherry-pick from our experiences. I grew up at a time when teachers (and parents) thought very little of physically disciplining children or attaching labels. Indeed much of the education system seemed designed to sort out those who would work in manual trades from those who would go on to white collar jobs. It was far from perfect.

However, we grew up resilient, played in the streets, climbed the trees, took risks, and navigated everything from neighbourhood bullies to neighbourhood eccentrics. We walked safely at night. We went door to door looking for treats at halloween. We took summer jobs. And we broke adult rules. Our characters did not develop in the vacuum of a bedroom, alone with a mobile phone.

Mine was the generation before helicopter parenting, photos of missing children on milk bottles, 24 hour news instilling fear and misery. This was followed by social media networks and we are only now beginning to understand the detrimental affects they can have on children and teenagers – from body dysmorphia, self-confidence, to depression and more serious mental health issues.

It has perhaps never been more important to think about how we mentally and emotionally prepare young children for the future. The way to do that is by helping build positive character traits while they are young enough … before they inevitably have to navigate the complex worlds of online life and a digitised world.

At Kipinä we have always included character development in our curriculum. Now we are making it more central and more conscious to our daily activities.

Our Academic Team has designed an integrated approach to 6 high level character strengths that in turn are subdivided into 25 elements. Our teachers are undertaking additional certified training on Character Development (within our Finnish pedagogical approach) and we have developed new tools including medals, songs, masks, posters and a companion guide for parents.

Teaching fundamental character strengths at the preschool age plays a pivotal role in child development, shaping their attitudes and behaviours in the crucial formative years. Here’s an outline of the benefits of teaching key character strengths such as: respect, responsibility, bravery, empathy, peacefulness, and gratitude:

1. Respect:

  • Fosters Harmony: Teaching respect helps children understand the importance of treating others with kindness and consideration, fostering a more harmonious environment.
  • Encourages Acceptance: Respect also promotes acceptance of others’ differences, laying the foundation for open-mindedness and inclusivity.
  • Enhances Self-Esteem: When children learn to respect others, they also learn to respect themselves, boosting their self-esteem and self-worth.

2. Responsibility:

  • Promotes Independence: When children are taught to take responsibility, they learn to be more self-reliant, which is key to developing independence.
  • Cultivates Accountability: Children who learn responsibility understand that their actions have consequences, fostering a sense of accountability.
  • Encourages Problem-Solving: Teaching responsibility also encourages children to think critically and problem-solve when they make mistakes.

3. Bravery:

  • Builds Confidence: Bravery builds confidence in children, allowing them to face their fears and tackle new challenges.
  • Encourages Risk-Taking: A sense of bravery promotes a healthy attitude towards risk-taking, essential for personal growth and exploration.
  • Fosters Resilience: Bravery teaches children to persevere in the face of adversity, building resilience.

4. Empathy:

  • Develops Emotional Intelligence: Empathy helps children recognise and respond appropriately to their own emotions and the emotions of others, forming a key component of emotional intelligence.
  • Enhances Relationships: Empathetic children can form deeper, more meaningful relationships, as they can understand and appreciate others’ perspectives.
  • Promotes Kindness: Teaching empathy fosters a more compassionate and kind-hearted mindset.

5. Peacefulness:

  • Encourages Emotional Regulation: Peacefulness aids children in managing their emotions, which leads to improved emotional regulation skills.
  • Enhances Focus and Attention: A peaceful state of mind can increase children’s ability to concentrate and focus.
  • Promotes Conflict Resolution: Children who are peaceful are more likely to seek non-violent conflict resolution methods, improving their social interactions.

6. Gratitude:

  • Fosters Positive Attitude: Gratitude encourages a positive outlook on life, as children learn to appreciate what they have.
  • Enhances Happiness: Grateful children are often happier as they focus more on positive experiences and emotions.
  • Boosts Resilience: Gratitude can enhance resilience, as children who are grateful can cope more effectively with stress and life challenges.

Character Development at Kipinä is meaningfully linked to the way we teach Executive Functioning Skills for children. In addition to promoting character, our staff are also doing daily ’emotion check ins’ where children self report how they feel and teachers give them the vocabulary they need to express their complex feelings and ideas.

While everyone will have to adjust to technological and social developments in the coming decades, we feel a focus on character, resilience, and robustness in the internal lives of the children will prepare them for anything.

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