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WHAT IS RESPONSIBLE BEHAVIOR? HEROES’ LIVES PROVIDE CLUES

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Teaching children to act responsibly is a critical part of their development. Among the complexities of this task is defining responsible behavior in a world where basic values are often challenged and disputed.

Recently, while visiting my mother, I came across some papers I wrote in the sixth grade. The assignment was to read material on the lives of famous individuals, then write about how their decisions and behavior illustrated responsibility. The heroes we studied were not from sports or entertainment. They were individuals noted for their service to others, including Abraham Lincoln, Albert Schweitzer and Florence Nightingale.Using good judgment and making wise choices lay at the foundation of their acts of responsibility, a premise we all agreed upon before looking for characteristics that demonstrated responsibility in their lives.

The exercise culminated in a compilation of our varied opinions, which included the following:

- We all agreed that each of the famous people in our survey displayed empathy for the lives of those they touched. The genuine caring, compassion and concern that enabled them to care unconditionally for those around them was evident. They did this without regard for what they might receive in return, making "giving freely of one's self" an easily understood concept for a group of sixth- graders.

- The consensus of our class was that this group of individuals acted in an honest and above-board fashion, not selectively, but as a matter of course. This reflexive, consistent and predictable approach to life engendered trust in those whose lives they touched.

- This pool of approximately 30 sixth-graders also decided that we felt acting responsibly entailed making decisions and choices based on objective evidence, logic and reason, rather than prejudice, self-serving desires or poorly thought out, impulsive whims. One of the obvious benefits of an exercise such as this is to demonstrate the contrast between the way sixth- graders often act and the way the heroes with maturity and unselfishness acted.

- As a group we also decided that the leaders demonstrated varying types and degrees of courage, such as a willingness to speak up for their principles, to risk rejection and to endure hardships when necessary. (Our teacher was wise in presenting this material at this point in our peer-pressure-prone lives.)

- The ability to admit mistakes and learn from them was found in these leaders' lives. We all agreed that responsible people are not perfect. Instead they are individuals who see less than perfect performance as acceptable when it is an opportunity to grow and develop. In other words, we learned that a good try is better than no try.

Although this sixth-grade compendium of views on responsibility is incomplete and subjective, it is not a bad place to start when trying to teach children about responsibility.

Finding it in my mother's box of saved materials, I realized she must have thought it a good lesson to review.