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Dr. Martin Luther King said, “Intelligence plus character — that is the goal of a true education.”
Character does not consist of a single statement or a random act, it is those qualities and dispositions that we practice consistently—both good and bad. It’s often said character is who we are when no one is looking. How do we help our children learn character? Character training begins when our children are very young, actually probably at birth.
The Center for Character Development defines character as having six pillars: trustworthiness, responsibility, respect, fairness, caring, and citizenship. Others add such things as faith, honesty, and integrity. I see a natural progression in character development: Love, help, share, and give. All of which our children need to learn during the preschool years.
Love is first learned from parents and other family members. Love is transmitted more than taught. As we love our children, and they see us love each other, love is learned. Learning to care about others is foundational to the other good character qualities.
Helping also begins at home. Once walking is master, a child can start helping. Children need to be taught that helping others is not for their own benefit, but for the good of other people. The simple act of picking up one toy helps someone else.
Most of us are aware that children like to help. When my grandchildren are at our house at mealtime, they are all in the kitchen ready to help. I have tasks for each one that suits individual ages. The four-year-old can place the napkins on the table, while the eight-year-old can carefully pour water into glasses. I often hear, “I like to help.”
Our children don’t need a specific reward for helping. It then becomes a job. The payment for helping is seeing how their actions brought someone else joy. The act of helping should be a reward of its own.
Sharing is an act of kindness. Like loving and helping, it’s about the other person, not self. Children can’t be forced to share, but they can be taught how to share.
Young children shouldn’t be expected share naturally. To their young minds, when another child plays with their toy, it can mean they will no longer own that toy. Teaching sharing may take years, depending on the maturity of the child. It’s such a foreign concept, you might as well be speaking in a different language when you tell your child to share their belongings.
For very young children the act of sharing starts with playing side by side. The children may all be playing a different game, but they are playing together. Playing together with similar items (like coloring together) is the next step in sharing. Playing games, working puzzles together, or sharing an apple, are all beginning efforts of letting someone else use something of theirs.
A child may not completely learn to share until the age of seven or eight. But when taught gradually according to maturity level, it will become a natural tendency.
Finally, giving. Our family has had the practice of something new in, something old out. The closet isn’t stuffed with clothes that are too small and the toy box doesn’t overflow. More importantly, our children have been taught the joy of giving. Sometimes we think of a specific person who can use or enjoy the item we are giving away. Other times we give it to a local charity thrift store. The important part of the process is teaching the joy of giving. Plus our children have learned that possessions aren’t to be hoarded. The kid with the most things is not the winner.
Involve even your preschooler in charitable activities to learn to give of self. My children, and now my grandchildren, go with me when I serve meals-on-wheels. When they ask why we do that, I tell them it is because other people need us to.
Children don’t need a reward or payment for every act of kindness. Our children should learn to love, help, share, and give for its own sake. The prize is seeing someone else happy and the good feeling which comes from their actions.
These are all traits best learned at home–where love begins. Teaching character qualities is hard work for parent and child. If we consistently teach these qualities, we teach a full curriculum. The benefits as our children grow up are innumerable. Laying a foundation now will serve our children well throughout their lives.