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Helping Young Children to Develop Character
By Sandra Crosser, Ph.D.

Josh, Lisa, and Billy are only three, but we can already predict that Josh will grow up having trouble making wise decisions, that Lisa will rebel against the rules, and that Billy will be curious and independent. From the nature of caregiver/child interactions, we can fairly well predict some important personality characteristics that will develop in a given child. Of course, each child will most likely become what his inheritance dictates-the color of his eyes, his stature, his talents, and even his temperament. But he will also become the kind of person that the adults in his life enable him to become.

Research findings suggest that teachers and caregivers, as well as parents, use interaction styles that elicit important personality traits in infants and young children (Howes, Phillips, & Whitebrook, 1992; vanIJzendoorn, Sagi, & Lambermon, 1992; Howes, Roding, Galluzzo, & Myers, 1988; Howes, Hamilton, & Matheson, 1994). Therefore, teachers and caregivers need to be aware of the common adult/child interaction styles and incorporate the most appropriate strategies into daily child rearing practices.

If you are thinking that this sounds too good to be true, you are probably right. Caution dictates that we consider the many other factors in the child's inheritance and environment that contribute to personality formation. For example, we know that basic temperaments or dispositions are inborn (Thomas, Chess, & Birch, 1968). Therefore, a child may be naturally easy, difficult, or withdrawn. Adult/child interaction styles will vary because of the goodness-of-fit or lack of fit between the personal temperaments of child and adult. That is, the child's temperament and adult's temperament interact as the individuals negotiate a relationship. The relationship is reciprocal (Sprunger, Boyce, and Gianes, 1985).

In addition to temperament type, many other factors affect every child's personality development. Physical condition, health, society, time in history, living conditions, life events, family, siblings, and culture are just a few of the forces commonly thought to impact personality formation. We are, after all, social creatures who shape and are shaped by environments (Broffenbrenner, 1986). No matter how careful we are with the children in our care, they too live in a world that can be kind and gentle or violent and hurtful.

While we may not be able to control the outside environmental influences on young children, we can control our own interactions. We can control our style of interaction when working with young children.

Interaction Styles
Three basic interaction styles have been identified. These include authoritarian, permissive, and authoritative (Baumrind, 1967). You will most likely be able to identify all three styles in the parent/child and teacher/child interactions you observe. Descriptions are general, but have held up well for all groups studied regardless of ethnicity, race, or culture (Lamborn, Mounts, Steinberg, & Dornbush, 1991; Steinberg, Lamborn, Darling, Mounts, & Dornbush, 1994; Scott, Scott, McCabe, 1991; Pinto, Folkers, & Sines, 1991).

The Authoritarian Style
Research indicates that parents and caregivers who are authoritarian tend to produce children who have particular character traits. Authoritarian adults are in control. They are the Archie Bunker type who make statements like, "I brought you into this world and I can take you out," "Do it because I said so," "Pick up this mess now," "I don't want to hear any more about it," and "Do as you're told!"

Authoritarian adults as described by Baumrind (1977) tend to communicate in commands-a one-way communication that does not permit the child to air his or her views or voice his or her opinions. The adult may feel a need to rely on punishment and sometimes punishes harshly. Rules are rigid and expectations are standardized. There is little room for negotiation.

While the authoritarian adult may care very much about the children in her care and may actually love them very much, there is typically little demonstration of affection or warmth. Generally, authoritarians tend to produce children who are sullen, withdrawn, aggressive, and quarrelsome with peers, perhaps self-destructive, and unable to make wise decisions on their own. Both cognitive and social skills lag behind in middle childhood (Baumrind, 1977).

It is not difficult to comprehend why children react as they do when obedience is the goal. Without the opportunity for a hearing, hostility grows and must be vented on self or others. Without the opportunity to make choices and decisions while growing up, children raised in an authoritarian manner are unprepared for making decisions as adolescents and adults.

The Permissive Style
Adults may be permissive in an indulgent, child-centered way or they may be permissive in a negligent, adult-centered manner. Both forms of permissiveness do an injustice to the child. Permissiveness has been linked to children's behavior that is self-centered, bossy, dependent, and impulsive with low levels of self-control and achievement (Baumrind, 1967). Children who are permitted to act on impulse, are required to meet few expectations, and cannot depend on an adult to set limits to guide behavior are left to navigate life's waters for themselves and are likely to become lost when the seas become rough.

