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What Does 'Strong Character' Mean? -- Helping Your Child Become a Responsible Citizen

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

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

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!
 
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