Ways to Build Character in Children

Family cooking in kitchen
Kristin Rogers Photography/Stocksy United

Structured character education has flourished as schools seek to instill the values of integrity, respect, responsibility, fairness, honesty, caring, and citizenship in their students to strengthen the social fabric of the school and community. Though not without criticism, these efforts to strengthen children's character through school-based programs are welcomed by parents who want their children educated in a strong culture of respect, integrity, and self-control.

Children's character development certainly can't come from the classroom alone. The qualities of character develop through an interplay of family, school, church, and community influences, and the child's individual temperament, experiences, and choices. What can parents do to encourage their child's development of the qualities of good character? You have many opportunities and tools for this important task. Using them will give you the joy and satisfaction of seeing your child grow into a person of integrity, compassion, and character.

Social Learning: A Family Culture of Character

Parents who exhibit the qualities of good character powerfully transmit their values by modeling the choices and actions that are essential to being a person of good character. Are you honest, trustworthy, fair, compassionate, respectful, and involved in the greater good of your family and community? How do your children know this?

They see it in your everyday actions and choices. They see that it brings a sense of joy, satisfaction, and peace to their family life. Children also learn that when they violate these guiding ethics, parents will implement consequences with fairness and dignity.

In her books on moral development in children, Michelle Borba teaches that the first step is empathy.

Empathy is the necessary condition in the parent-child relationship that allows us to teach all of the other character values to our children. When your children feel that you understand and care about them deeply, they have the intrinsic motivation to learn the lessons of love and character you share.

Direct Instruction: Teachable Moments to Build Character

Discipline strategies are an important tool to use teachable moments to build character. You should always take the opportunity to explain why your child's behavior is wrong when you correct him. Make a habit of identifying in your own mind the value you wish to teach the child based on the particular behavior. Choose a consequence that is appropriate to teach that value.

One natural consequence that you can use is to 'make amends'. For example, dishonesty is best resolved when you confess and are held accountable. Sometimes an apology to the person wronged is enough; other times you must take action to right the wrong. Brief, but direct instruction about why you have a family rule and the underlying value you hold helps the child learn from consequences and discipline.

Story Telling: Learning Qualities of Character from Literature and Life

Parents and teachers used stories to teach moral lessons long before the books were invented.

If you think about it, you still do. As you tell the stories of your life and the world around you, you convey lessons of virtue and ethics to your children. Discussions about the stories you see on TV are opportunities to reinforce your values. Listening and responding to your child's stories about school and peers, you can help them think through the right thing to do. Being mindful of your children listening to the stories you tell other adults, you teach that your values guide all aspects of your life.

Children's literature abounds with great books that illustrate important values. Great books reach the inner child and teach their lessons without the parent's interpretation or instruction.

 Sharing real-life stories from the news and internet with your children inspires you to pursue your values in life.

Experiential Learning: Practicing Qualities of Character

Education models say that you must practice what you learn before it comes naturally to you. You can learn vicariously when you see it and learn directly when you hear it. But, you need to do it and feel it to know the true meaning of character in yourself. You can use opportunities for decision-making to help your child take ethical action and see the positive results in her daily life. You can also find opportunities to be involved in social and community action that is accessible for your children. Find ways for your children to learn altruism through good deeds.

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