by Kimberly L. Keith
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? We have many opportunities and tools for this important task. Using them will give us the joy and satisfaction of seeing our 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 we honest, trustworthy, fair, compassionate, respectful, involved in the greater good of our family and community? How do our children know this? They see it in our 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 our children feel that we understand and care about them deeply, they have the intrinsic motivation to learn the lessons of love and character we share.
Direct Instruction – Teachable Moments to Build Character
Discipline strategies are an important tool to use teachable moments to build character. We should always take the opportunity to explain why our child’s behavior is wrong when we 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 we can use is to ‘make amends’. For example, dishonesty is best resolved when we confess and are held accountable. Sometimes an apology to the person wronged is enough; other times we must take action to right the wrong. Brief, but direct instruction about why we have a family rule and the underlying value we 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; and if you think about it, we still do. As we tell the stories of our lives and the world around us, we convey lessons of virtue and ethics to our children. Discussions about the stories we see on TV are opportunities to reinforce our values. Listening and responding to our child’s stories about school and peers, we can help them think through the right thing to do. Being mindful of our children listening to the stories we tell other adults, we teach that our values guide all aspects of our 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. About Children’s Books will guide you to finding some good children’s literature choices that teach character. Sharing real-life stories from the news and internet with our children inspires us all to pursue our values in life.
Experiential Learning – Practicing Qualities of Character
We know from education models that we must practice what we learn before it comes naturally to us. We can learn vicariously when we see it and learn directly when we hear it. But, we need to do it and feel it to know the true meaning of character in our selves. We can use opportunities for decision-making to help our child take ethical action and see the positive results in their daily lives. We can also find opportunities to be involved in social and community action that is accessible for our children. Find ways for your children to learn altruism through good deeds.