Does good character really matter? Is telling the truth important when a lie will avert punishment or help you gain status and wealth? Are personal ethics a benefit or impediment for those trying to climb the corporate ladder? In the real world, does the end justify the means?
These are questions that humans have asked for centuries, but they’re especially significant today as many wonder whether the values and morals that have historically governed human behavior are still relevant in a cutthroat society.
A review of historical figures might suggest that character – the set of morals and beliefs that influence how we interact with others and feel about ourselves – seems to have little effect on people’s ability to gain fame, wealth, or power. In fact, quite the opposite is sometimes true:
Adolph Hitler, Joseph Stalin, and Ayatullah Khomeini have all appeared on the cover of Time magazine as “Person of the Year,” despite causing millions of deaths and unfathomable hardship for their countrymen.
Political leaders regularly lie to their constituents and pad their wallets by selling their votes to the highest bidder.
Corporate CEOs eliminate or reduce benefits that affect thousands of workers to add an extra dime to quarterly earnings per share while boosting their own income to historically high levels.
Yet while a lack of character might allow the rise of despots, egotists, and ruthless men and women from time to time, history has proved time and again that such leaders ultimately fail. As Harvard Business Review puts it, “Hubris and greed have a way of catching up with people, who then lose the power and wealth they’ve so fervently pursued.”
If you’re a parent, instilling good character in your child is one of the many ways you can help them lead a successful, happy life. Here’s how good character can benefit your child and how to help them develop it.
What Is Character?
In his book “The Psychology of Character,” Dr. A.A. Roback defines character as an indication of a person’s ability to “inhibit the baser human instincts of fear, greed, selfishness, and pride while deliberately exercising the virtues of goodness.”
The word “character” comes from a Greek word that means to engrave, scrape, or scratch to leave a permanent impression. Humans are not born with character; it is the result of deliberate choice, training, and practice until the values that govern our actions are embedded in our subconscious.
Character is a reflection of who we choose to be, the attitudes and values that govern our behavior and reflect how we feel about ourselves and others. New York Times columnist and best-selling author David Brooks says that good character comes from “fighting your weaknesses and depth of character comes from the struggle, the wrestling with your shortcomings.”
The nonprofit global organization VIA Institute on Character has developed a list of 24 values they recognize as a part of good character. These fall under categories ranging from “Appreciation of Beauty & Excellence” to “Zest” and can be a valuable guide for the behaviors and attitudes you should instill in your child.
The Payoffs of Good Character
Developing a child’s character is not a short-term project. To be successful, you must be insistent, persistent, and consistent over the years, even though the outcome of your efforts may not be evident until your child reaches maturity.
Teaching character is not an easy task, causing many in our secular, bottom-line culture to wonder what’s in it for them and their children. Rather than trying to instill abstract values in our children, wouldn’t our efforts and funds be better spent on immediate, tangible goals, such as getting into the right schools, meeting the right people, or excelling at a particular skill?
It may seem like a vague concept, but there are tangible benefits of character that last a lifetime, including:
1. Better Personal Relationships
Character is essential to trust, and trust is the basis of all relationships, whether personal or professional. As psychologist Dr. Mitch Prinstein writes in his book “Popular: The Power of Likeability in a Status-Obsessed World,” “It is our likability that predicts so many outcomes decades later. It’s key to how to be successful in a modern-day world.”
2. Stronger Academic Performance
According to a 2009 study of college students by researchers at the University of Knoxville, character directly corresponds with higher grade point averages and overall life satisfaction.
3. Better Ability to Overcome Challenges
Everyone faces setbacks in life – such as job loss, divorce, and illness – that can break their hearts and spirits. Those with strong character demonstrate a greater ability to bounce back and continue to pursue their goals despite the obstacles they might face. For example, Winston Churchill suffered a major political defeat following WWI and retired from the government for more than a decade before returning to lead the British fight against the Nazis. As a consequence of his indomitable courage and willingness to accept responsibility, he died as one of the world’s most loved and respected leaders. Steve Jobs, humiliated and publicly ridiculed after his forced resignation in 1985 from Apple – the company he co-founded – demonstrated extraordinary persistence, self-confidence, and resiliency and lead to his return to Apple in 1996 and new success.
4. More Career Promotions & Opportunities
According to Forbes, employers most value employees who can work effectively in a team, make decisions, and solve problems. The character traits most critical for working on a team include truthfulness, compassion for others, and patience, in addition to self-confidence and humility when necessary. As a former C-level officer in one of the nation’s largest health services company, I can attest that employee character was a significant factor in our promotion decisions.
5. More Leadership Opportunities
The Ivey Business Journal puts it well when they say, “Scratch the surface of a true leader, or look beneath his or her personality, and you’ll find character.” True leaders, capable of inspiring organizations to high levels of integrity and transparency, are especially critical in today’s environment of selfishness, discrimination, and short-term focus.
6. Business Success
A study reported in Harvard Business Review found that CEOs with high character ratings – especially in the categories of integrity, responsibility, forgiveness, and compassion – delivered a return on assets almost five times greater than CEOS with low character ratings.
