How to Help Young People Learn Character

How to Help Young People Learn Character

There is many a sleepless night spent by parents, and arguably teachers too, pondering how best to prepare our young people for the world ahead.  We want them to be happy yes, and we want to protect them from the hardships and the struggles as best we can.  But we also want them to be good people – to make a positive difference in the world, and be kind to others.

So where should we focus our energies and how can we know we are helping to create those positive, empathetic young people for the future?

In a previous article we referenced Hugh McKay’s work on happiness and why he believes we emphasize this too much.  It is possible that we worry too much and focus too much on making children happy in our parenting style.  Certainly many who have focused on this have been labelled “helicopter parents” and have tried to avoid their children facing challenges of any kind… which can mean low levels of problem solving and resilience when moving into adult life.

In a recent conversation with Action for Happiness, Angela Duckworth, author of Grit and founder of Character Lab, suggested instead the key goal for parents should be to help their children develop character.  This instead helps them to live meaningful lives which brings greater levels of fulfillment.

Duckworth provides us with some excellent ideas and examples of things to focus on in terms of helping young people develop character:



A simple but important place to start is to help young people put in place a gratitude practice.  Gratitude assists us to look for positives in any situation and to appreciate the acts of kindness of others.  This shows them the value of working towards group goals and helping others be happy.

This could be as simple as going around the dinner table each night and saying what the best part of your day was, or in writing down three things you are grateful for each night before bed in a little journal.

Research has shown that adopting a gratitude practice has the capacity to shape your thinking in positive ways in as little as a month.



Duckworth calls compassion a “type of kindness that can change the world”.

Much like empathy, compassion involves understanding the feelings of others and having the courage to feel with them.  It makes us all more connected as people and more likely to be aware of those around us, both in our immediate surroundings, and across the world we all share.

Being conscious of the feelings of others stops bullying, encourages friendships of all kinds and creates bonds and commonalities where there were none before.  It teaches us to be curious and to value understanding over judgement.

Some tips for helping young people with this might include:

  • Discussing current events at the dinner table and wondering how people in the situation feel
  • Reading books together and analysing why the characters do what they do
  • Brainstorming together how to deal with social situations
  • Encourage them to be curious rather than anxious of new and different people
  • Volunteering
  • Caring for siblings, pets and even plants

You might find some more good ideas and thinking in the articles below.



There are many things that households – and schools – regularly celebrate.  A great mark, a spectacular sporting achievement… and what we celebrate teaches young people about what is valued.

Duckworth suggests that we ensure we recognize all kinds of strengths – strengths across heart, mind and will.  When a young person demonstrates character and kindness, we must celebrate this with as much gusto as the celebrations above.

Let your child (or student) hear you gush to friends about their act of charity. Take them out for ice-cream when they befriend the new student at school or persevere and improve in developing a skill or on a difficult school task.

This teaches them that they can be valued in many ways and that all of these things are important to defining success as well.



Young people need to know they have unconditional positive regard from many adults in their life… but they don’t need to always be protected and looked after.  Part of nurturing them to grow is to allow them to experience and work their way through challenge.  Don’t solve a problem for them – help them brainstorm ways to recover a bad grade or handle a difficult conversation with a peer, teacher or coach.  Let them carry out the task of solving the problem (with your help and guidance) and then celebrate with them when they do.

Get them out of their comfort zone – encourage them to take on a part-time job, or to go to that challenging school camp or scary overseas exchange. Again this helps them develop confidence and self-efficacy. They might even empathise and bond with others over the challenges.

Also consider the importance of teaching them to stick with difficult tasks.  Duckworth herself is an excellent role model of this, and I know from reading her book Grit, that she makes a deal with her children that if they want to try a new extra-curricular activity, they must stick with it for a certain period of time.  This enables them to see that effort and time sometimes create achievement – and even passion.  Grit is a tremendous strength of character which her research suggests is the key to success.



The greatest support we can all give to young people is to actively role model those behaviours we would like to see.  We need to give of ourselves, show kindness to others and stick with things that are difficult.  We might even role model the process of talking through options at the dinner table as a way to show it is normal and ok to seek help and advice.

Young people learn so much more from our example rather than our words – and they watch so carefully for hypocrisy!

They might even call you on it – but how you handle this is a learning opportunity too!  After all, no-one is perfect and we all have bad days.  It’s important to normalize this as well!


Photo by Alexandr Podvalny from Pexels

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