By Caroline Knorr, Common Sense Media parenting editor
Every parent wants to raise kids with strong character. Grateful, humble, compassionate, brave: We know these strengths lead to improved well-being, better relationships, and sound communities.
Still, figuring out which characteristics to teach, how to reinforce them, and even whose job it is to do it (parent, teacher, coach?) is a thorny issue. And when kids are spending several hours a day glued to a screen -- possibly on a personal device with earbuds in -- it can be difficult to find opportunities to reinforce character lessons. Here's the good news: Media -- from video games to TV shows to movies -- can help teach character. But it doesn't just happen. Parents have to make it happen by choosing quality media, focusing on character-building ideas, and talking about the messages.
You're probably already doing some of this, by watching TV with your kid and asking why a character made certain choices; playing a video game and helping your kid learn to take turns and be a good sport; and discussing responsible online behavior.
You're on the right track. The days of simply restricting kids' media use for fear that it hinders character growth are over. With kids using media for everything from playtime to learning to creating to communicating, it's essential that parents use these opportunities to strengthen kids' social-emotional development.
Why It Matters
In today's digital world, many parents worry about the loss of character as more kids spend time alone on a computer or communicating through a screen. But research shows that kids can and do learn from media -- what matters is which messages they're absorbing and how those messages get reinforced.
Whether it's from a preschool show about sharing or a teen video game about war, lessons about character can positively affect kids' behavior and self-esteem. Most importantly, parents who are involved in their kids' media lives -- parents who co-view, co-play, and talk about TV shows, movies, books, and games -- reinforce their own values as well as the media's pro-social messages.
Character-Trait and Life-Skills Media Advice by Age
As former FCC commissioner Nicholas Johnson put it, "All television is educational television. The question is, what is it teaching?" You can apply this question to all media. By choosing shows, movies, apps, games, and books geared toward your kid's age and developmental stage, you can better support character lessons.
Tips for Parents of Little Kids
Watch, play, read, and talk. Simply enjoying a show, a book, or a game together and discussing a character's behavior and actions helps kids better understand the internal motivation behind character traits. At this age, kids will soak up whatever they see and hear, so look for media with positive role models, messages about sharing and being a good friend, and managing feelings. These tips can help:
Books, TV, Movies
- Keep things simple. Stories with one main idea that's supported by the action are most effective for preschoolers. Look for short TV shows that stick to pro-social messages. Little kids often think that it's the threat of punishment that makes a protagonist behave a certain way. Help them understand that it's important to do the right thing even when, for example, you won't get caught.
- Don't expect young kids to understand the moral of the story. Folktales and fables are fun, but their messages don't necessarily get through to preschoolers (especially when the characters aren't human). No need to push it if the moral is lost on your kid.
- Look for characters and situations your kid can relate to. Kids who see themselves in a protagonist are more likely to understand and copy their pro-social behavior. A show about the importance of honesty, for example, will go over better if your kid has something in common with the character -- say, a new baby sister or a dislike of broccoli.
Interactive, Digital Media
- Model digital citizenship. Put your phone away when you're not using it -- and explain that you don't want your phone to get in the way of your time with your kids. When you go online, explain to your kids exactly what you're doing. Tell them that you're respectful of people you're talking to and texting with. (Get more screen-time tips.)
- Set limits around screen time. Establish rules about when kids can play with your phone to help develop self-control.
Tips for Parents of Big Kids
Help kids translate positive media messages to their own behavior. Co-viewing, co-playing, and modeling good digital citizenship continue to be important. Once kids can read, write, and go online independently, character lessons can extend to how you expect your kids to act in the online world. These tips can help:
Books, Movies, TV
- Simple is still better. This age group still has some difficulty understanding character lessons in complex stories. They need to see the basic cause-and-effect sequence of how a character's motives are connected to actions and consequences.
- Fables can wait. Children are typically unable to extract lessons from fables until fourth grade. Younger children tend to retell specific parts of the story instead of absorbing a more general principle. Enjoy them if you want to -- just don’t expect kids to learn the morality message.
Interactive, Digital Media
- Teach digital citizenship. Explain your rules about responsible online behavior.
- Choose cooperative games. Find games that depend on players working together to solve a problem.
- Failing is OK. Look for apps that reward you for trying and trying again.
- Think outside the box. Introduce games and apps that emphasize creativity and curiosity vs. those that are simply goal-oriented.
Tips for Parents of Tweens and Teens
At this age, kids can make clearer distinctions between right and wrong. As digital savvy increases, tweens and teens appreciate what they have -- and the responsibility that they have to make the digital world a positive environment. These tips can help:
Books, Movies, TV
- Seek out complexity. Tweens are emotionally and mentally mature enough to understand others' perspectives and to engage in abstract reasoning. At this age, you can discuss how a character acts when he's conflicted.
- Stay involved. The ability to summarize the gist or main theme of a story develops late, often not until age 14. Tweens and teens still need parents to guide them through the intended moral takeaway.
- Don't be obvious. Tweens and teens often reject moralistic messages to protect their sense of freedom and/or reassert their independence. Offer titles in which there's a moral dilemma and no clear-cut choice. When older kids interpret books, movies, or shows as agenda-less, absorbing, and relevant, they are most likely to really get the moral lessons they model. Instead of pointing out the lesson, ask them what they think and engage them in critical thinking.
Interactive, Digital Media
- Discuss online ethics. Talk about the importance of staying true to yourself even in seemingly consequence-free situations. It's easy to cheat or copy work, for example, but that damages your integrity.
- Teach kids to be upstanders. Help them develop compassion and empathy by talking about the importance of standing up for people who are victimized online or in person.
- Talk about anonymity. At this age, kids may not yet understand how their seemingly anonymous behavior can have a real effect on real people. Help them develop a sense of empathy with their online relationships.
- Stress respectful communication. Kindness is only part of it. Explain how to comment constructively and contribute productively on social media.
- Help them protect their and others' privacy. Discuss what should remain private and what's OK to put out there.
- Put "likes" in perspective. It's not necessarily a bad thing when kids compete for followers on Instagram or other social media. But help tweens and teens realize that their self-worth isn't determined by how many likes they get -- and that a little humility is a positive virtue.
- Remind them of the value of their devices. However it works for you -- whether it's having your kid contribute money or chores or making them pay outright for downloads -- it's important for kids to develop gratitude by understanding that these things are a privilege.
- Encourage your kid's school to teach digital literacy. So much of what happens at school is mirrored in the online world. It benefits the entire community when kids learn to be responsible digital citizens.
Character Traits, Life Skills, and Media Picks That Support Them
Common Sense Media worked with researchers and educators to identify and define 11 key characteristics that embody life skills, moral choices, and personal virtues. We then mapped each trait to movies and TV shows so you can easily find shows and use our reviews to start conversations.
Having a strong desire to learn or know something -- a search for information for its own sake. Actively seeking out challenges and new experiences.
Movies That Inspire Curiosity
TV That Inspires Curiosity
Being aware of and thankful for the good things that happen in your life and taking the time to express appreciation and return kindness.
Movies That Inspire Gratitude
TV That Inspires Gratitude
Persisting in a course of action in spite of obstacles. Steadfastness in doing something despite difficulty or delay in achieving success.
Movies That Promote Perseverance
TV That Promotes Perseverance
Being able to appropriately manage your thoughts, feelings, and impulses. Requires paying attention to your emotions and feelings.
Movies That Promote Self-Control
TV That Promotes Self-Control
Common Sense Media is an independent nonprofit organization offering unbiased ratings and trusted advice to help families make smart media and technology choices. Check out our ratings and recommendations at www.commonsense.org.