Examples of such leaders include Sally Jewell, a former Secretary of the Interior who overcame gender discrimination and anti-big business sentiments to protect natural, historical, and cultural treasures for future generations, and Charles Sorenson, whose kindness, ethics, and patience enabled him to lead a 1,200-physician practice as an example of how to reduce national health care costs.
7. Better Health
A 2015 study published in Frontiers in Psychology found that workers with strong character traits handle workplace and life stresses better than those without such qualities. A 2018 report published in the International Positive Psychology Association newsletter reviewed hundreds of studies regarding the link between character and health, both physical and mental. The consensus was that character reliably predicts physical health and disability, as well as substance avoidance, cardio-respiratory fitness, and disease recovery.
8. Personal Satisfaction
Strong character values such as gratitude, love, and curiosity lead to a higher level of life satisfaction and feelings of well-being, according to a study published in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology.
Strong moral character and ethics remain as important – if not more so – in today’s society than in any period in history. A person lacking character is likely to face adversity and disappointment throughout their life.
How to Teach Your Child Good Character
Building good character begins at home. Parents are a child’s most significant influence from infancy until the teen years when peer groups become increasingly important in their life.
As children age, they go through stages of physical, emotional, and intellectual development that affect their ability to learn the abstract values that will govern their actions as adults. It’s important to recognize the opportunities and limitations of each stage as you guide your child to become a happy, self-confident, successful adult.
Infants (Up to 2 Years Old)
During their first two years, infants focus solely on their own needs – hunger, comfort, and security – but must depend on others to meet those needs. Bonding between parent and child occurs during these early months as babies recognize those special people who nourish and protect them.
Infancy is a time to build trust with your child by the physical acts of touching, holding, and cuddling. Touch is essential for emotional development and benefits both you and your child. Playing simple games such as peek-a-boo while changing diapers or bathing your child, singing nursery rhymes, and exploring picture books strengthen these bonds.
Since moral values such as fairness, honesty, responsibility, kindness, and obedience are learned through social interaction – primarily shared-play activities – any attempts to teach moral behavior to infants will not be successful. During this early stage of development, parents should focus on nurturing their baby’s sense of security and love.
Toddlers (2 to 3 Years Old)
Children between the ages of 2 and 3 years learn that other people share their environment, necessitating rules to live by.
While toddlers may follow simple directions, they generally lack the ability to self-control when frustrated, angry, or disappointed. Temper tantrums are frequent and can recur if not handled appropriately. Parents often overreact to tantrums, forgetting that each incident is an opportunity to teach their children about appropriate behavior. Today’s Parent recommends 10 tricks for stopping tantrums that are effective without threatening a child’s sense of self-value.
Toddlers grow accustomed to simple daily routines, as well as limitations. Yet while they become familiar with the word no, they may not obey, struggling between wanting to please and their desire for independence.
While research suggests that kids as young as 12 months understand “fairness,” toddlers have difficulty acting fairly or exhibiting empathy. Introducing the Golden Rule – treat others as you want to be treated – is appropriate when they begin to socialize. When children first play with others, they typically have difficulty sharing; “mine” is often a favorite word. You must intervene to direct sharing activities, model good relationships, and encourage cooperation.
The American Academy of Pediatrics does not recommend television viewing for kids under the age of 2. However, there are excellent programs for older children that introduce and reinforce desirable values, as well as introduce new skills. These include original series such as “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood,” “Little Einsteins,” and “Bubble Guppies,” as well as past-generation favorites such as “Sesame Street” and “Thomas & Friends.”
Remember that TV is not a substitute for parental attention, but a supplement. Watching together and talking about the program afterward is an opportunity to reinforce desirable conduct.
Preschoolers (3 to 5 Years Old)
At some point between the ages of 3 and 7, children develop their own inner rules, internalizing family values and behavior they’ve been practicing. For example, younger children will likely think that “sharing” is getting the toy they want, even when another child is playing with it, while “cooperation” is getting their way as opposed to doing what others want.
Reinforce the concept of sharing with stories that illustrate how your child’s behavior affects their playmates. Explanations that involve the feelings of family members are especially effective. For example, when your child asks why they got only one cookie, you might explain, “I know you wanted two cookies, but your sister would be sad if she doesn’t get one.”
Preschoolers have active imaginations and often engage in pretend play, copying the actions of others without understanding the potential consequences. The difference between right and wrong can be confusing for them. Lying, exaggeration, and making up stories are normal behaviors for preschoolers, not a reflection of poor parenting.
When lying occurs, try to stay calm; yelling or blaming the child only escalates the tension and justifies their reason for lying. Ask questions to learn the reason for the lie, but be careful to distinguish between the telling of the lie and the events that precipitated it.
Explain why lying is wrong and how it affects trust between people, especially between you and your child. Reinforce your lessons during reading time by including books such as “Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire!,” “Ruthie and the (Not So) Teeny Tiny Lie,” and “Arthur and the True Francine.” Reward your child when they tell the truth even when they believe they will be punished. Patience and repetition are essential when teaching preschoolers.
