Le Cheat Sheet
7 Steps to Building Character in Kids
It’s no secret that in today’s success-oriented world, kids are under a lot of pressure. But in addition to stressing them out, a single-minded focus on accomplishments (good grades, athletic success, etc.) results in kids who grow up feeling empty—and lack the true skills needed to thrive in a fast-paced, ever-changing world, argues Michele Borba, EdD, in her latest book Thrivers: The Surprising Reasons Why Some Kids Struggle and Others Shine. Her solution: focus on developing kids’ character, which “builds inner strength, genuineness, and wholeness.” The seven character strengths she’s identified as key to raising “thrivers” are essential to academic success, mental health, and more. Here, some key takeaways on how to foster these traits in even young children.
- Written By
- Marnie Schwartz
To Cultivate Confidence, Nurture Their Strengths
Self confidence is a child’s healthy, authentic sense of who they are, says Dr. Borba. It involves knowing what their strengths are, accepting their weaknesses, and applying that knowledge to overcome obstacles and succeed. Helping your child know their own true strengths starts with identifying their core strengths yourself, and honoring them for who they are (and not who you want them to be). Then focus on these assets rather than trying to “fix” any weaknesses.
Give Your Child Plenty of Opportunities to Practice Being Empathetic
Dr. Borba breaks down empathy into three distinct types. Affective empathy is when we share someone else’s feelings, cognitive empathy is when we truly understand another’s thoughts or “step into their shoes,” and behavioral empathy (the most important) is when those shared thoughts along with our understanding and concern drive us to act with compassion. Empathy is like a muscle, writes Dr. Borba, and the more you use it, the stronger it gets. Make empathy an expectation in your family, and when your child acts in an unkind way, name the uncaring act out loud, talk about the impact (“You hurt her feelings.”), and remind your child that you expect better. Provide plenty of opportunities to practice empathy with meaningful service activities and volunteer work.
Build Self Control By Practicing Mindfulness
The ability to control our attention, emotions, thoughts, actions, and desires impacts success in nearly every area of life. And like empathy, self control gets stronger from regular use. One way to improve it and boost focus and attention spans is to practice mindfulness. Even little kids can learn it. Books like Breathe Like a Bear by Kara Willey and What Does It Mean to Be Present? By Rana DiOrio can help teach mindfulness, as can apps like Breathe, Think, Do with Sesame. Teaching your kids to calm themselves down with deep, slow breaths, reducing “attention robbers” like caffeine, and making sure they get enough sleep and downtime can also help boost self control.
Drill Down on Your Family’s Values To Help Kids Develop Integrity
We all want to raise kids with a strong moral compass and who do the right thing and stand up for what’s right and for others. Nurturing their integrity is an ongoing process—and parents can play a big role, writes Dr. Borba. The key is to figure out what exactly your family’s values are, make sure you model them yourself, and expect your kids to live by them. “Catch” and praise your child when you see them acting with integrity and in line with those values. And don’t be afraid to sound like a broken record! In this case, repetition is a good thing.
To Keep Curiosity Strong, Allow For Unstructured, Child-Directed, Screen-Free Time
Little kids are notoriously curious about the world, and most of them are at the “creative genius” level. But this drops precipitously as they get older. Offset the effects of a conformity-based culture and standardized measures of success (like tests) with “creative-building moments.” These pockets of unscheduled time allow kids to follow their own interests, take creative risks, and simply daydream. Swap out devices for open-ended toys, craft supplies, and other building blocks for tinkering. And when kids ask a million questions (as they will), try your best to encourage them to continue doing so!
Praise Effort to Promote Perseverance
Stick-to-it-iveness is perhaps the greatest predictor of success. To develop it, kids need to have a growth mindset, which is a belief that their talents and abilities aren’t fixed, and can be improved with practice. When you praise your child’s talents (“You’re so smart” or “You’re such a great soccer player.”) they can start to worry about failing, and avoid new challenges and risks because they fear losing those positive labels. But if you praise their effort (“I’m so proud of how hard you studied,” or “It’s great to see you practicing so consistently,”) it can inspire them to continue to work hard and can lead to success. Similarly, normalize making and learning from mistakes. Teach your kids that “mistakes are just problems to be solved” and when you mess up yourself, articulate to your kids what you learned.
To Fuel Optimism, Keep Everyone’s Pessimism in Check
Optimistic kids “view challenges and obstacles as temporary and able to be overcome, and so they are more likely to succeed,” writes Dr. Borba. But in our “fear-based times” filled with anxiety about terrorism, lockdown drills, climate change, pandemics, and more, it’s not hard to see why pessimism can crowd out optimism. As parents, our negativity can “spill over” to our kids, and make them more fearful and anxious. If that sounds familiar, consider the benefits of becoming more optimistic and work at it yourself. When you notice your kids saying pessimistic things, challenge their views and help them replace them with a more positive view. For example, if they say “I’m not good at anything,” after missing a goal in soccer, remind them of how fast they are at running. And language matters! Helping them reframe “I’ll never learn,” to “I’m not there yet,” can make a big difference.