Positive Parenting: Building Character in Young People


Philip St. Romaine

Publication Date:

May 2007

Catalog No:


..Chapter 3: Profiles in Character

In any discussion, it's usually a good idea to define and agree on key terms, because not everyone means the same thing when they say the same thing.

The word "character" is a great case in point. Some people use it to describe personality. (e.g. "He's a real character.") That's not what we're talking about.

When we talk about character, we're talking about the kind of moral and ethical strength that's reflected in generally positive feelings of self-worth and reveals itself in a variety of life-coping skills.

A profile of a person with this type of character is outlined below. See anyone there that you recognize -- or traits you'd like to see more of in your kids?


  • accepts self with strengths and limitations
  • feels loved and cherished by family and friends
  • has a reality-based sense of competence
  • believes in ability to create meaningful future
  • can sustain loving relationships

Life-Coping Skills

  • is willing to learn new things
  • can delay self-gratification for the sake of future goals
  • understands and can articulate personal values
  • can identify alternatives and make decisions
  • can appropriately express feelings

There are lots more qualities we could list (remember the Boy Scout oath?), but this should at least give you a better idea of what we mean when we refer to character.

And helping our kids develop these traits really is our primary goal as parents.

More than giving our kids stuff (How many video games do you really need, anyway?) or finding ways to keep them entertained (Ditto), building character will help prepare them for the day when they leave home, and begin their life's work -- and start creating relationships and families of their own.

Parenting for Self-Worth

A lot of the communication that takes place between a parent and child involves comments on behavior or personality or both.

And the three basic forms that a parent's commentary can take focus on different aspects of a situation with very different results:

Affirmation. Comments positively on person and behavior: "I like who you are and I like what you're doing."
Discipline. Comments positively on person, negatively on behavior: "I like you, but I don't like what you're doing right now."
Shame. Comments negatively on both person and behavior: "I don't like you and I don't like what you're doing."

Shame -- you remember shame. You probably got a lot of it when you were growing up. Parents used to pass it around shamelessly before anyone noticed that it erodes the parent-child relationship and chips away at a child's self-esteem. And that's a real shame.

If we want our kids to develop a positive self-concept, we could start by doing less shaming and more affirming and constructive disciplining.

Kids who hear shaming remarks again and again become programmed to believe that they're worthless and incapable. (Which, not uncoincidentally, fits the personality profile of many career criminals and sociopaths.)

We shame our kids when we compare them to one another, belittle them, shout them down, call them names, hit them in anger, or neglect their needs.

These are all counterproductive measures, producing the kind of defiance we saw in the four-year-old who didn't know what his mom wanted when she told him to be "good" -- and who, with a little help (or more shame), might eventually learn to stop caring.

When we resort to shaming our kids, we usually do it as a byproduct of our own anger, which points up the need all parents share to constantly monitor the way we deal with our own feelings.

Affirming our kids requires a commitment on our part -- and simple observation. Because no matter what else they might be doing, kids do all sorts of good and responsible things that ought to be at least acknowledged, if not praised.

If you're like a lot of parents, you may be more in the habit of commenting on mistakes rather than successes, and so need to make an effort at affirming.

That's okay. Even though affirmation is one of the greatest personal skills we can ever develop or use with our kids, it doesn't always come naturally.

But the results are worth it. Taking the time to affirm our kids, our spouses, and others can lead us to become more caring. The payoffs come not only in an increased sense of self-worth in our kids, but in ourselves, as well.

The simple truth is that when parents stop shaming kids and start affirming them, they become easier to live with and so do we. That's the good news.

Here's the bad news: It still doesn't magically eliminate the need to discipline them from time to time.

And that raises yet another of the perpetual perplexities of parenthood: How do we discipline kids without shaming them -- and confront their destructive behaviors without putting them down?

Good question. We were just getting to that.

Guidelines for Discipline

"Discipline" is one of those words that can mean different things to different people. In this context, one meaning won't stretch far enough to cover all that we have to say, so we'll give it two.

Here's both in one sentence: Discipline is the ability to respect and follow reasonable rules, and the appropriate consequences that follow when we don't.

It's one of the trickiest areas of all in parenting. Because the fact is that if we really want our kids to learn responsibility, it's necessary to call it to their attention when they behave irresponsibly. It needs to begin early, too. It's ludicrous to expect responsible behavior from an adolescent who was never disciplined as a child.

Still, when we define discipline (self-discipline, in this case) as the ability to respect and follow reasonable rules, we need to point out that what makes these rules reasonable and earns them respect is that they help to maximize the quality of life we share together. As motives go, it's a lot more useful than the fear of punishment, which is usually less helpful in building character.

What works in creating a context for constructive discipline?

Lots of things. You might start by considering some of the following points:

Make home a great place to be. This is the best way to mold behavior. If home is a place where our kids like to be, it's easier to correct problems than if they hate being home. We build a nurturing home environment by affirming our kids and by sharing in meaningful activities with them.

Activities can be as simple as family meals, prayer, or chores, or as involved as participating in sports, choir, or community projects together.

Some surveys show that parents spend as little as 20 minutes a day with their kids, and much of this is spent in fussing and checking up. This isn't enough -- there's simply not enough involvement to compete with television and peers for influence in their lives.

