Education Guides

Becoming A Responsible Citizen

INF4726As parents, we all want our children to grow up to be responsible citizens and good people. We want them to learn to feel, think and act with respect for themselves and for other people. We want them to pursue their own well-being, while also being considerate of the needs and feelings of others. We want them to recognize and honor the democratic principles upon which our country was founded. We want them, in short, to develop strong character.

"Intelligence is not enough. Intelligence plus character, that is the goal of true education." Martin Luther King Jr.

A quality education provides citizens with the tools to participate fully in their society. And the pay-offs for encouraging our children"s character development are enormous. Research has shown that children who grow up with strong, positive values are happier and do better in school. They are also better able to balance their personal wants and needs against those of others and to make positive contributions to society.

On the other hand, if children do not learn proper values and behavior when they are very young, problems can develop. These problems can mushroom with serious consequences as children grow older—dropping out of school, drug use, teenage pregnancy, violent crime—the list goes on.

The most important thing we can do for our children is to help them acquire values and skills that they can rely on throughout their lives. In doing so, they will have the best chance to lead good lives as individuals and as citizens of their communities and of America.

What Does "strong Character" Mean?

Character is a set of qualities, or values, that shape our thoughts, actions, reactions and feelings. People with strong character

show compassion, are honest and fair,

display self-discipline in setting and meeting goals, make good judgments,

show respect to others,

show courage in standing up for beliefs, have a strong sense of responsibility,

are good citizens who are concerned for their community, and

maintain self-respect.


Compassion, or empathy, means identifying with and being concerned about other

people"s feelings and needs. It provides the emotional root for caring about other people. It allows us to be understanding and tolerant of different points of views and beliefs, it makes us aware of the suffering of others, and it allows us to empathize with them or to feel their suffering as our own. Compassion also allows us to feel joy and excitement—rather than anger and despair—at other people"s successes and achievements.

Babies may begin to cry when they hear other sounds of crying, and coo and laugh when they hear others making happy sounds. By the age of three, many children will make an effort to hug or comfort another child or a parent who seems upset. As children grow, compassion can guide their actions and behaviors in positive ways. They understand that by doing something wrong, they cause others pain or unhappiness.

We can promote compassion by helping our children to think about how others feel. For example, if your child says or does something hurtful to another child, help him* to focus his attention on the feelings of his victim by saying, for example, "How do you think Zack feels? Would you like to feel like that?" Children develop compassion by practicing acts of caring and kindness towards others. As adults, we need to emphasize the importance of helping others, giving others the benefit of the doubt and being open to differences.

What You Can Do

Talk about the point of view of others as you watch TV, read books or discuss other people with your child. For example, ask, "What do you think that character is feeling and thinking?"

Show care toward others, such as doing errands for sick neighbors or opening doors for others.

Give others the benefit of the doubt. If your child complains that a classmate deliberately pushed her down on the way to lunch, explain that sometimes when people are in a hurry, they don"t watch where they"re going—they don"t mean to push or hurt anyone.

Be open to differences. If your child says "Our new neighbors dress funny," explain that people often wear clothes that reflect their cultures or native countries.

—Daddy, why is Grandma crying?

—She"s very sad. One of her friends just died. Come sit with me. Do you remember how you felt when your gerbil, Whiskers, died?

—I felt sad and lonely.

—Well imagine how much worse Grandma must feel losing a friend. Maybe you can think of a way to help her.

—I could give her a hug. . .

—That"s a great idea!

Honesty and Fairness

Simply put, honesty means being truthful with ourselves and with others. It means caring enough about others not to mislead them for personal benefit. It means facing up to our mistakes, even when we have to admit them to others or when they may get us into trouble.

Fairness means acting in a just way and making decisions, especially important ones, on the basis of evidence rather than prejudice. It means "playing by the rules" and standing up for the right of everyone to be treated equally and honestly.

To understand the importance of being honest and fair, children need to learn that living together in a family, community or even a nation depends on mutual trust. Without honesty and fairness, trusting each other becomes very difficult, and families—and societies—fall apart.

Words of caution: There is a big difference between being dishonest—lying or cheating— and "making things up," as children often do in fantasy play. If children are taught that not telling the truth is "a bad thing," some young children might assume that it is also a bad thing to pretend to be a princess or an astronaut. Although you should discourage your child from deliberately lying and cheating, you should also let him know that it is fine to role play and pretend.

What You Can Do

Be a model of honest relations with others.

Discuss with your child what honesty is and is not. Point out, for example, that being honest doesn"t mean telling someone you think he looks ugly. Kindness goes along with honesty.

—Dad, Why can"t I choose what video to watch? It is not fair that Ramon gets to pick!

—Yes, it is fair, because you got to pick the video we watched last night. Now it is Ramon"s turn.

Discuss fairness (chances are that your child will bring it up) in different situations. For example, how do we show fairness in our family? What does fairness mean to the community? What were standards of fairness in the past?

Talk about how you try to be fair in your life and work. What issues of justice have you wrestled with? Your adolescent will be particu-larly interested in talking with you about these things.

—Mom, why did you tell the cashier that she"d given you too much change? It was her mistake, so why didn"t you just keep it?

—Because the money wasn"t mine, and it would have been dishonest for me to keep it.


Self-discipline is the ability to set a realistic goal or make a plan—then stick with it. It i

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