Many parents focus attention on their children’s grades and extracurricular activities, such as by making sure kids study, do their homework, and get to soccer practice or dance lessons prepared and on time. But all too often, we forget to put time and effort into nurturing another component of child success and development -- one that is just as important, and perhaps even more essential, than good grades, awards, and trophies -- being a good person.
In today’s “me, me, me” and “I’ve gotta have it now” society, it can be easy to forget the importance of countering these pervasive messages of instant gratification, consumerism, and selfishness. If we want to raise children who are pleasant company and genuinely nice people, we can help guide our kids toward habits and behaviors that promote positive character traits like kindness, generosity, and empathy for those who are less advantaged or who need help.
As C. S. Lewis famously said, “Integrity is doing the right thing, even when no one is watching.” How can we raise a good child, one who will do the right thing, even when no one may see them do it, and when there may be no reward? While there is no guaranteed formula (if only!), here are some ways parents can build good character and help their child grow into a good person.
- Nurture empathy in your child.
Emotional intelligence and empathy, or the ability to put oneself in someone else’s shoes and consider their feelings and thoughts, is one of the most fundamental traits in good people. Studies have shown that having a high emotional quotient -- that is, being able to understand one's own feelings and the feelings of others and having self control and being able to control one's own emotions -- is an important component of success in life. To encourage empathy in your child, encourage your child to talk about her feelings and make sure that she knows that you care about them. When a conflict occurs with a friend, ask her to imagine how her friend might be feeling and show her ways of managing her emotions and work positively toward a resolution.
- Encourage him to lift up others around him and never tear anyone down.
While stories about kids engaging in bullying and other bad behavior often make headlines, the truth is that many kids quietly perform good deeds in the ordinary course of their lives, whether it’s making a friend feel better when he’s down or pitching in at a community center. As you encourage positive behaviors such as doing something to make someone’s day better (even something as small as patting a friend on the shoulder when he’s sad), be sure to talk about what negative effects behaviors like gossiping or bullying have on both sides (both those who are, say, bullied and those who do the bullying), and why and how it hurts people.
- Teach her to volunteer.
Whether your child helps an elderly neighbor by shoveling the sidewalk or helps you pack some canned goods into boxes for donation to family shelters, the act of volunteering can shape your child’s character. When kids help others, they learn to think about the needs of those less fortunate than they are, and can feel proud of themselves for making a difference in others’ lives.
- Don’t reward him for every good behavior or act of kindness.
An important thing to remember when encouraging kids to help others is to not reward them for every single good deed. That way, your child won’t associate volunteering with getting things for himself, and will learn that feeling good about helping others will be in itself a reward. (That’s not to say you shouldn’t occasionally take your child out for a special treat or give him a gift for helping others AND for working hard and studying hard; kids love encouragement, and thrive on parents’ approval. An occasional reward is a great way to show him how thankful you are for the good things he does.)
- Teach him good manners.
Does your child routinely practice the fundamentals of good manners such as saying “Thank you” and “Please”? Does she speak in a polite manner to people and address elders as “Mr.” and Ms.”? Does she know how to greet people properly, and is she familiar with the basics of good table manners? Is she a gracious loser when she plays a game with friends? Remember that you are raising a person who will go out into the world and interact with others for the rest of her life. (And this little person, as she grows, will be at the dinner table with you and interacting with you every day until she leaves the nest.) You can play an important role in shaping how well-mannered your child will be.
- Treat him with kindness and respect.
The most effective way to get kids to speak to you and to others in a respectful way and to interact with others in a nice manner is by doing exactly that yourself when you interact with your child. Think about how you speak to your child. Do you speak harshly when you’re not happy about something? Do you ever yell or say things that are not nice? Consider your own way of speaking, acting, and even thinking, and try to choose the friendly and polite tone and manner with your child, even when you are talking to him about a mistake or misbehavior.
- Don’t be shy about disciplining your child.
Parents who hold back on giving children boundaries or firmly (but lovingly) correcting bad behavior may actually be harming their child with good intentions. Children who are not disciplined are unpleasant, selfish, and surprisingly, unhappy. Some of the many reasons why we need to discipline include the fact that children who are given clear rules, boundaries, and expectations are responsible, more self-sufficient, are more likely to make good choices, and are more likely to make friends and be happy. As soon as you see behavior problems such as lying or backtalk, handle them with love, understanding, and firmness.
- Teach her how to be thankful.
Teaching your child how to be grateful and how to express that gratitude is a key component of raising a good child. Whether it’s for a meal you’ve prepared for dinner or for a birthday gift from Grandma and Grandpa, teach your child to say thank you. For things like gifts for birthdays and holidays, be sure your child gets into the habit of writing thank you cards.
- Give him responsibilities around the house.
When children have an expected list of age-appropriate chores to do at home, such as helping set the table or sweeping the floor, they gain a sense of responsibility and accomplishment. Doing a good job and feeling like they are contributing to the good of the household can make kids feel proud of themselves, and help them become happier.
- Model good behavior.
Consider how you interact with others, even when your child isn’t watching. Do you say “Thank you” to the checkout clerk at the market? Do you steer clear of gossip about neighbors or co-workers? Do you use a friendly tone when addressing waiters? It goes without saying that how you directly influences how your children will be. If you want to raise a good child, conduct yourself in the way you want your child to act.