Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Helping Your Child Become a Responsible Citizen

What Does "Strong Character" Mean?
Honesty and Fairness
Good Judgment
Respect for Others
Citizenship and Patriotism

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

People with strong character

*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?

*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.

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:

Apply the "trouble" rule: Will this action break a law or rule?
Make a good decision—think carefully about the risks or possible consequences.
Act fast to avoid trouble, using options such as the following:

Say no!
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.

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.

*Coach *

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:

MotivationHow 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?
JudgmentDid 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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