But even more important than the amount of time we spend together is what happens during that time. Passive activities (like watching TV together) don't lead to as much interpersonal involvement as playing a game or even washing the car. Active participation helps build deeper relationships than passive entertainment.

Establish non-negotiable rules for your kids. As parents, we have the right to make rules that will help us live with our kids in peace and harmony. As authorities in our homes, we need to assert this right and insist on certain behaviors for our kids.

We make rules to establish limits for our kids, who need boundaries if they're to grow. Specific non-negotiable rules should be worked out for each home.

Examples of non-negotiable rules might include:

  • No physical violence or verbal abuse or cursing.
  • Daily bath or shower.
  • Specific limits on TV time and content.
  • Brushing teeth twice daily.
  • No alcohol or drug use.
  • Compulsory school and church attendance.

Many parents add other rules, and some even eliminate several of the above. Still, regardless of which rules we insist on, we need to be as specific as possible -- to let our kids know what we expect and when -- in clear and unmistakable terms.

Example? The young mother who yelled at her son in the school board office because he wasn't being good might have had more success if she'd simply told him to leave the magazines alone.

It's important that we model as many of these behaviors as we insist upon. But there are reasonable exceptions, of course. Example: I don't believe that a parent who drinks alcohol responsibly is a hypocrite for telling his or her kids to abstain.

As adults, there are some things we can handle that our kids can't, and they need to accept this without laying a "double standard" guilt trip on us.

Establish negotiable rules. If our kids are going to learn to make decisions and compromise, the place to start is in the home. Who does which chores, for example, and when? Even toddlers can begin to help with something.

Unlike non-negotiable rules, which parents dictate, negotiable rules involve dialogue. Since they represent agreements made between ourselves and our kids, there's more room for flexibility.

Often these rules change as our kids get older and can take on newer, more challenging responsibilities. Some parents I know list all those household chores that they'd like their kids to take care of, then allow each one to choose two or three.

Needless to say, they have to follow up and negotiate those held in common and those passed over, but their kids are even involved in this.

If the kids can't compromise and make agreements, mom or dad then steps in and assigns chores. It's important to note, too, that these parents are careful to screen those chores from negotiation that are most likely to cause conflict and hard feelings.

Reach agreement on rules. By "agreement," I mean at least a basic understanding for the reasons why a particular rule exists.

If kids understand a rule and agree that it's fair, they're more likely to keep it.

Go over your family rules with your kids from time to time and review the reasons for them. Get your kids to acknowledge their value.

Establish consequences for breaking rules. "Rules were made to be broken," goes an old saying, and they get broken at home as often as anywhere else -- even those rules that rest on strong agreement.

When this happens, kids must pay consequences, or else they learn that your rules mean nothing.
There are three types of consequences, only two of which help to build character. See if you can pick them out.

  • Natural Consequences. Allowing events to simply run their course. Example: getting cold on a winter day when you forgot to wear a coat.
  • Logical Consequences. Forfeiting a privilege until responsibilities are met. Example: allowing a young person to go out only after chores are done, and denying this privilege (not a right) until chores are done.
  • Arbitrary Consequences. Relying on inflicting pain and fear and often unrelated to any established rule. Example: spanking a cranky kid who doesn't know what to do about his or her bad mood.

As you probably already guessed, only natural and logical consequences really teach lessons -- or, at least, positive lessons worth learning and which translate into character.

Natural consequences are the best teachers of discipline, and we should let our kids experience them when to do so will not endanger their health or inconvenience others.

No parent wants a toddler to learn that crossing a street alone is dangerous by allowing a car to teach the lesson. Nor do we want our teenagers to learn the hazards of drug use by allowing them to get strung out on crystal meth.

But we should let them take at least a few of life's lighter lumps and bruises; they'll learn from these.

The principle behind logical consequences is that privileges must be earned and maintained through responsible action. This is, after all, the way most of the world works most of the time.

A toddler can understand that she can't play with a second toy until the first has been picked up, or that she can't come out of your home's "whine room" until the whining stops and she's ready to relate without being cranky.

Similarly, teenagers can respect the fact that they're going to get grounded if they stay out past curfew. If possible, try to link consequences to privileges to maximize the lessons that kids can learn.

If you and your kids can agree on what consequences will be experienced when rules are broken, your kids then have a choice: Keep the rules or experience the consequences.

This way, you're able to slip out of the role of the "heavy," and instead become the person who sees to it that their choices are honored. Then kids are less likely to blame parents for their poor choices, and learn to become more responsible for their own behavior.

Be consistent. Everything we've talked about thus far takes time, effort, and lots of involvement with our kids. Still, there's a payoff: If we're consistent in our affirmation and discipline, our kids won't feel as much need to be defiant and they'll probably be easier to get along with.

On the other hand, if we're not consistent in clarifying rules or in allowing kids to experience the consequences of their choices, they'll almost certainly be worse off for it and so will we.

Like trees that go unpruned, children that grow up without consistency often grow out of control, dissipating themselves and bearing little fruit. They need (and actually want -- whether they always consciously know it or not) our consistency and guidance, so they can generate a strong, stable point of reference for growth.

Consistency is one of the greatest gifts we can give our kids, provided it doesn't turn into rigidity.

Continue with Chapter 4: Love in Action
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This is one in a series of publications on drugs, behavior, and health published by Do It Now Foundation.
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