What Does 'Strong Character' Mean? -- Helping Your Child Become a Responsible Citizen

Character is a set of qualities, or values, that shape our thoughts, actions, reactions and feelings. People with strong character

Childlike drawing of a small child helping an elderly woman with a cane cross the street.
  • show compassion,
  • are honest and fair,
  • display self-discipline in setting and meeting goals,
  • make good judgments,
  • show respect to others,
  • show courage in standing up for beliefs,
  • have a strong sense of responsibility,
  • are good citizens who are concerned for their community, and
  • maintain self-respect.


Compassion, or empathy, means identifying with and being concerned about other people's feelings and needs. It provides the emotional root for caring about other people. It allows us to be understanding and tolerant of different points of views and beliefs, it makes us aware of the suffering of others, and it allows us to empathize with them or to feel their suffering as our own. Compassion also allows us to feel joy and excitement—rather than anger and despair—at other people's successes and achievements.

Babies may begin to cry when they hear other sounds of crying, and coo and laugh when they hear others making happy sounds. By the age of three, many children will make an effort to hug or comfort another child or a parent who seems upset. As children grow, compassion can guide their actions and behaviors in positive ways. They understand that by doing something wrong, they cause others pain or unhappiness.

We can promote compassion by helping our children to think about how others feel. For example, if your child says or does something hurtful to another child, help him* to focus his attention on the feelings of his victim by saying, for example, "How do you think Zack feels? Would you like to feel like that?" Children develop compassion by practicing acts of caring and kindness towards others. As adults, we need to emphasize the importance of helping others, giving others the benefit of the doubt and being open to differences.

What You Can Do

  • Talk about the point of view of others as you watch TV, read books or discuss other people with your child. For example, ask, "What do you think that character is feeling and thinking?"

  • Show care toward others, such as doing errands for sick neighbors or opening doors for others.

  • Give others the benefit of the doubt. If your child complains that a classmate deliberately pushed her down on the way to lunch, explain that sometimes when people are in a hurry, they don't watch where they're going—they don't mean to push or hurt anyone.

  • Be open to differences. If your child says "Our new neighbors dress funny," explain that people often wear clothes that reflect their cultures or native countries.

—Daddy, why is Grandma crying?
—She's very sad. One of her friends just died. Come sit with me. Do you remember how you felt when your gerbil, Whiskers, died?
—I felt sad and lonely.
—Well imagine how much worse Grandma must feel losing a friend. Maybe you can think of a way to help her.
—I could give her a hug...
—That's a great idea!

Honesty and Fairness

Simply put, honesty means being truthful with ourselves and with others. It means caring enough about others not to mislead them for personal benefit. It means facing up to our mistakes, even when we have to admit them to others or when they may get us into trouble.

Fairness means acting in a just way and making decisions, especially important ones, on the basis of evidence rather than prejudice. It means "playing by the rules" and standing up for the right of everyone to be treated equally and honestly.

To understand the importance of being honest and fair, children need to learn that living together in a family, community or even a nation depends on mutual trust. Without honesty and fairness, trusting each other becomes very difficult, and families—and societies—fall apart.

Words of caution: There is a big difference between being dishonest—lying or cheating—and "making things up," as children often do in fantasy play. If children are taught that not telling the truth is "a bad thing," some young children might assume that it is also a bad thing to pretend to be a princess or an astronaut. Although you should discourage your child from deliberately lying and cheating, you should also let him know that it is fine to role play and pretend.

What You Can Do

  • Be a model of honest relations with others.

  • Discuss with your child what honesty is and is not. Point out, for example, that being honest doesn't mean telling someone you think he looks ugly. Kindness goes along with honesty.

—Dad, Why can't I choose what video to watch? It is not fair that Ramon gets to pick?
—Yes, it is fair, because you got to pick the video we watched last night. Now it is Ramon's turn.
  • Discuss fairness (chances are that your child will bring it up) in different situations. For example, how do we show fairness in our family? What does fairness mean to the community? What were standards of fairness in the past?

  • Talk about how you try to be fair in your life and work. What issues of justice have you wrestled with? Your adolescent will be particularly interested in talking with you about these things.

—Mom, why did you tell the cashier that she'd given you too much change? It was her mistake, so why didn't you just keep it.
—Because the money wasn't mine, and it would have been dishonest for me to keep it.


Self-discipline is the ability to set a realistic goal or make a plan—then stick with it. It is the ability to resist doing things that can hurt others or ourselves. It involves keeping promises and following through on commitments. It is the foundation of many other qualities of character.

Often self-discipline requires persistence and sticking to long-term commitments—putting off immediate pleasure for later fulfillment. It also includes dealing effectively with emotions, such as anger and envy, and developing patience.

Learning self-discipline helps children regulate their behavior and gives them the willpower to make good decisions and choices. On the other hand, the failure to develop self-discipline leaves children wide open to destructive behavior. Without the ability to control or evaluate their impulses, they often dive headlong into harmful situations.

What You Can Do

  • Talk with your child about setting reachable goals. For example, help him break big tasks into little tasks that can be accomplished one at a time. Have the child pick a task and set a deadline for completing it. When the deadline has passed, check together to see if the task was completed.

  • Help your child build a sense of her competence. To do this, she needs experiences of success, no matter how small. This builds confidence and effort for the next time. Keep making the tasks just a little more challenging but doable.

—Who just called?
—It was Tyler, Dad. He wanted me to go with him to the video store to check out the new DVDs.
—What did you tell him?
—I said I couldn't, because you and I need to work on my science project for school.

Good Judgment

Children develop strong character by learning to think about and make sound judgments about what is right or wrong, good or bad. These are not always easy distinctions for adults to make, much less children.

For example, it can be difficult for a child to recognize the difference between acting bravely and acting recklessly. As parents, we can help by showing, through what we do as well as what we say, that it is important in such situations to think carefully and honestly about what should be done, carefully weighing how others will be affected by what we do.

Sometimes we get into trouble because we "just didn't think." We let our emotions lead us to actions that we regret later. Making good judgments requires skills in monitoring impulses, using reasoning to sort through feelings and facts, and thinking about the consequences of our actions.

Your child's ability to think and make sound judgments will improve as she matures. With age, however, it also may become easier for her to try to justify and make excuses for selfish or reckless behavior. However, if you have helped her develop strong habits of honesty, courage, responsibility and self-respect, your child will have the ability to see the flaws in her reasoning and be able to come to the right conclusion about what to do.

What You Can Do

  • Teach your child to stop and think before acting on impulse.

  • Teach your child to tell fact from feeling. Let him know that just because he feels strongly about something—such as hitting someone who made him angry—doesn't mean it's the right thing to do.

  • Encourage your child to think about the consequences of her decisions. Tell her little stories about situations she might face and talk about actions she might take, who might be affected by her actions, what might happen because of her actions and what the best action might be.

  • When your child has a problem with a rule, brainstorm together a list of possible reasons for the rule. This leads to greater understanding.

  • Remind your child to pay attention to the rules or codes that apply in each situation. For example, the rules for behaving in church are different from those for a football game.

—I got really mad because John wouldn't talk to me.
—What were you doing at the time?
—We were in line for lunch.
—Well, what's the rule about waiting in line?
—You aren't supposed to talk.
—Then John was doing the right thing, wasn't he?

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Last Modified: 10/08/2003