Ways to Build Character in Children

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Kristin Rogers Photography/Stocksy United

In some schools, structured character education is a part of the curriculum, right alongside reading, writing, and math. 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. But building character for kids can't just happen in the classroom.

The qualities of character develop through an interplay of family, school, and community influences and the child's individual temperament, experiences, and choices. Parents have many opportunities and tools to build their children's character. Using them will give you the joy and satisfaction of seeing your kids grow into people of integrity and compassion.

Be a Role Model

Parents who exhibit the qualities of good character powerfully transmit their values to their children. Model the choices and actions that are essential to being a person of good character. If you are honest, trustworthy, fair, compassionate, respectful, and involved in the greater good of your family and community, your children will see this in your everyday actions and choices. They will also see that this behavior brings a sense of joy, satisfaction, and peace to their family.

In her books on moral development in children, psychologist Michele Borba teaches that the first step is empathy. Empathy in the parent-child relationship 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.

Use Teachable Moments to Build Character

Children also need to learn that when they violate your family's guiding ethics, you will implement consequences with fairness and dignity. Effective discipline strategies help you use teachable moments to build character. 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 (say, returning a "borrowed" toy to a friend or sibling). Brief, but direct instruction about why you have a family rule and the underlying value you hold helps children learn from consequences and discipline: "In this family, we believe in honesty. Was it honest of you to take Sam's car and pretend you didn't? What should you do to make it right?"

Tell Stories from Literature and Life

Parents and teachers used stories to teach moral lessons long before books were even invented. As you tell the stories of your life and the world around you, you convey lessons in values and ethics to your children. And as you discuss the stories you see around you (on TV, in books, in the media), you reinforce your values. Children's literature abounds with great books that illustrate important values, as in this list from the American Academy of Pediatrics.

When you listen and respond to your children's stories about school and peers, you can help them think through the right thing to do. Be mindful of your children listening to the stories you tell other adults. These anecdotes show your kids how your values guide all aspects of your life.

Provide Opportunities to Practice

Kids must practice what they learn before it comes naturally to them. This applies in learning character, too. Children can learn vicariously when they see character-building in action and learn directly when they hear lessons in values. But they need hands-on experience to know the true meaning of character.

When your child has the opportunity to make a decision (say, having to choose between two friends), help her take ethical action and see the positive results in her daily life. You can also find ways to be involved in social and community action that are accessible to your children.

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