As parents, we may need to set aside particular times or create special activities to teach our children certain things. But this isn't true when it comes to helping them learn about character. Everyday life is filled with opportunities for helping our children learn about the values we prize and want to encourage.
Rather than "things to do" with your child for half an hour once a week, most of the following activities are more like rules-of-thumb or ideas to build into your daily lives. Most illustrate several qualities of character and show that one quality often grows from another.
The activities can be adapted for children from early childhood through adolescence, and most contain specific suggestions for children of different ages and stages of development. You, as your child's first and most important teacher, are the best judge of which activities are most appropriate to use based on the emotional and social development of your child.
As you choose the activities to use with your child, remember this thought: Teaching our children about character doesn't mean that we can't laugh or that we have to be grim. Our children should see that we can be serious about our values and principles and still play and have fun. In fact, you can teach a lot through play. And you can make games out of learning particular skills. We hope that you and your child enjoy these activities and that they inspire you to think of additional activities of your own.
Children need to be shown and taught that other people have feelings, beliefs and hopes, just as they do. Actually, we can learn a great deal from others, both in our families and neighborhoods and from other cultures, societies, religions and countries.
What to Do
Show your child by your actions that you are interested in learning about and from other people. Let her know that you care about family by telling her interesting things about relatives, such as their hobbies or jobs. Let her see you being a friend to neighbors, store clerks, community workers and others. Let her see you reading books or watching TV shows and videos about people from other cultures, religions or countries. Talk with her about the interesting things you've learned from your reading and viewing. Invite people from other cultures or countries to your home.
Visit the library with your child, and ask the librarian to help you choose books, videos, magazines and other materials that will help him learn about many different countries and people. Listen attentively when your child wants to tell you about things she has discovered about the geography, history, religion, music or art from other cultures and countries.
A gift that shows effort and attention can mean more than a gift from the store.
What to Do
For the birthday or other special occasion of a relative or friend, encourage your child to make a gift instead of buying one. Help her decide what to give by asking her to think about the special talents she has. If she likes to sing or act, she might like to perform a special song or write and act out a skit or play. A young child might pick some flowers from the yard and take them to a neighbor. An older child might do chores for mom, dad or a neighbor. She might, for example, wash the dishes for a week, clean the hall closet, babysit or run errands.
If the gift is an activity or chore, have your child make a card and write a note, telling what the gift will be.
Teach your child to think of others by encouraging her to choose some of her toys or good clothing that she's outgrown to give to community drives for homeless or needy children. Encourage your older child to consider giving the gift of his time as a volunteer for various community charitable efforts.
Benefiting from manipulating or lying to others is dishonest and can destroy trust.
What to Do
Tell or read to your child the fable "The Boy Who Cried 'Wolf." Point out that when the boy yells "wolf," he is lying as a way to get attention. Make sure your child understands that the boy paid for his lies: He had alarmed the villagers so many times, nobody came to his rescue when a real wolf showed up!
Ask your child if anyone has misled her with a lie. How did that make her feel? What did she do? Does she still like and trust the person who told the lie?
If you catch your child telling a lie, let him know that you do not approve and assign him some consequenceno watching of a favorite TV show, for example. But also ask him why he lied to you and reinforce the idea that he can always tell you the truthregardless of how unpleasant it might be.
You especially need to model honesty with your older child. Keep talking with her, being honest and expecting honesty in return. Adolescence is a time when children are faced with more temptations and often less supervision. They need you as a positive role model.
Is honesty always the best policy? Older children face many occasions that test the principle "honesty is the best policy." Your child may ask you, for example, "But do I have to tell Jesse the truth when she asks me if I like her new haircut? If I say yes, that's a lie. But if I say no, I'll hurt her feelings!" In addition, children often see and read about people who have become very successful and wealthy by being dishonest.
What to Do
Ask your child to think of an answer she might say to her friend Jesse that would be honest and yet not hurt her feelings. Is there something about Jesse's haircut that she does like?
Choose examples of sports figures, business leaders entertainers or politicians from the news who have been caught in dishonest acts and talk with your child about the consequences of those acts. Did "crime" really pay for them? Have their families benefited or suffered? How are they viewed by other people once their dishonesty is revealed?
Have your child find books in which characters struggle with being honest. Read and talk about the books with your child. (Also see Resources this booklet for suggested books about honesty.)
Being a person of good character often requires having patience and sticking to something.
What to Do
Let your child see you practice patience when doing a new or difficult task or when facing life's everyday frustrations, such as heavy traffic.
Arrange to use a timer as you and your child work at a difficult task. For young children, start with one minute and build from there. This will build perseverance.
Help your children understand that work comes before pleasure in simple everyday ways, such as homework before TV or chores before play.
Make a game out of doing hard tasks. How many pieces of spilled popcorn can we pick up? Who can break the record for washing the most windows (washing them well, of course)?
There is a lot to think about in making good decisions.
What to Do
Think out loud when you are making a difficult decision, so that your child can hear how you do it.
Regularly take time to make a family decision with your child so that she can practice with you. Help her learn to think about the pros and cons, the effects of the decision on others and how to meet her obligations as a family member and citizen.
Talk with your child about decisions made by characters on TV or in stories. Ask him to decide whether the characters thought about everything they should have, whether the decision was the best decision and what he would have done if he were the character.
Let your preschool child choose what to wear, even if it means her clothers don't always match. This will make her feel empowered and help build self-confidence.