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What Does 'Strong Character' Mean? -- Helping Your Child Become a Responsible Citizen (page 5)

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

Self-discipline

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?
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