We live in a time when teaching our children to be virtuous is
especially challenging. Youngsters are surrounded by political
sound-bites; outlandish promises from advertisers; and television
programming and films filled with lying, gratuitous violence and sex as
entertainment. As a parent, you might feel weary and overwhelmed as you
try to help your children develop virtues such as honesty, respect for
themselves and others, humility, courage and a generous rather than
greedy heart. You’re not alone. The challenge of helping humans develop
high moral character has perplexed philosophers, psychologists and
theologians for centuries.
What Can Parents Do?
Over the years we’ve had
many parents ask us how to help their children develop positive personal
qualities. We’ve heard questions such as: “My son is so selfish, how
can I teach him to be generous?” “My daughter is always so angry and
mean to her friends. What can I do to help her see that she should treat
others with kindness and respect?” and “How can I get my child to be
When it comes to character development, there is no more foolish
philosophy than the old saying, “Do as I say, not as I do.” Along with
Aristotle, we believe your children first need to see virtue in action
in order to try out their virtue-wings. Parents, relatives, siblings and
childcare providers give children their first glimpses of courage,
honesty, generosity, fairness and respect.
It’s not enough for your children to see you and other important
adults and peers behaving virtuously. They also need encouragement,
praise and character feedback.
Encouragement: You can encourage your children with
words or simply by showing faith in their positive potential. For the
boy who is acting selfish, you might say, “I’m going to stop reminding
you to share because I know you can do it on your own.” You can also
actively notice your children’s behavior when they do something
positive. For example, when you see your daughter share her toys with
another child, you might just say, “Hey, I noticed you let Joannie play
with your special toy.” You don’t even need to follow that comment up
with praise, because just the fact that you noticed will have an affect.
A basic behavioral principle is this: Children will repeat actions
that get them attention from their parents. What this means is that we
need to worry more about catching our children doing something right
than doing something wrong.
Character feedback: Most parents, us included, find
it natural to give negative character feedback to our children. If a
child is easily angered and reactive, we forget that she only sometimes
is angry and mean, and so we tend to say things like, “Why do you have
to be so mean?”
Unfortunately, when we repeatedly focus on the negative with our
children, they may begin believing us. So, the girl who acts angry
begins to define herself as “an angry girl.” You can see how important
it is to notice when your children behave kindly and to give them a
positive character building statement such as, “You’re the kind of girl
who knows how to be nice to her friends.”
Dishonesty: Children are often tempted to lie about
their misbehavior. This isn’t an easy problem, but one strategy that
works is to separate the misbehavior from the truth or lie. In other
words, when children are honest about the rules they’ve broken, they can
receive “truth bonuses.” Or, if they lie about breaking a rule, then
they suffer two separate consequences, one for the misbehavior and one
for the lie.
Good works: Character development is enhanced by
opportunities to do good in the world. Volunteering to help at food
banks, helping coach younger children, giving money to a family-chosen
charity – all these efforts instill important habits in your children.
But don’t force them to help at the soup kitchen alone. Join them, and
have a talk afterwards. Of course it’s hard to find time for such
things, hard to interact with people who seem different and tempting to
feel judgmental toward people who need help, but the payoffs can be
Character development begins at home and continues at school. As a
parent, consider how you can bring some of your best character-building
ideas to your child’s school. You can have a voice in having the school
choose character-building reading materials, activities and speakers.
Talk to your child’s school counselor, teachers, coaches or principal
about how you can contribute to the challenge of character development
in all young people.
By Rita Sommers-Flanagan, Ph.D., and John Sommers-Flanagan, Ph.D.; www.schoolcounselor.org