Developing good character in children

Published 7:47 pm Monday, September 15, 2014

By Joseph L. Bass

The dream of Martin Luther King Jr. was that people “will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” For the benefit of society, it is important for all people to have good character.

Many years ago I taught in university early childhood demonstration schools. I also lived and taught in a community and watched children develop from early childhood to become adults. It is clear children’s character is developed during the early years of life.


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How parents interact with their children is a strong indicator of the type of character their children will develop. During recent years, I have had many opportunities to watch parents with their children. I believe one situation in particular to be instructive about a child’s likely future development.

When parents and their children are in a situation that involves waiting in a public area, one in which arriving parents know there will be a 20- to 30-minute wait among other adults and children, the interaction the parents have with their children can be quite revealing.

One pattern I have observed to be helpful to a child’s development involves parents that have planned for the waiting period, bringing along beneficial activities that will occupy their children. The types of activities vary. Some children come in with electronic games, activity books, action figures to play with, books to read, etc. Some parents interact with the children along with the activities. Some parents talk with the children encouraging them to observe their surroundings. “What color is that man’s shirt?” “How many plants do you see in the room?” “How many other children are in the room?”

During the wait the parents provide positive reinforcement for their children’s good behavior.

On the other hand, a parent that does not provide activities for her children in the waiting situation can harm their development.

Such a parent might talk on her cell phone and leave the children to their own devices, acting as if her children are inconveniences. The children, often bright kids, actively play in the waiting area, having a good time. But eventually the parent thinks her children are being loud and over-active. “Be good,” she might tell them, finally corralling them and spanking them for being “bad.”

A third parent in such a situation might hold her child while waiting. Seeing other children walking around or sitting by themselves, the child starts to wiggle and makes noise about being held. But the parent holds him tighter. The child wants to be put down and left alone. He wiggles some more and makes more noise. The mother takes him into the bathroom and spanks him. Eventually the child becomes submissive under the threat of being spanked again.

The path of a child’s life is well established by the time he or she is old enough to start school. A child’s development starts in the parent-child relationship from birth. A teacher, a head start program, a school has little chance of redirecting the path established by parents during early childhood. For society to become better, we have to find ways to improve parenting with particular focus on encouraging young people from having children when they themselves are children.

Joseph L. Bass is the executive director of ABetterSociety.Info Inc., a nonprofit organization in Hobson. Email him at