Sowing the Seeds of Character

As Eleanor Roosevelt said, "People grow through experience if they meet life honestly and courageously. This is how character is built."

Character is a trait that everyone wants. It's something parents want their children to learn. Yet it is difficult to define, can mean different things to different people, and requires practice to develop. According to Michele Borba, Ed.D., noted author and educator, character is defined as "moral intelligence, the capacity to understand right from wrong, have strong ethical convictions, and to act on them so one behaves in the right and honorable way." The author of such books as Parents Do Make a Difference and Building Moral Intelligence: The Seven Essential Virtues that Teach Kids to Do the Right Thing, Dr. Borba has worked with many Girl Scout groups. Here, she shares her views on what character means and how children can learn it.

Q: How does moral intelligence connect to character?
Moral intelligence consists of seven essential virtues—empathy, conscience, self-control, respect, kindness, tolerance, and fairness—that guide your character. Once you plant the virtues, you can teach girls the skills to empower them so they can provide their own moral compasses.

Q: Why is character-building so important today?
Our children are getting hit with a huge barrage of mixed messages. They are confronted with peers, not-so-great adult role models, and media where they hear about top CEOs who value money more than ethical behavior. They are receiving unfiltered information from the Internet, song lyrics, video games, and TV. Character-building is nothing new. Socrates and Aristotle spoke about it. They believed that "You are what you are because of what you do repeatedly."

Q: How do you teach skills?
First, figure out what you stand for. Girl Scouts is very clear about this. Then ask yourself what's the most important thing you want to teach. I've asked leaders influencing girls, what do you want to be remembered for? Respect, responsibility? You can also ask yourself, what kind of example do I set? If you asked your kids to tell you what you stand for, what would they say? Parents need to be the example. When parents lecture their kids and say, you need to be respectful, they may think their kids know what that means but to empower them means you need to teach them. Girl Scouts is a great place for nurturing character. Girls get opportunities to practice skills, and they learn by doing.

Q: Any other suggestions for character-building?
Yes, T-E-A-C-H:
T: Target character traits. Prioritize the ones you want your kids to learn. Is it respect, responsibility, or something else?
E: Example. If you want your child to be respectful, ask yourself if you are respectful. What other examples are you exposing your children to?
A: Accentuate. If you rent a video, talk about the plot. Was she responsible? Look for moments. If your child is upset, talk about virtues that are important.
C: Catch them doing it. You say, "That took courage." Use the language of virtue. Use the word, then tell why: "That took courage because you had to do something you were afraid to do."
H: Highlight why it's so important. Show them the value of strong character. What are the rewards? If you don't, they might say, why bother?