Parenting to build character

Character building is most effective when you regularly see and seize opportunities to:

  1. Strengthen awareness of moral obligations and the moral significance of choices (ethical consciousness)
  2. Enhance the desire to do the right thing (ethical commitment)
  3. Improve the ability to foresee potential consequences, devise options, and implement principled choices (ethical competency)

Be consistent

The moral messages you send must be clear, consistent and repetitive. Children will judge your values not by what you say but by what you do and what you permit them to do. They will judge you not by your best moments but by your last worst act. Thus, everything you say and do, and all that you allow to be said and done in your presence, either reinforces or undermines the credibility of your messages about the importance of good character. Over and over, use the specific language of the core virtues — trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring, and citizenship — and be as firm and consistent as you can be about teaching, advocating, modeling and enforcing these "Six Pillars of Character." When you are tired, rushed, or under pressure you are most tempted to rationalize. It may help to remember that the most powerful and lasting lessons about character are taught by making tough choices when the cost of doing the right thing is high.

Be concrete

Messages about good attitudes, character traits and conduct should be explicit, direct, and specific. Building character and teaching ethics is not an academic undertaking, it must be relevant to the lives and experiences of your children. Talk about character and choices in situations that your children have been in. Comment on and discuss things their friends and teachers have done in terms of the Six Pillars of Character.

Be creative

Effective character development should be creative. It should be active and involve the child in real decision-making that has real consequences (such as teaching responsibility through allocating money from an allowance or taking care of a pet). Games and role-playing are also effective. Look for "teaching moments,"using good and bad examples from TV, movies, and the news.

Tips for ParentsDownload or print our Tips for Parents (2 pages, pdf)
Also available in Spanish (2 pages, pdf)

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