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3 things we can do to foster development of positive character traits in young children

You have probably guessed it. Having a good character is not just about having integrity – “the quality of being honest and having strong moral principles”. It is also a development of self and one’s social skills. Therefore, character building is not a subject that one can just teach or get accredited for by taking an examination that “tests” your values.

So what is it that we wish for our children to become when they grow up? To be a person of good character, resilient and able to take responsibilities for himself, his family, the community, and who knows, the country?

In the words of Mr Heng Swee Keat, Minister for Education, he said this in his address at NIE-MOE 1st Character and Citizenship Education Conference in 2011: “… There are four outcomes relating to character building. Character building starts from “knowing thyself” — building self-awareness and self-management, to enable the individual to achieve his or her full potential. Building on this, to “knowing others” — to be socially aware and to interact well with others, and nurture positive relationships. In dealing with others, we need to focus on “doing the right things” — to apply moral reasoning and take responsibility in decision making, and have the integrity to stand by our values. Finally, in the face of individual, community or national challenges, individuals need to demonstrate resilience.”

As parents or caregivers, much of our children’s behaviors are affected by their interactions with us. When we give them our time, we lead them by example. That is the focal point in the process of Character Building. So what are the 3 things we can do to help encourage positive character building when interacting with young children?

  • Giving them space to regulate their feelings and manage emotions

There will be times when things do not go the way Junior wants. As far as we can, we try to encourage the child to self-regulate and manage his or her emotions, especially for the older preschoolers.

By this, we do not mean leaving the child unattended to when he or she is having an emotional outburst. When we see a child unable to get past his or her outburst, we can ask if he needs a moment to calm down or if he would like us to help him calm down by “counting to 10” for example. If the child is unable to make a decision in his or her flare-up moments, you can set the direction right by saying: “You look like you need a moment to calm yourself down. I am going to bring you over there where it’s less crowded for a time out together.” And, do just that.

We can then talk to the child when he is ready – about what had transpired and how he could have managed the situation better. Use phrases like: “Would it better if you had asked nicely?” or “Throwing a tantrum like that makes everyone unhappy. It spoils a happy day with <fill in the blank> don’t you think so?” And when things are addressed and well, we can ask: “Are we good to go now?” or declare: “Okay, we are ready. Let’s go!” Throw in a “Hi-5” if it helps too!

Gradually, Junior will be able to react to such situations more positively.

  • Giving them opportunities to put themselves in others’ shoes.

Sometimes, we can ask questions that help Junior think through others’ position. Not too long ago, my girl and I boarded a bus and a nice lady let us have her seat at the front of the bus so that we do not need to wobble to the back for seats on a moving bus. We said our thanks and sat down. Taking the opportunity, I explained the reason why we were given a seat and if a person who needs the seat more than us board the bus, we should do the same.

Same thing goes for sharing or giving away toys. I like the recent article I had read where parents are encouraged to let the child know that it is okay sometimes not to share and that you just need to tell your friend that “I’m not done with it yet, okay?” However, there will still be times where we want to encourage sharing or giving away something they like simply because they want to make someone feel better or happy.

There was once my girl and I were at a birthday party and the birthday girl’s balloon burst. The birthday girl came over and wanted to take my daughter’s balloon away from my hand. I got my daughter over, told her what happened and asked: “It is a special day for Mira and she is upset over her losing her balloon. Is there something you can do to make her feel better? Is it okay you let Mira have your balloon since it is her birthday?” Mira waited as patiently as she could and I could see it was a difficult decision for my munchkin. Ultimately, the child makes the decision to give or not, and my girl actually decided to let the birthday girl have her balloon.

  • Speaking nicely and being kind even when people are rude to you

Speaking nicely is a generally achievable good habit that we can instill in our children from young, starting the minute we say “Hello!” to a newborn. Try to use more positive and simple words in our conversations to communicate better with the little ones. For example, instead of saying: “DON’T TOUCH THIS! You will break it!” try “Oh! Gentle hands please! Try not to pick that up okay, it is glassware. Thank you!” You would be surprised how the use of magic words of manners like “Please”, “Thank you”, and “Excuse Me” will help.

Being kind on the other hand, especially when faced with rudeness or sarcasm, can be a lot more difficult. That being said, we all have moments when we are rude or sarcastic of course, because we are only human. How we can react to such situations may be highly contextual but the idea is that WE CAN return polite words. We can still give that person basic respect. Say your child tells you about a disagreement which occurred during playtime with friends, and one of them used some nasty words on your child. Well, since it is a friend, I would encourage my child to voice her feelings to her friend like "<insert name> that is not very nice. I am upset by your words.”, and try to talk things out with her friends on her own. Usually, they do not hold grudges for long and it is a good thing that the children sort themselves out at play. If it were a stranger outside who is being rude, we may just choose to walk away because we may not know what kind of trouble we may get into.

What helps build a child’s character is affected by the experiences we give or expose the children to – whether as a parent, a teacher, a friend or even a stranger outside, it all adds up and set the foundation for their growing up years. We can help the children understand that they have the capability within to take responsibilities for themselves, and to recover quickly from difficult situations.

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