How Can We Help Children Learn about Character? -- Helping Your Child Become a Responsible Citizen (page 2)

— U.S. Department of Education
Updated on Feb 29, 2008


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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