Primary School (5 to 12 Years Old)
By their primary school stage, children have developed an understanding of fairness, recognize that rules are necessary, and expect corrective action when they break a rule. During this stage, children develop abstract reasoning, or the ability to make choices based on an internal concept of right and wrong. For example, Johnny at age 4 shares his toys to avoid hurting Billy’s feelings; by age 7, Johnny shares because he knows sharing is right and selfishness is wrong. Early in this transitional stage, you are likely to see a blend of good and bad behaviors, including:
Susceptibility to Temptation. Even though a child knows an act is wrong, they might give in to temptation if they think they can get away with it. Their ability to defer gratification is still evolving during this stage, so you should expect an occasional relapse in behavior.
Tattling. A child is most likely to report the misdeeds of another during the transition from their preschool to primary school stages. Younger kids tattle for a variety of reasons, including rule enforcement, for help, or to get another child in trouble. According to clinical psychologist Dr. Eileen Kennedy-More, tattling implies that a child has a sense of what is right and wrong but lacks more sophisticated forms of problem-solving.
Confusion Over Social Rules and Moral Behavior. A 2011 study published in Development Psychology found that 5- to 7-year-olds think all rule-breaking is unacceptable, while 8- to 10-year-olds distinguish between serious wrongdoing (such as stealing) and minor social misbehavior (such as running when instructed to walk).
In their primary school years, children learn to distinguish the motives of others, as well as the difference between a social rule (not talking when another person is speaking) and moral behavior (not cheating on tests). While they see parents as the ultimate authority, primary school children seek more independence, specifically wanting to have a say in the rules that affect them. As a consequence, they learn to negotiate boundaries.
In addition to reinforcing the values you previously taught your child, you should introduce values such as perseverance, responsibility, charity, and respect for others during these years. Many parents at this stage of their child’s development begin attending a church, temple, or mosque to associate with other families who share their values and reinforce morality lessons.
Kids at this age also learn good behavior during extracurricular activities, such as sports, music, and afterschool activities. For example, playing a sport can teach a child the benefits of practice and work, the pursuit of a goal, respect for an opponent, and cooperation. Participating in organizations such as the Boy and Girl Scouts bolsters desirable moral and ethical values in a young person.
Children beginning elementary school are exposed to new experiences, people, and environments. Many of their classmates will behave in ways contrary to the values you are teaching your child. Dr. Michele Borba writes in her book “UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World” that narcissism is increasingly common in today’s society and frequently accompanied by episodes of bullying, stereotyping, and prejudice.
Kids 10 to 12 years of age want to be popular and are most susceptible to peer pressure. The values that have directed a child’s behavior previously are challenged by their new acquaintances and environment, requiring decisions about which values to follow and which to discard. In these cases, they’re more likely to want your help as a counselor, giving advice and information rather than orders.
Just because your child is in school, that doesn’t relieve you of your responsibility to teach them moral values. Schools are not centers of moral instruction. Teachers are likely overwhelmed by the pressure and time demands of meeting academic requirements. And many educators and politicians believe that schools should be “values neutral,” neither introducing nor reinforcing beliefs about religion, character, or ethics.
While the quantity of time you spend with your child decreases when they’re in school, the quality of your time together can improve. As children grow older, they become aware of the often conflicting views of their parents and peers when it comes to desirable behaviors. While many may be capable of reconciling the difference, others will seek input and assurance from their parents.
Teenagers (13 to 18 Years Old)
Your child will continue to mature physically during this stage to become a young adult, though their brain continues to evolve, especially their frontal lobe – the center for complex decision-making, impulse control, and assessing risk-reward scenarios. Girls typically mature faster than boys, and both genders are concerned about their sexual identity, appearance, and social acceptance.
Peer pressure is especially potent during the teenage years as adolescents spend more time with friends and apart from parents. Most teens seek greater privacy and often argue with their parents over boundaries such as curfews, acceptable activities, and social contacts. Many experiment with risky behavior, including sex, drugs, and alcohol, as they seek their own identities apart from their parents. As a consequence, families experience increased tension, emotional outbursts, and adolescent defiance, testing the patience of parents and other family members.
As your child develops, you may wonder whether your instruction has taken hold. Though teenagers typically challenge their parents’ views and values, they are likely to assume those same values as adults. A 2011 Canadian research study found that adolescents whose mothers prioritized ethical, social values – including community, charity, and social goodness – were most likely to adopt similar values as adults and experience greater life satisfaction. In 2014, the Stanford University Center on Adolescence polled teenagers about their goals and fears and learned that, despite their parents’ concerns, most had adopted their parents’ values.
Teaching your child the moral values that form good character can be a long, frustrating job, with results that don’t appear for decades. But teaching them moral values such as responsibility, hard work, and honesty in their formative years gives them the best chance at lifelong success – a goal all loving parents share.
Introduce young children to the ethics and values that should guide their behavior, address and correct inappropriate behaviors and administer consequences for poor choices, and set a good example. Practicing these steps daily will keep you and your kid on the road to happiness.
Parents, what have you learned about instilling good character in your children? Given the opportunity, what would you do differently?