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Building Blocks to Good, Moral Character in Children

Do you ever wonder how we can build good, moral character in children?

Consider these lyrics from the song Children Will Listen:

Careful the things you say
Children will listen
Careful the things you do
Children will see and learn
Children may not obey, but children will listen
Children will look to you for which way to turn
To learn what to be
Careful before you say “Listen to me”
Children will listen

You might think you always tell your children what they should and should not do. You tell your children to tell the truth, not steal, not hit. You tell your children to be kind, to be nice, to be friendly, to be inclusive. You tell your children to study hard in school, do their schoolwork, submit their assignments, not cheat.

How did you learn how to become an adult? You probably learned positive and negatives from your parents, teachers, experiences, mistakes, observations, and research. This is how you developed wisdom. It is understandable that you want to protect your youngsters from mistakes and failures. You want to protect them from injuries and pain. You want to ease their struggles and challenges. You want to donate your life experiences to them. 

Regrettably, these are ways our good intentions fall short. Children need the same opportunities to experience life, the good and not so good, as you did. This is how you developed your character. If you are the type of parent who tells your children XYZ, this may be with excellent intentions; however, children learn less from what they are told and much more by how you guide and role model values of family, compromise, respect, honesty, learning, gratitude, cooperation and acceptance.

How can you be an effective parent?

  1. Communication — This means talking to your children in ways they will hear. A guideline is 15 words or less. If they ask a question, then you have the opportunity for 15 more words. If you keep this guideline in mind, you will be able to avoid the pitfall of lecturing. Ask yourself how many lectures from your parents and teachers you tuned out.
  2. Active listening — This is what I practice as a psychologist. It means genuinely listening not only to your children’s words, but to their needs and emotions underlying those words. You do not necessarily have to agree, solve a problem, or give them permission. According to Dr. Phil McGraw in Family First (p.157), “Whatever the content, they want to know that you think they’re important enough to be listened to in a serious way.” 
  3. Ask thoughtful questions — These are the type of questions that foster your children’s thinking process and bypass threats and negativity. Words like no, can’t, won’t, shouldn’t, only promote defensiveness, arguments and resentments. Rather, ask your children how doing something will work out for them. For instance, if they say they will not do their homework or their chores, ask how they think it will work out for them. Then avoid explaining the likely results and just allow natural consequences take over. 
  4. Model respect — Maintain your integrity when you talk to your children, even if you feel angry, even if you disagree. At all costs, avoid blame and shame. Impart your values by saying their idea might not work for you but you appreciate their sharing. This can be quite testy if they are talking about something illegal. Then your go-to question, without sarcasm or anger, can be How do you think this would work out for you? I recall a time when a child therapy client made demands of me and threatened to break my office window if I didn’t comply. I took a deep breath and gently asked How do you think that would work out for you? The child froze for a moment (that seemed like an eternity to me), then gave up and moved on to attempting a more reasonable threat. Whew!
  • Do you think your children are smart enough to learn?
  • Did you learn from your life experiences?

Family First, Dr. Phil McGraw, Free Press, NY, 2004.
15 Moral Values You Must Teach Your Kids,
by Mrunal – Updated: August 18, 2022