Skip to main content Skip to header navigation

Keys to building character

I’m worried about how to help my son and daughter turn into ethical, caring people, especially with all the questionable influences out there these days. Any ideas?

It’s a real issue. With the loss of community in the past two generations (now “the village it takes to raise a child” looks more like a ghost town), an increasingly “look out for yourself” economy, and a vulgar and self-absorbed culture penetrating every corner of our lives – including children’s television and advertisements – yes, we really have to wonder these days about how best to encourage good character in our precious children.

From our professional perspectives – and our lessons and mistakes in raising our own children – we offer these keys.

Support your own health and well-being
As the saying goes, you know the tree by its fruits. Our children consider the choices we ask them to make – many of which involve delaying or saying no to certain pleasures – and they naturally wonder what the rewards will be to offset those costs. Kids are concrete, and if they see their parents being happy, successful, and fulfilled in their own lives, they’re more likely to conclude that good character is worth the effort.

You don’t want to get into the position – especially with teenagers – of preaching various virtues to them, and then have them say (or think) essentially that: “You’re unhappy in your work and grumpy and blue at home, you drink too much, and you seem irritated most of the time with your spouse…so why in the world should I walk down the same road you have??!”

Be a good role model
Children observe and act like their parents, so we need to walk our own talk. Consider the virtues, restraints, and aspirations that you would do well to increase in your own life, and perhaps you and your partner could talk with each other about this.

Be nurturing and intimate
At the end of the day, the greatest influence we have on our children, especially as they get older, is based their sense of connection with us. By being loving and patient ourselves, we draw them to us and minimize the anger and scolding that pushes them away.

Help the child succeed
Children have temperaments, illnesses, personal frustrations and disappointments and moods, an uneven intellectual profile, and occasional health problems. All of these increase the odds of child misbehavior. By paying attention to these sorts of factors, and by trying to prevent problems before they start, you can make it easier for your child to act like a good person…and thus feel like one…and thus be motivated to keep on the path of good character.

For example, be realistic about preschoolers in restaurants; sure, maybe you can punish that child intensely enough to get him to sit still for an hour, but is the collateral damage worth it? Or consider whether a tightly-controlled and buttoned-down type of school is really the best place for a child with a spirited temperament. Think about the nagging, sub-clinical health problems that seem so common these days, especially among boys, such as food sensitivities. Consider whether you’ve got a child who gets flooded and discombobulated by incoming sensory stimuli, and would be served by quieter environments and perhaps a formal assessment by an occupational therapist.

In sum, step back and consider, perhaps with your mate, what sort of measures you could take to set your child up with the best chances of SUCCEEDING at sticking with virtues and good values.

Encourage empathy
It’s a fundamental human ability to sense what it’s like to be another person. In fact, neuroscientists have recently discovered a special class of “mirror neurons” that light up in sympathetic response to others, so we experience ourselves a glimmer of what the other person is feeling.

Caring about what others feel in general, and about our impacts on them in particular, depends a lot on sensing what their experience actually is. Consequently, we serve our children by drawing their attention to the inner world of others. For example, attuned to the age of your child, ask what he or she thinks a character in a story or TV show might be feeling, or wanting, or thinking about doing. Or a person in real life, from the nice old lady the child just helped to another child in school the child just insulted.

As appropriate, try to convey the notion that people usually have several feelings or desires at once, often pulling in different directions. And that softer feelings or more vulnerable desires are under the surface, like the way hurt and fear often underlie anger, or the way that a longing to feel of worth lies beneath a hyper-competitive desire to win a game. You can do this by sharing your own inner experience when that would be useful, by naming what might be going on inside your child, and by pointing it out in others.

Speak the language of virtue and values
Let’s say a preschooler gets really mad and tries to hit you. You might say something like: “Don’t do that! It hurts me, and makes me feel bad.” Or you might say: “Don’t do that! Hitting is a bad thing to do. People should use their words when they’re angry.”

Both are good, and a combination is probably best. But notice that the first message, if it stands alone, bases moral conduct on how the child FEELS about the other person; it’s individual and emotional, rather than a general, principled adherence to an abstract principle like non-violence or kindness.

Without shaming the child unduly, there’s a place for clearly naming misbehaviors and virtuous conduct, adjusting your words to the age and nature of your child. Like: “It’s plain wrong to hit your little sister.” “Taking what’s not yours is stealing, and that’s a bad thing.” “It’s good to tell the truth.” “People who try hard and don’t give up are admired and respected.” “It’s right to be generous.”

Help the child tolerate “the Healthy Wince”
In order to learn from our experiences, we have to be able to tolerate the feeling of being less than perfect, of erring, of messing up. That feeling is a healthy wince, a small sense of “oops, messed up,” or “my bad,” or “sorry” — and sometimes a thoroughgoing and honorable sense of remorse (hopefully in proportion to what actually happened).

But if that feeling is intolerable – perhaps because it triggers too much guilt, or shame, or sense of inadequacy – then we defend against it…by avoiding the knowledge that we have something important to learn. And that totally flattens our learning curve since it makes us less open to the world and the lessons it holds.

What helps a child (or adult) tolerate that healthy wince?

  • Relax the body, through whatever means works: big breaths, consciously releasing tension, stretching, imagining being at the beach, etc.
  • Remember or think about things that create a feeling of being liked, wanted, included, prized, or loved. Like story time in bed with dad, or Christmas morning, or doing something fun with friends, or being appreciated by teammates for the winning goal.
  • Remember or think about things that create a feeling of accomplishment, success, and personal worth. Such as learning to ride a tricycle, getting a good grade on a hard test, or helping in a real way at synagogue or church.
  • Put the lesson in perspective. Tell yourself that it’s a minute or less of feeling bad and it will pass. Or just this evening that you’ll be in the doghouse. Or just a rebuke about a small part of your performance in sports or at school. The negative feedback is just one tile in the mosaic that every person is, with dozens – actually, hundreds – of lovely and wonderful other tiles.

Arrange for lessons from others
Coaches, teachers, relatives, (well-selected) older kids, and employers are often the best sources of character education. Also consider books and movies, such as the Little House on the Prairie series, stories of journeys (e.g., The Hobbit, Watership Down, Down the Long Hills), or classics like the Narnia books. And for many children (and adults) the central source of moral education and good character will be religious or spiritual.

Use rewards and penalties skillfully
Consequences have gotten a bit of a bad rap because they’ve been over-used. But the world is full of consequences – like raises for good work, tickets for speeding, invitations to parties that grow out of friendship, pink slips for coming late to work, or getting voted out of office for incompetence – and these natural effects of causes teach great lessons that help focus us on doing the virtuous thing. As someone once said, karma is hitting golf balls in a tiled shower.

The same is true for children. Reasonable, potent rewards and penalties – and like most professionals, we discourage corporal punishment – focus the child’s attention and become a basis for values to be internalized about what’s right and what’s wrong. Give consequences calmly, explain the reason why, be compassionate but firm, and typically remind the child of the underlying moral principle or value that’s at stake.

Take the long view
Keep in mind the developmental age of the child; often we really do ask too much of our children. It is natural for preschoolers — and teenagers, too, alas — to be shockingly self-centered. A certain amount of parenting is just getting through things, one day at a time. Most kids, even the wildest and most oppositional, eventually turn into responsible, kind-hearted adults — who still love and appreciate their mom an dad.

Leave a Comment

Comments are closed.