Pretty much all parents want their kids to grow up happy, well-adjusted, and good. But what exactly does “good” mean, and how do you get your kids to be that way?
Good can mean “having the qualities required for a particular role,” or it can mean “that which is morally right.” If you had to choose whether your kids grow up to be merely passable or virtuous people who make the world a better place, we’d assume you’d choose the second option. To that end, here are nine tips for raising good kids.
#1: Be a living example.
Nothing can help your children learn how to grow up into virtuous adults like setting an example yourself. Kids tend to learn most not from what we say, but we do. This is especially true in the formative younger years of a child’s life, when they may not be able to digest verbal explanations of complex concepts. When children are very young, they can’t understand you anyway—they can only see your actions and hear the tone of your voice. If you want your kids to grow up to be good people, then act like a good person yourself.
In fact, you shouldn’t just act like a good person…you should really strive to be one, even when your kids aren’t watching. The fact of the matter is that kids are always watching their parents, especially when mom and dad least expect it. Moreover, disingenuously acting the part can backfire when a heated moment or stressful situation lets the real “you” come out. To that end, don’t just tell your children to respect other people, or speak politely, or care about others (or any of the tips that follow). Make all these behaviors part of your own life, so you can pass them on to your children.
#2: Teach them how to respect diversity.
A good person is one who respects other people, not just with lip service, but with a genuine regard and love for all of humanity. Unfortunately, many people fall into the pattern of disrespecting those who are different. We have a tendency to judge other groups of people based on circumstances, finances, and cultural differences. Children are naturally unbiased in that regard, but inaugurating them into our own jaded worldview is unfortunately easy to do—it can happen with a simple comment or look. Help them to stay in the innocent space of non-judgement by strengthening your own sense of love for all different types of people.
If you live in a fairly homogeneous area, go out of your way to help your child learn about diversity, perhaps by learning different languages, traveling, reading books, or attending cultural festivals. Help them to learn that a person’s sense of worth is not created by skin color, religion, physical appearance, or anything else external—but that character and worth is internal, and that all human lives are inherently precious. At the same time, if you see or hear of anyone disrespecting other people, use that as an opportunity to remind your children how important it is to respect others.
#3: Teach them responsibility.
Good people have a strong sense of responsibility. They don’t place blame on others and take charge of their own life. Most of all, they view success as the reward of hard work, and not something they are freely entitled to without effort. To that end, teaching your kids responsibility is a big part of molding them into virtuous adults. Giving your children age-appropriate chores and awarding an allowance is a great way to build a sense of responsibility and strengthen an internal connection between effort and reward. When children are very young, you’ll have to do the chores along with them; cleaning up after playtime presents a great opportunity.
As they get older, kids can clean up after dinner, feed pets, and do light housework such as putting away their clothes. When kids get into the preteens and teens, you can teach them about planning and budgeting—skills that are necessary as an adult for paying bills on time and keeping to commitments and appointments. Responsibility should not just be scheduled, however. It’s important to teach kids about having a sense of responsibility to their immediate environment, such as cleaning up after an accident, and not littering.
#4: Encourage gratitude.
Gratitude is a mindset that builds appreciation, positivity, and good character. Teach your kids about gratitude by encouraging them to say “thank you” any time someone does something for them. Whether that’s a waiter placing their dinner in front of them, or a teacher handing back a book report (regardless of the grade) children should be taught how to say thanks. Those without a strong sense of gratitude can easily slip into complaining, disrespect, and other behaviors and outlooks that are the opposite of virtue. Again, the biggest way kids tend to learn about what to do is from what their parents are doing, so make sure you’re saying thank you.
Beyond expressing appreciation towards people, it’s also good to appreciate what we have. Learn how to avoid being upset about what you lack, and to celebrate what is in your life. You’ll be amazed by how much your own life will improve, and contagious this positivity can be. When a person is happy with their lot, it’s much easier to be polite, caring, and helpful. To that end, teach your kids how to be grateful by getting grateful yourself. Perhaps keep a journal or make a daily list of things you are thankful for (your kids can be one of them).
#5: Talk about feelings.
Good people tend to have a strong sense of emotional intelligence. They can respond to others appropriately, sharing in their happiness and supporting them with empathy when they’re down. But emotional intelligence is not something that comes naturally to most people; they have to learn it, and it’s something that’s usually learned from those closest to us. Children have a hard time expressing their feelings and navigating them in healthy ways. Help them out by labeling their feelings as you see them: “you feel happy,” or “your feel frustrated, or “your feel sad.”
