Getting it ‘just right:’ Teaching children about character

November 13, 2013 | Posted in: Early Learners, Elementary, High School, Middle Years

If we heard a story about a young girl walking into our neighbor’s house, helping herself to food, breaking a chair and running off without even so much as a “thank you” or “I’m sorry,” we’d probably wonder what her parents had taught her about respect – not to mention that little issue of felony breaking and entering.

Beyond their entertainment value, stories such as “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” provide an opportunity to talk about respect and other core values, including honesty, responsibility, fairness, compassion and caring.

Raising people of good character is one of our most important responsibilities as parents. By addressing character issues from a young age, we give our children the tools they need to grow and mature into caring adults.

Building a child’s character takes time and effort, but the payoff cannot be measured or described in words. What children learn about character in their early years can mold their character – and the choices they make – for the rest of their lives.

While “Goldilocks” offers the opportunity to talk about several values, we decided to examine it in relation to respect. Here are a few things to talk about with your preschooler:

  1. The Golden Rule. Do you think Goldilocks treated the bears the way she would like to be treated? How would you treat the bears if you went to their house?
  2. Consider the feelings of others. Ask a child, “How would it make you feel if someone came into your house and broke your chair while you were away?”
  3. Discuss manners. What if Goldilocks knew the bears as her neighbors and they invited her over for porridge? How could she ask them for more? What should she say when they gave her some porridge and invited her to sit down. Talk about different times when we say “please” and “thank you.”

How can you reinforce “respect” at home?

Use words to describe your child’s behavior as “respectful.” Help them learn examples of respectful behavior. When a child says “please” and “thank you,” they show respect for the people who are helping them.

Talk about it. If your child is in preschool, ask about his/her day and how he/she behaved in a respectful manner. Talk about actions that reflect respect (sharing, fairness) and help them understand that it is important.

Find examples in books. When you’re reading with your child, look for examples when characters show … well, character. Did someone say please or thank you? Did someone share toys nicely?

Act out respectful actions. If your child is playing school ask him/her to show you how to behave as a respectful student. If they are playing store, talk about how to respect customers, such as by saying “please” and “thank you.”

A few other lessons

Literature provides opportunities for lessons beyond the entertainment value of a story.

“Goldilocks and the Three Bears,” perhaps one of the best known fairytales, is a tale of threes for beginning counters – three bears, three chairs, three bowls of porridge and three beds. It also illustrates the concept of size (small, medium and large) as well as temperature (hot, cold and “just right”). There is also new vocabulary (porridge, rude, slurpy, tidy) and an opportunity to talk about sequence (retelling the story and what happened next).


The following books help teach respect for self and others:

Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse by Kevin Henkes

Stellaluna by Janell Cannon

Chicken Sunday by Patricia Polocca

The Ugly Duckling by Hans Christian Andersen

Check out this extensive list of books that teach character education values.

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