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Rooted in Identity: Building Character in Children

If you work with kids, whether you’re a parent, an educator, a volunteer, or someone who just loves children, it seems that most people can agree (regardless of your title or role) that building character is an important component of education and ‘growing up.’ The question of how to do this on the other hand, is often a more nuanced conversation. That said, the topic of teaching character development to our youth is truly a timeless conversation- one that is worth revisiting.

This topic is one that has been revised and revisited by parents and youth educators for generations. The reality is, there are all sorts of tips and tricks, models and methods available today that all compete to see which is the most effective. That said, at YLF, we believe that the trick to developing character in today’s youth isn’t necessarily method based, but rather identity based.

Character development is deeply tied to the discovery of one’s identity.

Our programs at YLF have demonstrated time and time again that character development is deeply tied to the discovery of one’s identity. Whether it’s through the questions that students ask, the conversations that result from them, or how students respond to our character curriculum one thing rings true: children crave clarity about who they are with a vivacious curiosity. They seek to understand themselves and the world around them- they want to know their place in the world, and they long to feel secure in this, just as adults do, seeking to answer the question–who am I? The reality is, our identity rests in knowing who we are, where we come from, and where we want to go.

If we reflect upon our own childhoods, it becomes self-evident that our childhood experiences and ‘growing up’ is really about the pursuit of self-discovery–and it remains this way throughout the course of our lives. The process of self-discovery is a vital aspect of character development– it is the unfolding of our very selves through our experiences. This unfolding gives rise to our character; our character forges who we are, and who we become. In order for this unfolding to bear positive outcomes– characters that reflect maturity and wisdom– we must be given a firm foundation- in which identity plays a crucial role. Having a sense of self-confidence at a young age, provides clarity, purpose, security, and safety- core desires we all long for. The earlier these are set, the stronger the foundation.

Self-confidence in childhood provides clarity, purpose, security, and safety– core desires we all long for.

As the adults, it is our job to give our youngsters the tools and the structure for this foundation. Children need direction, guidance, and support, and this falls on our shoulders; if we miss the boat on this, there isn’t a lot of room for healthy development. To do this, we need to provide our children (and ourselves for that matter) with opportunities and time to understand and cultivate who they are, and their unique God-given abilities. Below are a few thoughts on how to support young minds in building a firm foundation that bolsters their sense of identity and self-concept, resulting in strength of character.

  1. Character is built from the inside-out, not outside in. The core concept here is that one’s internal development is vital, and can be even more important than an individual’s external reality, or what meets the eye. Character building has more to do with forming the heart and the mind– it’s not one or the other, but rather requires a ‘both, and,’ approach. This requires forming a child’s intellect and their empathy, their reasoning abilities and their intuition in conjunction with one another. Doing so will enable our children to be confident in the choices they make, so that they can trust their own reasoning and approach the world with conviction. Children internalize the world around them quickly and naturally- they’re like sponges. The question for adults is: what is it that we want our children internalizing?

  2. Develop critical thinking skills. Building off of the ‘inside-out’ approach, developing a strong moral character is hinged upon one’s ability to make sound decisions. In brief, we must seek to form our youngsters' decision making capacities. Teaching them to reason based on principles and logic as well as self-knowledge and insight, and helping them to develop a strong moral compass, so that they instinctively know right from wrong. We should want kids to be free and independent thinkers, thus we should support behaviors and concepts that enhance this quality. We want our children to be able to make decisions that lead them down the right path instead of a tumultuous one-– especially when we are not around. A few ways to do this include asking open ended questions, encouraging your child to resolve their own problems (instead of jumping in right away), supporting outside-the-box thinking, and helping young ones to develop their own hypotheses.

  3. Teach [and allow] children to reflect on their experiences. Kids easily internalize the world around them- which can be both a strength and weakness, because it means they are absorbing both the good and the not so good. But the more we can give young minds the time and the space to process their reality– the better. It’s important that we support this process by teaching our children to reflect on their success and disappointments, rather than passing by these ‘teachable moments’ and sweeping them under the rug. Engaging this process supports intellectual and emotional development. Giving children some questions or prompts can be helpful, such as, encouraging them to to reflect on the highs and lows of their week, what they did well, what they are proud of, how they might improve, what they would do differently, or the process that led them to make a specific decision. Fostering time for reflection and processing into the daily or weekly routine requires intentionality and uninterrupted time, consider cultivating the following habits without other distractions: reading and writing (journaling, poetry, reading a fictional work, etc.), listening to soothing music, creating something with their hands (art [painting, coloring, play-doh], building with legos or) spending time outside (hiking, fishing, camping), participating in a sport or physical activity (riding bikes).

Regardless of where you might find yourself or your young ones on this journey, we leave you with this question to ponder: what do youth today need in order to flourish, and how can we best nurture their growth and development during the process?

“Character is the result of two things: mental attitude and the way we spend our time.” ~ Elbert Hubbard


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