A+ Advice for Parents

Building Character Just as Valuable as Good Grades for Kids

Q: I heard an interview with an author who says character is more important than IQ in school success. I have zero time to read, but I like his idea. Are there character-building tips that will work with one bratty teen?

A: Chances are you heard author Paul Tough, whose new book, "How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012), has teachers and parents buzzing. It showcases the work of scientists who have identified skills they believe are crucial to success, such as persistence, curiosity, conscientiousness, optimism, gratitude and self-control. Neuroscientists call these executive functions, says Tough, but "the rest of us often sum them up with the word 'character.'"

There is no quick cure for brattiness, but you can shape your teen's character over time through daily experiences that reflect and reinforce a family's values, says Stephen Wallace, school psychologist and director of the Center for Adolescent Research and Education at Susquehanna University in Selinsgrove, Pa.

"Make this a family project over the holidays to identify and discuss values and character traits that you'd like to practice," Wallace says. "Don't think kids will balk at this. Research shows that they want to have these talks, much more than parents know!"

Create a family guide or rulebook -- give it a great title and cover. Credit the family member whose ideas are reflected in each entry. Insert inspiring quotes from thinkers that relate to specific character traits.

For example, do you want your children to be more respectful of others? Wallace suggests a family rule: Leave every place neater than you found it.

"This has an astounding impact on bathrooms, kitchens, and dens!" he says.

Would you like your children to be more appreciative? Practice thanking folks for everyday actions: the movie usher as you enter the theater, the bus driver as you exit the bus, etc. Gratitude leads to an optimistic outlook.

Do you want your kids to be more punctual? Consider Wallace's own personal rule: "Early is on time, on time is late and late is unacceptable."

Is one of your kids a perfectionist, afraid to take chances? Consider an entry that says mistakes are OK: "Sometimes failure helps us succeed."

One value children love to discuss is, "Do the right thing, even when no one is watching," says Wallace. "It goes to the heart of character. It gets them to demonstrate whether they are serious about values they profess to hold."

"'Be kind to those who love you' is a great rule for families," says Wallace. "Write it on sticky notes to remind everyone that it's important to nurture our relationships!"

Many families are taking the dinner hour to build relationships and reinforce desired character traits, says Wallace.

"A University of Minnesota study shows positive social and academic effects on kids when families carve out mealtime together," he says. (For more information, go to thefamilydinnerproject.org.)

Exploring and defining your family's values is a wonderful a gift to give each other over the holidays, says Wallace.

"What better way to write family New Year's resolutions?" he says.

(Do you have a question about your child's education? Email it to Leanna@aplusadvice.com. Leanna Landsmann is an education writer who began her career as a classroom teacher. She has served on education commissions, visited classrooms in 49 states to observe best practices, and founded Principal for a Day in New York City.)

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