7 Ways to Build Character in Kids
How do you teach your child to be compassionate? I think my mom had a pretty good idea. Often, as she brushed my hair into a ponytail for school she’d say, “Today, I want you to look around on the playground. If you see anyone who’s left out, or has no one to play with–that’s who you’re supposed to play with today.” She didn’t just tell me to “be sweet,” she gave me a very specific idea of how I could identify another child with a need and respond with compassion.
We all want our children to possess those character traits like a loving heart, peacefulness, patience, kindness, gentleness and self-control. But when we set out to teach them how to live these ideas daily, it can be difficult. The concepts may seem too broad or vague. Kids do better with a specific directive or challenge, so we came up with some to help instill those habits at an early age.
Kids understand the affectionate and fun part of love, but do they understand that really loving someone means a willingness to sacrifice for them and put them first sometimes? Challenge your child to let a friend or sibling “go first” when it’s time to do something fun, or enjoy a treat, or even get in line at school. Learning to put personal wants aside and want good for others is a sure sign of love!
Moms of girls report lots of “girl drama” swirling around her child’s social set—constant hurt feelings, retaliation, accusations and well, drama. Before the next sleepover or group play date, instruct your child to be the place where it all stops, and work to minimize the conflicts. It may be by sticking up for a kid that gets bullied or mistreated, or refusing to participate in gossip. Often, all it takes to stop trouble before it starts is one kid who reminds others of what’s right.
Oh, this one is tough! And the younger your child, the tougher it will likely be. Kids have a hard time waiting through a shopping trip or a lengthy sermon at church without fidgeting and complaining. Before the challenging event begins, remind your child that patience is important, and encourage them to try to make it all the way through the event without complaining. Then it’s like a game, with a defined goal of making it to the end. You can even offer acceptable ways for him to distract himself from the wait (like doodling or reading) and an incentive for making it to the finish line.
If kindness is what you want for your child, give her a specific way to recognize a need and offer kindness to another. It might be to look around the playground and see if anyone is left out or playing alone, and asking them to join her group of friends. It’s such a simple gesture, and trains her to think of others and act.
This can be harder to explain until you’ve encountered an example of a lack of gentleness. For instance, if you catch your child saying something harsh or hurtful (even if it’s truthful), stop them and say, “That wasn’t very gentle, and could hurt someone’s feelings if they heard you say it.” Then either instruct them to refrain from commenting on the topic at all (like on the appearance of others, except to pay a compliment), or demonstrate a gentler way to communicate the idea.
This one overlaps with patience to some extent. One of the greatest character traits your child can exercise is that of self-control. Learning to monitor and police their own behavior is essential to good relationships and success in life. Challenge your child to count to five before responding in word or deed to things that make them angry or excited. In that five seconds, remind them to ask, “Is this really what I want to do/say? Is it the right thing to do/say?”
In a world where commitments often have a shorter shelf life than a loaf of bread, training your child to be faithful is crucial. One good training ground is household chores. Your child should be reminded that those are her responsibilities, and that she should be faithful to complete them—others are counting on her! To neglect what you’ve promised to do is to be unfaithful. Friendships are another arena to learn about faithfulness. Encourage your child to invest in good friends, and to resist casting them aside the moment someone more interesting comes along. She wants to be the kind of friend that others can count on.
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