What Is Good Character and what does it mean to have it? And, how do you know if someone has it? These are tough questions to answer, even for most adults. That’s why it’s so hard to teach kids about this subject—and even harder to help shape their characters in a positive direction.
To do so, teachers and students alike must first understand what “character” even is. Abraham Lincoln once said, “Character is like a tree and reputation like its shadow. The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing.” The famous basketball coach John Wooden said something very similar: “The true test of a man’s character is what he does when no one is watching.”
These views of character are quite similar—and quite indicative of what the word really means. Character is who you are at your very core. It is, as Dictionary.com says, “the aggregate of features and traits that form the individual nature of some person or thing.”
It’s all the values and beliefs you hold dear to your heart… and it’s the person you are even when you’re alone. So… how can you tell if someone has good character? And how do you teach kids to recognize it in themselves and in others? That gets a little tougher—and a whole lot more subjective. But there are some key values we can focus on to get the job done.
Teaching Kids About Character
Students often get confused by the difference between “having good character” and “being a good person.” There is definitely some overlap between these (many good people also have good character), but in the end, they are two distinct things.
It all comes down to a person’s core values and to their motivations for acting as they do. In general, people who are considered to have good character often have traits like integrity, honesty, courage, loyalty, fortitude, and other important virtues that promote good behavior. These character traits define who they are as people—and highly influence the choices they make in their lives.
Furthermore, a person with a positive character does the right thing because they believe it is the right thing to do. They don’t act because someone else is influencing or pressuring them to do so, and they don’t do something just because they want to look good in front of others. They take the right action because it is important to them to live life according to their personal values.
On the other hand, some people simply take positive actions because of other influences.
For instance, someone may donate money to a charitable organization when they are solicited in front of other people—but they may not have donated had they been out alone at the time.
While the action of donating, in this case, is objectively good (and the person who donated is very likely “a good person”), this action isn’t necessarily a marker of good character. It is also not a marker of poor character by any means—but the distinction of how you act in front of others versus how you act when you are alone is the key.
At its core, character is something that intrinsically occurs within a person and surpasses other factors like race, religion, age, gender, education, and even personality in determining how we respond when faced with tough situations in life. Other factors and our lived experiences may influence the character traits we have—but it is ultimately our character itself that truly dictates how we act.
These are tough lessons for kids to understand, so it’s often helpful to break it down into some smaller component parts. Read on to learn more about character and how to explain individual traits to your students.
How to Further Develop Positive Character
(and What Goes Into These Type of Traits)
Most people believe that their unique qualities and traits are good—and while they may admit that there is room for improvement, they generally believe that they are living life about as well as they can.
However, if you’re interested in further developing your character, it’s important to understand which traits are markers of good character—and which traits are related to one another.
In general, most people agree that values like honesty, integrity, loyalty, and dependability are positive character traits to have. But of course, there are many other factors that are commonly found alongside these traits such as diligence, loyalty, responsibility, truthfulness, and more.
When you set a goal to have a certain trait, you can more easily develop it by becoming more conscious of your actions—and by working to integrate appropriate behaviors into your daily life.
Developing healthy, positive character is a very active process. As Helen Keller said, “Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired, and success achieved.”
With that in mind, another great way to teach kids about developing good character is to have them complete character-building activities. Use the themed journal prompts below to teach students more about what it means to act positively even when no one is watching—and to help them gain a deeper awareness of the process of developing positive character traits.
What is Good Character Writing Prompts
- What character traits are most important to you? Why?
- What does it mean to you for someone to have good character? Write about someone you know who has it.
- Write about a time when you had to give up something you really wanted for the sake of someone else.
- Why do some people struggle so much with doing the right thing?
- Do you think you have good character? Why or why not?
- Write about a time when you struggled to make the right decision. How did you make a choice in the end?
- What does it mean to have integrity?
- Write about a time when you witnessed someone doing something nice that they didn’t have to do. How did you respond?
- What is the hardest lesson you’ve ever had to learn? Why?
Related Links & Resources
In the end, it’s important to realize that people’s actions are not always a reflection of their true character—but that people may improve their character by striving to build positive traits in themselves.
Teach your students about this important topic early on this school year… and encourage them to record their progress along the way!
Until next time, write on…
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