How Can We Help Children Learn about Character? -- Helping Your Child Become a Responsible Citizen

Childlike drawing of an adult male putting bag into a trash can.

Children learn about strong character when parents and other adults in their daily lives

  • set a good example through their own behavior and actions,
  • set and communicate high standards and clear expectations,
  • coach them on how to be responsible and kind, and
  • use literature to reinforce the values of strong character.

Set a Good Example

We are always teaching our children something by our words and our actions. They learn from seeing. They learn from hearing and from overhearing. They learn from us, from each other, from other adults in the community and by themselves.

Children share the values of their parents about the most important things in life. Our priorities and principles and our examples of good behavior can teach our children to take the high road when other roads look tempting.

Remember that children do not learn the values that make up strong character simply by being told about them. They learn by seeing the people around them act on and uphold those values in their daily lives. In our daily lives, we can show our children that we respect others. We can show them our compassion and concern when others are suffering, and our own self-discipline, courage and honesty as we make difficult decisions. How we conduct our everyday activities can show our children that we always try to do our best to serve our families, communities and country.

The way that we view money and material goods also can mold our children's character. If we see our self-worth and the worth of others in terms of cars, homes, furniture, nice clothes and other possessions, our children are likely to develop these attitudes as well. Of course, it is important to meet our children's needs, but it is also important to help them understand the difference between their needs and their wants. The expensive jacket that your child has to have may be OK—if you can afford it.

Finally, we need to be consistent in upholding the values we want our children to respect and not present them with conflicting values. We may tell our children that cheating is wrong, for example, yet brag to a neighbor about avoiding paying taxes. We may say that rudeness to others is unacceptable, yet laugh when we see that behavior on a favorite TV show.

—Daddy, why are you leaving that note on the garbage can?
—There's broken glass inside, Matthew, and I don't want the garbage collectors to get hurt. I'm warning them about the glass.
—Are they your friends?
—No. I don't know them, but I still don't want them to get hurt.

Set High Standards and Clear Expectations

Some parents set low standards for their children, or do not hold their children to the standards they set. Parents may do this because they think that expecting too much of a child will harm his self-confidence. However, research shows that the opposite is true. A child builds self-confidence by trying (with guidance) to meet high standards, even when he has to struggle to do so.

Parents do not always make their standards for behavior clear to their children. It is not enough to mention your expectations once or twice. Remember that children grow and change so fast that they can easily misunderstand or forget what you have told them. Their understanding of the world is developing almost constantly and their "new" minds need to be reminded of your expectations. Because of this, you need to repeat your guidelines often and to do so in a way that makes sense as your child changes and develops.

—Dad, nobody's going to see inside the model's wing. Why do you work so hard with all those little pieces?
—Because that's the right way to build the plane, Martha. It makes the wing strong when the plane flies, and that's more important than what people see. I want to make the best plane I can. Do you want to help?

Words of caution: Your expectations must be appropriate for your child's age and stages of mental, emotional, social and physical development. For example, it's not appropriate to tell an infant not to cry and expect him to obey. Likewise, it's not appropriate to expect a 3-year-old to sit still for hours or for a 13-year-old not to worry about how she looks. Pay attention to what your child can do, start there and help her learn skills to move forward. Be gentle but firm in your expectations.


Remember how you learned to drive or cook? You practiced while someone coached you, reminding you what to do until you were able to coach yourself and then, eventually, do it automatically. Children learn values much the same way. They practice different kinds of behavior, while, you, as coach, help focus their attention on what is important and on fine-tuning important skills. You support them with your praise, encouragement and gentle reminders.

If you don't coach your child, she will find her coaches elsewhere and be guided by the values of the media, her peers and anyone else who captures her interest. So, step up to the plate, don't be afraid and help your child learn how to be a good person, step by step.

—Paul, have you written a thank-you note to your aunt and uncle for the birthday present they sent?
—No, but I told them that I liked it when they gave it to me.
—Well, that's a start, but they were nice enough to take the time to buy you a gift, so you need to show them that you appreciate it. Here, you sit with me and write your note to them while I write one to Ms. Miller—remember how she stayed to help me clean up after your birthday party?

Use Literature

Literature can be a very powerful teaching tool. In fact, people in stories, poems and plays can influence children almost as much as the real people who read with them. Therefore, reading to and with children, encouraging older children to read on their own and talking with children about the books they read are important ways to help children learn about and develop the values of strong character and good citizenship.

Asking Questions to Guide Discussions

Use questions such as the following to help your child think about the values of stories:

How did the people in the story act?
Did they have good or bad motives?
Who were the heroes? Why were they heroes? Were there villains? Why were they villains?

Did the people make good decisions? Why or why not?

How did the people carry out their decisions? What kinds of steps did they take? Were there obstacles?
How did they respond to the obstacles?

Did the people think about the welfare of others?
Did the story have a good or bad ending? For whom was it good? For whom was it bad?
How could the story have turned out better for everyone?

Choosing Books

Choosing which books to use for character development can take some time and effort. Many good selections are available, including fiction and nonfiction books and books of poems, folk tales, fables and plays. There are excellent modern stories, as well as timeless classics. There is also a growing number of books that allow children to explore values across various cultures and countries. For lists of books to read to and with your child, see Books That Can Support Character Development on pages of this booklet. For more titles or additional help in choosing books, talk with your local or school librarian.

Words of caution: Although the moral theme of a story, nonfiction book, play or poem may be very clear to us, it is not always so to children. Always talk with your child about what she is reading to see how well she understands its theme or message. Be patient and listen carefully to your child's ideas. If her ideas are too far off the mark, talk with her about how she arrived at them—perhaps she misunderstood a word or is missing some important piece of information. Reread parts of the story with her and talk about the message.

For more information about reading aloud with your children, see Helping Your Child Become a Reader.

—What did you think about the ant letting the grasshopper come stay with him over the winter?
—Well, it was nice of him. He was kind, and it was good that he wanted to help the grasshopper.
—But what about the grasshopper? Shouldn't he have prepared for the winter, as the ant did?
—Sure, but sometimes we don't do things that we should. I'll bet he learned a lesson, though. I'll bet he gets ready for next winter.

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Last Modified: 10/08/2003