Ask the Expert: How Can I Help My Child Build Character?


While the focus on school grades and test scores is increasing for our children, we must remember that while they grow they should also be learning life skills such as responsibility, persistence, and resourcefulness. Here, a life coach shares her advice on how to help your children develop these priceless character traits.


boy in dad's shirt“We must remember that intelligence is not enough,” said the late, great Martin Luther King, Jr. “Intelligence plus character—that is the goal of true education.”

It seems we’ve gotten so far away from this concept. Our schools and society stress grades and performance above all else. Couple that with helicopter- or over-parenting, and we’re setting our kids up for potential disaster: emotionally crippling dependency, discontent, boredom, and a huge sense of entitlement.

So how do we get our kids to do well in life? By building those perennial traits that withstand the test of time and of a rapidly changing society. They are the underpinnings of living a good and meaningful life, of coping with challenges and disappointments.

How do we foster traits of character such as persistence, resourcefulness, responsibility? First and foremost we have to look at ourselves as parents and become aware of what we value and emphasize with our children. We have to hold true to our own set of standards and not be swayed by the ‘Joneses.’ We must see our children as highly functioning adults and raise them towards the qualities that promote that vision. So if we want our child to be independent, our parenting needs to teach independence. If we want our child to be able to handle difficulties that will inevitably arise, we must raise them with an eye on problem-solving skills. If we want our children to be compassionate souls, we must model compassion in our everyday lives. And if we want our children to be persistent and keep on trying, we must praise effort.

It’s these ‘soft’ character skills that will enhance a child’s ability to navigate well through life. And so we need to:

1. Catch them being good and praise specifics. For example: “That was very resourceful to go the guidance counselor and ask for advice on how to handle the girl who is teasing you.” Or: “How great that you prepared your school bag the night before. That’s very responsible of you.”

2. Use character-building language. Spell out the traits you’re looking to encourage such as ‘resourceful’ and ‘responsible’ in the above example. Even young children get it when it’s in the proper context. They certainly know it’s something positive. Use it in talking about other people’s actions, too.

3. Point out examples of character traits and discuss them. It beats always talking about competing grades and scores. Hone in on what makes people good humans.

4. Allow children 'the three F’s': fall, fumble and yes, fail. It takes a lot of strength and self-control to stand back and watch our children struggle or make a mistake when we can run in and prevent such a thing. But if we rush in to rescue them, we are stripping them of valuable lessons that become the muscles of character. Madeline Levine, Ph.D., author of Teach Your Children Well, has a great line: “A diet of easy success ensures being discouraged at the first whiff of challenge.” There’s no greater feeling of pride than working towards something and accomplishing it on one’s own. Competence is born here, and thus confidence and self-esteem. Pushing through, learning to tolerate frustration and hardship – these are the pillars of resilience. Falling down and getting back up again is the basis for eventual success. Most people must try many times before a big win is made. To give up is to lose big time in life.

5. We parents are our children's most important role models. Brene Brown, Ph.D., LMSW, whose research on character traits is nationally known, asks a poignant question: “Are you the adult that you want your child to grow up to be?” Are we modeling how to think outside the box, how to be tolerant, how to take responsibility and be accountable for our actions? We need to encourage our children to pursue their own interests and passions, but we need to be mindful of living and modeling the way we’d like to see our children as adults.

It’s the inner workings that contribute to a person’s well-being and overall satisfaction. The thread that weaves through it all is our humanness. Let’s give our kids these years to develop and practice these vital traits and skills. It will last a lifetime. And the drive for learning and growth will be ever-present.


Harriet Cabelly is a social worker and life coach based on Long Island. Read her blog at


Also see:

How to Raise a Generous and Appreciative Child

How to Teach Tolerance to Your Children

How to Not Spoil Your Kids