People who have good character do the right thing because they believe it is the right thing to do. They are respectful, reliable, and considerate of others’ needs.
As parents, caregivers and educators, we want to see our children display good character. But teaching traits like honesty, loyalty and kindness can feel daunting. Learning to read and write seems more straightforward than learning to be responsible! Thankfully, there are some ways to include character skill-building into your regular routines.
Model the kinds of traits you want to see in your child.
Letting youth see the adults in their life act in caring, responsible, and resilient ways is the best way to show them what good character looks like. Speak about others with compassion and fairness. If you make a mistake, apologize and make it right. If you encounter difficulty, lead with empathy and perseverance. We sometimes want to shield our kids from seeing us struggle, but in age-appropriate situations, allowing children to see adults respectfully disagree or keep working toward a goal even when it is hard teaches them that they don’t always have to be perfect and that they are empowered to make good decisions themselves.
Read or listen to stories featuring characters learning about good character.
Another way to model how good character traits can develop is through stories. Books for children and youth often feature characters that are actively learning lessons about specific traits, which means that they also show what it looks like when those traits aren’t being used.
Read picture books or chapter books aloud to younger kids and consider reading alongside older youth so you can talk about what they’ve read. Don’t forget that comics and graphic novels are great sources of good character traits and develop the same literacy skills as reading novels! Listening to audiobooks while in the car or doing chores is another way to get stories in. You can find lists of books that highlight good character or ask your local children’s librarian for suggestions.
Talk about good character traits and why they are important.
Don’t only model or read stories about good character traits and assume your child will pick them up; be sure to take the time to talk to your child about what they’ve seen. This will help draw attention to the qualities you want them to learn and help them understand why they should. Ask questions like “How did their behavior affect others?”, “How did they change from the beginning of the story to the end?”, or “What might have happened if they didn’t help?”
Give positive praise when you see your child doing the right thing.
A great way to reinforce skills of all kinds is to give specific encouragement when they’ve done well. Saying “I saw how you helped your brother clean up his room earlier, that was very kind,” highlights the specific behavior and makes the link to a good character trait, while also making your child feel good about themselves.
Even if you have to correct behavior that misses the mark, do so in a way that focuses on growth. Asking questions like “What could you have said that would be more respectful?” or “How would being honest next time make your friend feel?” gives your child a chance to practice good character and to connect actions to consequences.
Practice as a family.
Whether it’s doing chores together to practice responsibility or volunteering at a community service project to practice compassion, the ways you spend your time as a family are an indicator of your values to your kids. Young children want to get involved in the things they see their parents do, so harness that natural impulse! With older kids and teens, ask them about the issues they care about, and then let them have increasing leadership roles in how the family gets involved. For example, if your child or teen is passionate about animal welfare, spend a morning cuddling puppies and cleaning pens at a local animal shelter and then have a favorite lunch treat to talk about the experience. If they are worried about climate change, participate in a march for action or write letters together to your representatives in Federal and State government as an example of integrity and courage.
Developing good character starts early and is an ongoing process. When we share character-building values with our kids and openly discuss positive character traits, youth are more likely to start displaying those good character traits themselves.
Learn more about how Boys & Girls Clubs’ focus on character and leadership helps create the leaders and problem-solvers of tomorrow.