Encourage your kids to talk about their feelings and share what’s going inside; it will give them the skills they need to deal with challenges in a healthy way. Virtuous adults don’t take their negative feelings out on others; they admit them, own them, and learn how to deal with them positively. Good people are also happy for the success of others around them, and can exhibit genuine empathy. The road to this type of emotional intelligence doesn’t begin when we “find ourselves” after college (or beyond). It starts during our childhood, fostered by our parents. To that end, teach your children about how to navigate their feelings.
#6: Spend quality time together.
Children who feel loved and supported are less likely to act out in risky ways for attention or to process their unhealed wounds. By contrast, children who feel abandoned, unsupported, or even just disconnected can take out their frustrations on other people. If you want to raise kids into good adults, make sure to spend quality time with them, strengthening your bond. It shouldn’t be a one-sided approach either; each parent should spend time with that child, so that they feel the maximum level of support.
In today’s world, it can be easy to transform potentially good-quality together-time into disconnectedness, just because we’re so plugged into your phones and email and social media. Turn off these devices during dinner, when you pick your kids up from school, and at other key points of interaction. Plan special activities that your kids enjoy—whether that’s going to a baseball game, attending a play, or playing tea party. Don’t assume that running errands together can count for bonding time. The sense of happiness that kids feel when they’re connected to their parents will go a long way toward fostering good behaviors; moreover, if you want your kids to model your own behavior, nothing can facilitate that better than building up lots of connectedness.
#7: Help them learn how to care.
Good people are not just good in the way they react to others. Good people have a natural drive to share goodness with others, and make the world a better place. Teach your children to have a sense of altruism by involving them in activities that are giving. There are plenty of ways to get involved with these types of events through your local recreation center, soup kitchen, or place of worship. From packing bags of toiletries to give to a local homeless shelter to visiting older folks in the senior home, there are plenty of opportunities around your local community to give.
If your kids have a special skill or interest in something, that can also become a gateway to giving. For example, if they excel at a particular subject in school, they can tutor struggling peers in that subject. If they enjoy making art, they can give their art away to lonely seniors. Giving doesn’t have to be planned either; it can also be spontaneous. In fact, virtuous people rarely turn down an opportunity to help someone in need. Remember to incorporate safety into your giving plan; children should never talk to strangers without an adult they know being part of the conversation.
#8: Teach them manners.
Being good and virtuous on the inside will certainly shine through, but it’s important to realize that even being a well-intentioned person will not necessarily make you have good manners—and day in and day out, manners are crucial for acting with respect towards other people. Being courteous and observing social mores shows others that we care and value their feelings, which are part and parcel of being a good person. Again, kids will learn primarily from you in this area.
Handing them a manual about good manners will not have as great an effect as them watching you greet other people with politeness, practice attentive listening, and behaving with dignity. Remember not to be rude or impatient when things don’t go exactly the way you want them, and especially remember not to take frustrations out on cashiers, bank tellers, or other people who come into your life only briefly…because again, these little moments are the ones that really count in terms of passing on character traits. Good manners also facilitate relationships built on respect and trust—and these types of relationships only occur between good people.
#9: Teach them about self-discipline.
It’s only human nature (or at least, the more animalistic side of our human nature) to act in our own best self-interest. However, if everyone just took what they wanted all of the time, society would not be able to function. A good person understands and respects boundaries and the rights of other people. Teach your children about restraint and self-discipline by facilitating this trait in age-appropriate ways.
Young children with siblings might want to hit or bite a brother or sister who knocked down their tower or took their toys without asking—but they have to hold themselves back and use their words instead. They may want to eat a whole bag of cookies—but eating more than two or three could make their tummy upset. As kids get older, restraint and self-discipline get a lot more serious than just cookies and toys. But those parents who helped their children develop a sense of self-control at an early age will see the fruits of their labor in pre-teens, teens, and young adults who can hold themselves back from doing whatever they want at the expense of others; a virtuous quality of self-restraint.
A final word
Raising kids is hard work, and raising them into virtuous adults is even harder. Just remember that when you grow older and your kids are adults, you’ll experience a deep sense of satisfaction in knowing that you made the world a better place…not just because of the way you have led your life, but because of the traits you passed on to your children—who will continue to improve the world around them with their virtue.