Seven Ways to Build Strong Character and Integrity in Children
By Dr. Michele Borba
Wondering what can you do to help your kids counter negative influences and stand up for what they know is right? The answer is to nurture a solid moral core that will guide them to stand up for their beliefs and act right without us. And the best news is that we can teach kids the core virtues and skills of strong character and moral courage and can begin when they are toddlers.
Here are seven parenting tips you can use to help your kids stand up for their beliefs, buck negative peer pressure, and live their lives guided by integrity. Just remember: it’s never too late—or early—to start.
1. Know What You Stand for So Your Kid Knows
Parents with clearly identified moral convictions are more likely to raise good kids. Because their kids know what their parents stand for and why they do, their kids are more likely to adopt their parents’ beliefs. So begin by asking yourself what virtues and moral beliefs matter most to you. Make a list, then narrow them to your top three. These will become your personal moral code and guide you in how you will raise your child. It’s also the best way to help your child develop his own moral beliefs.
Here are five quick questions to gauge how well you’re parenting solid moral beliefs in your child:
You can quickly name the 3-5 virtues you want most for your child to acquire.
Your child could name the virtues you believe in most without prompting.
You reinforce your child whenever he shows your selected virtues in his behavior.
Your child can clearly see your chosen virtues in your daily behavior.
You use those virtues as your day to day code of ethical behavior and family living.
2. Walk Your Talk
One great question to ask yourself each day is: “If I were the only example my child had to learn moral habits, what did she learn today from watching me?” The answer can be quite revealing. By watching your choices and hearing your casual comments, kids learn our moral standards.
Make sure the moral behaviors your kids are picking up on are ones that you want your kids to copy. How many of these messages apply to you? Do you…
Eat a “sample” from a store’s candy bin in front of your child without paying?
Buy a ticket for a “child under twelve” even though your child is older?
Drive faster than the speed limit with your child as a passenger?
Tell your child to say you’re not there when your boss calls?
Do the majority of your child’s work on a school project, but have him sign his name?
3. Share Your Moral Beliefs and Take Stands
Speaking frequently to your child about values is called direct moral teaching. Parents who raise ethical kids do it a lot. So look for moral issues and talk about them as they come up: from TV shows and news events to situations at home, school, and friends. Tell your kids how you feel about the issue and why.
Share examples of morally courageous heroes such as Rosa Parks, Pee Wee Reece, Harriet Tubman, Abe Lincoln. There are wonderful books and videos in your local library that you can share with your child.
Most important: Stand up for your own beliefs whenever you feel a major value is jeopardized. Your kid needs to see and hear about moral courage so he has an example to copy.
4. Ask Moral Questions to Stretch Moral Development
Questioning is an important parenting tool for enhancing children’s consciences and strengthening moral beliefs. The right kind of questions can help kids expand their ability to take another perspective and ask themselves: “Is this the right thing to do?” Both are critical precursors to taking any moral stand.
Here are a few questions parents can ask that stretch your kid’s moral thinking:
“How would you feel if someone treated you that way?” “If you don’t follow through on your word, what do you think would happen?” “If everybody acted that way (i.e. cheated, shoplifted) what would happen?”
5. Boost Empathy
Kids who stick up for others are kids who feel for others. Empathy is what motivates that feeling, halts cruel behavior and urges kids to take a stand.
Here are two powerful ways to nurture empathy:
Ask: How would you feel? Ask kids to ponder how another person feels using situations in books, TV, and movies as well as real life. It forces them to think about other peoples’ concerns.
Use role playing. It helps kids imagine others’ feelings so ask your child to think how the other person would feel if roles were reversed. “Switch sides: what would the other person say and do?” Young kids can use puppets or toy figures to act out the problem from both sides.
6. Reinforce Assertiveness Not Compliance
If you want to raise a child who can stand up for his beliefs, then reinforce assertiveness—not compliance.
Encourage him to share his opinions and stand up for what is right. And do so from early age so he can weather the storm of negative peer influence.
Parents who raise morally courageous kids expect their kids to act morally—even demand that they do.
7. Teach Assertive Skills
The truth is that it takes real moral strength to go against peer pressure and to stick up for your beliefs. So teach your child assertive skills so he can take the right kind of stand whenever he’s confronted with a moral dilemma.
Here are three ways to boost moral courage:
Teach assertive posture. Teach your kid to stand up for his beliefs by using confident, assertive posture: stand tall with feet slightly apart, head held high, and look the person straight in the eye.
Say no firmly. Stress that he must say his beliefs using a friendly, but determined voice. Then don’t give in. His job is not to try changing the other person’s mind, but to follow his beliefs.
Tell reasons why. Ask your child to give the person the reason for his stand. It helps strengthen his conviction: “Stop bullying him; it’s cruel.” Or “No, it’s illegal and wrong.” Repeating the belief several times boosts assertiveness and helps your child not back down from his stand.
Keep in mind that your child’s moral growth is an ongoing process that will span the course of her lifetime. The moral knowledge, beliefs, and habits you instill in her now will become the foundation she’ll use forever.