How Families Develop Character in Children, by Marilyn Price-Mitchell PhD

Parents and families play a key role in character development.

Parents who create positive home learning environments know that communicating about academics and homework is important.  They also understand that family values get passed from one generation to the next.  But how we instill values and character strengths in kids often seems mysterious.  Is it through discipline, living our own values, treating kids with respect, or a combination of the many ways we interact with our children?

Children are losing hope, giving up on life, and feeling insecure about themselves at alarmingly young ages. Maria Rose Reifler, a gifted fifth grade teacher in East Los Angeles, asks, “Where are the parents?” And for good reason.

Parents are part of the solution. They can help reverse this trend by building character strengths in children. The ways in which families talk about and reinforce character development from preschool through adolescence is vital to positive youth development.

Give Meaningful Praise

I often hear parents of young children say “Good job!” when a child does something noteworthy. But do children understand the message behind this general statement?

As children get older, they get more and more generalized praise. Perhaps they receive a trophy for being on the winning team. They might receive congratulatory remarks on good grades or for participating in a performance or special event.  In fact, many children get praised for everything, in the mistaken belief it will increase their self-esteem.

Praise becomes meaningless to kids unless they learn from it.  Just as they learn from constructive feedback on academics and homework, they learn to develop positive character traits from well-communicated praise.

Parents have a great opportunity to help kids identify and build on their character strengths by changing the way they give praise.  I’m not suggesting that all generalized comments be eliminated. Rather, whenever more specific praise can be given, the more valuable it is for a child.  Here are some suggestions:

  • Familiarize yourself with the character strengths listed at the VIA Institute on Character.
  • When your children act in ways that exemplify one of these strengths, praise them for it. Be specific.  Praise their enthusiasm, honesty, kindness, teamwork, fairness, humility, etc.
  • By making your praise more specific, you help kids learn that character strengths matter. And you communicate appreciation for who they are, not just for what they do.
  • Also read the fascinating research by Carol Dweck, a professor at Stanford, who discovered that praising kids for their intelligence actually made them less likely to persist in the face of challenge.

Recognize Positive Character Attributes in Others

How Families Develop Character in Children, by Marilyn Price-Mitchell PhD

As children learn to become aware of their own character strengths, they also learn to identify character strengths in others.  And when they do, they eventually develop role models who inspire them.  One way to teach kids to recognize strengths in others is through books and movies, where they are well exemplified.

Whether geared for very young children or adolescents, there is rich opportunity to talk about character as parents and children reflect on movies and books together.  Even cartoon characters exemplify character strengths!

Dr. Ryan Niemiec is a psychologist, movie critic, and author of Positive Psychology at the Movies: Using Films to Build Virtues and Character Strengths. In his book, he lists a myriad of movies for older children that focus on different character strengths and virtues. Some of his favorites, organized by the same categories as the VIA Institute’s are:


Life Is Beautiful (Creativity)
Mongolian Ping-Pong (Curiosity)
The Terminal (Judgment/Open-Mindedness)
Akeelah and the Bee (Love of Learning)
Life as a House (Perspective)


Hotel Rwanda (Bravery)
Dead Poets Society (Integrity)
The Pursuit of Happyness (Perseverance)
Cool Hand Luke (Zest)


Away from Her (Love)
Amelie (Kindness)
Don’t Come Knocking (Social Intelligence)


Paperclips (Citizenship/Teamwork)
12 Angry Men (Fairness)
Gandhi (Leadership)


The Straight Story (Forgiveness)
10 Questions for the Dalai Lama (Humility/Modesty)
Driving Miss Daisy (Prudence)
Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (Self-Regulation)


American Beauty (Appreciation of Beauty)
It’s a Wonderful Life (Gratitude)
The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio (Hope/Optimism)
Zorba the Greek (Humor)
The Wizard of Oz (Spirituality/Meaning)

Engage in Conversations that Matter

There are lots of fun and interesting discussions that families can have around character strengths.  It doesn’t matter if they are the same as the ones outlined in the VIA model.  You and your children might adopt different words and phrases that describe them.  The important point is to engage in conversations that help kids understand character strengths and recognize them in others.  Questions that help facilitate these discussions after reading books or watching movies might include:

  • What strengths and virtues did characters exhibit?
  • What challenges and obstacles did characters have to overcome? How did their inner strengths help them?
  • What characters are most like you?  Or least like you?

Photo Credits Geomangio; Photostock

Published: May 10, 2011

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