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

Respect for Others

Respect for others is based on self-respect and is summed up in the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have others do unto you. It is the value that makes the world a more decent and civilized place.

Childlike drawing of two soccer players shaking hands after a game.

People show respect in many ways. They speak and act civilly—avoiding insults, cruel remarks and rude or crude language. They are courteous and considerate of others, including family members and friends, and care about their rights, beliefs and well-being. They treat others fairly and as individuals, regardless of race, sex, age or ethnic group. They display tolerance for people who do not share their personal beliefs and likes—so long as those people do not harm others.

Research indicates that children learn to respect others when they are treated with respect themselves. Constant criticism of a child, negative comments about him and failure to praise his achievements can lead the child to be disrespectful to others. Treating children with respect pays large dividends both to families and to societies as a whole.

What You Can Do

  • Practice respectful ways of communicating. Show your child how to talk to others with respect.

  • Help your child to resolve conflicts nonviolently. When facing a conflict, encourage your child to do the following: (1) Find out what the conflict is. For example, if your child is angry because his little brother barges into his room without knocking, help him to explain the conflict by using an "I" statement, such as "I feel angry when you come into my room without knocking." (2) Next, suggest different ways he might resolve the conflict. He could say to his brother, "I know I can't always hear when I'm listening to music, so you knock really loud five times—if I don't answer, then open the door." Or, "If I don't answer your knock, slide a note under the door." Or, "Let's use our walkie talkies." (3) Then have your child agree on one of the choices. (4) Finally, have him make a plan to check whether the solution is working.

  • Teach your child to respect the valued traditions of your heritage. Talk about family customs for showing respect, for honoring elders and for helping the community. Encourage her to do these things.

—Kaylee, is that my new sweater you're wearing.
—Yeah, Mom. What's wrong? Doesn't it look OK with this skirt?
—How it looks on you isn't the point. You didn't ask me if you could borrow that sweater, did you?
—No, Mom. I guess I thought you wouldn't mind.
—Well, I do mind that you didn't ask first. That's not very respectful, is it?


Self-respect means taking satisfaction in appropriate behavior and hard—won accomplishments. People with self-respect also respect others. They do not need to disparage others or build themselves up by bragging or exaggerating their abilities or talents. They do not need lots of money or power to feel good about themselves.

People who respect themselves view selfishness, loss of self-discipline, recklessness, cowardice and dishonesty as wrong and unworthy of them. They have inner strength and are unwilling to let others use or manipulate them. They know that showing patience or tolerance does not mean allowing others to mistreat them.

People with self-respect do not crumble when they fail. They accept mistakes as a part of life. As we help our children set high standards for themselves, we also need to let them know that failure is no embarrassment when they have done their best.

Teaching children self-respect, however, does not mean complimenting everything they do. They also need honest criticism from time to time. When we do criticize, we should focus on things they have done, not on them personally.

What You Can Do

  • Encourage your child to build a positive identity that focuses on her integrity and talents.

  • Emphasize that character is built upon the decisions and actions a person takes each day.

  • Work with your child to help him reach his full potential by encouraging him to develop his talents, set reachable goals and honor himself as a unique person.

  • Teach your child how to choose good values. Help her reason about what are worthy goals and what are proper means to reach those goals.

—Why so down, Charlie?
—We lost the game.
—Did you play a good game?
—Yeah, we played our hardest.
—There's no shame in losing a game when you've played your best and the other team just played better. Hold your head high, son!


Courage is the ability to overcome fear in order to do what is right, even if it is difficult or risky. Courage can mean facing physical dangers, but it also can mean standing up for beliefs and making hard decisions on the basis of evidence rather than on what is the easy or popular thing to do. It means being neither reckless nor cowardly but facing up to our duties and responsibilities.

Courage, however, does not mean never being afraid; and children should be told that there are times when it is all right to be frightened and to run away from danger. But they also need to learn how to face and overcome some fears, such as a fear of the dark.

What You Can Do

  • Coach your child on how to be brave. Praise him when he acts courageously (but never ridicule him for any reason—ridicule can have long-lasting effects on a child's self-confidence).

  • Discuss with your child how to say no. Sometimes children don't know how to say no to peers who ask them to do dangerous or risky things. After identifying ways that she might be tempted, teach your child a three-step process for self-protection:
    1. Apply the "trouble" rule: Will this action break a law or rule?
    2. Make a good decision—think carefully about the risks or possible consequences.
    3. Act fast to avoid trouble, using options such as the following:
      • Say no!
      • Leave.
      • Make a joke.
      • Suggest something better to do.
      • Make an excuse such as, "My dad will get really mad."
      • Act shocked.
—Mom, some of the kids were smoking after school today. One of them offered me a cigarette.
—What did you do?
—I said no.
—Then what happened.
—Everybody laughed at me and called me a baby.
—So then what did you do?
—I just walked away.
—Good for you! That took a lot of courage, and I'm proud of you.


Being responsible means being dependable, keeping promises and honoring our commitments. It is accepting the consequences for what we say and do. It also means developing our potential.

People who are responsible don't make excuses for their actions or blame others when things go wrong. They think things through and use good judgment before they take action. They behave in ways that encourage others to trust them.

People who are responsible take charge of their lives. They make plans and set goals for nurturing their talents and skills. They are resilient in finding ways to overcome adversity. They make decisions, taking into account obligations to family and community.

Children need to learn that being part of a family and a community involves accepting responsibilities. When each of us acts responsibly, our families and communities will be stronger.

—I'm going to Mattie's house, Dad.
—Have you walked the dog?
—No. I'll do that when I get back.
—Casey, walking the dog is your responsibility. In this house, meeting our responsibilities comes first. Walk the dog, and then you can go to Mattie's.

What You Can Do

  • Make agreements with your child and expect him to follow through.

  • When things go wrong, help your child take responsibility for her part and make a plan to do things differently next time.

  • Encourage your child to find out more about the world and how his actions may affect others far away.

Citizenship and Patriotism

Citizenship requires doing our share for our community and our country. Being a good citizen means caring about the good of society and participating actively to make things better.

Research reveals that participating in community service programs and learning about the importance and value of serving others can be a powerful influence on positive character development.

Patriotism is an important part of good citizenship. Patriotism is love of and loyalty to our country. It involves honoring the democratic ideals on which the country is based and expecting elected officials to do the same, respecting and obeying its laws and honoring its flag and other symbols. It also involves accepting the responsibilities of good citizenship, such as keeping informed about national issues, voting, volunteering and serving the country in times of war.

What You Can Do

  • Take your child with you when you vote. Talk to him about the candidates, the offices they aspire to hold and their positions on key issues.

  • Participate in community-building activities, such as cleaning up parks and assisting with school activities.

  • Discuss citizenship with your child and find examples of what good citizens have done for their communities.

—Mom, where are you going?
—I'm going to a meeting. People who live on this block are getting together to plan how we can clean up that empty lot down the street and turn it into a playground.
—That would be great, Mom! But I thought Aunt Jen was coming over tonight.
—She's coming over tomorrow night instead. She understands it's important that I be at tonight's meeting. A playground down the street is just what our community and our family need, and I want to help make it happen.

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Last Modified: 10/08/2003