The negligent-permissive or uninvolved interaction style appears to be particularly difficult for children to overcome. Children as young as three may exhibit unusual levels of aggression and acting out behavior such as temper tantrums (Miller, Cowan, Cowan, Heatherington, & Clingempeel, 1993). Effects of this uninvolved caregiver style tend to persist over time, giving rise to poor achievement and antisocial, hostile, or even delinquent behavior in later years (Patterson, Reid, & Dishion, 1992; Lamborn, Mounts, Steinberg, & Dornbush, 1992).

The Authoritative Style
The authoritative style of interaction is characterized by warmth, two-way communication, high standards, fairness, induction (reasoning), consistently enforcing reasonable rules, and involvement (Baumrind, 1967). Authoritative caregivers are aware of what, when, and with whom the children are involved. They offer support and encouragement. They give reasons for rules, are open to negotiation, but maintain the right to say, "no." Children are given authentic and appropriate choices, are asked for their opinions, and are respected. The child is a participating and valued member of the family or group and as such is expected to assume responsibilities and join in the fun times.

Research indicates a wealth of returns for adults who invest the effort to maintain an authoritative interaction style. Many positive character traits have been consistently correlated with the authoritative style. These include independence, creativity, persistence, mature social skills, optimism, academic competence, original thinking, leadership skills, achievement motivation, self-control, and good decision-making skills (Baumrind, 1993).

Good decision-making skill is a particularly important attribute to instill in children during these tempting and tempestuous times. Baumrind (1991) found that the authoritative style was associated with drug-free, law-abiding adolescents who had the strength of character necessary to decide the right and wrong with wisdom. The link between the authoritative style and positive behavior traits has been shown to persist over time with positive results continuing through middle childhood and into adolescence (Baumrind, 1977, 1991).

 It seems essential to begin the use of warm, supportive, and rational adult control during the early years. As an example, Crockenberg and Litman (1990) observed conflicts about noncompliance between mothers and two-year-olds. When mothers consistently and patiently used authoritative techniques, the noncompliant toddlers became compliant in time. Conversely, when mothers used harsh, arbitrary control tactics associated with authoritarian parenting, the toddlers' defiance actually increased. Adult/child power struggles are ineffective.

It appears that children need warmth, support, encouragement, limits, and consistent expectations. Adult guidance with opportunities to exercise choices within developmentally appropriate boundaries promotes positive child development (Grolnick & Ryan, 1989; Steinberg, Lamborn, Darling, Mounts, & Dornbush, 1994; Raikes, 1996).

Practical Applications
How can teachers and caregivers apply these lessons from research on a daily basis? We can promote positive character traits in children by purposefully interacting with them in authoritative ways. Here are some suggestions:

  • Listen to children. Really listen. Physically get down on the child's level. Establish eye contact. Ask questions. Remember what you've heard.

  • Set high but reasonable standards. If standards are stated as rules, keep them short, specific, and positive. Example: Walk indoors; or wear a paint shirt at the easel.

  • Explain why. Tell Jason why he cannot swing and slash the air with a wooden ruler. Example: I am worried that your friends might get hurt with the ruler. Please use it to measure.

  • Negotiate a reasonable solution. Solutions should enable the child to fulfill his or her goals whenever possible. Example: Max wants to help Sam work a puzzle, but Sam wants to do it alone. Help Sam explain his point of view and ask if he would tell Max when he is finished using the puzzle.

  • Ask. Never jump to conclusions about the motives behind a child's behavior. Give the child a chance to explain. We all deserve a hearing or chance to tell our side. Example: Kathy, why are you pulling the chair out from under Rachel?

  • Offer real choices. Children should be able to select the centers and activities in which they wish to participate. They may be given choices about which story to have read, whether they want carrots or celery for snack, or which friend to sit beside during group meetings. Sometimes choices need to be limited to acceptable options only. Example: You may hammer at the workbench or you may work at another center. If you choose to hammer then you must wear goggles to be safe. Do you choose the workbench and goggles or do you choose another center?

  • Value ideas and opinions. Ask, "What do you think of that?" Story times may offer many opportunities for children to express their thoughts as they discuss story characters and events. Children can also be asked their opinions about daily happenings in casual conversations.

  • Encourage independence. Provide materials and supplies where children can get to them on their own. Encourage children to try to take care of their own self-help needs. Resist the temptation to do those small but important tasks for children. A child can button his or her own paint shirt, zip his or her own coat (after you get it started), put his or her art work in his or her own school bag, and write as much of his or her own name on paintings as possible.

  • Use redirection. Redirection and diversion are particularly effective with the very young. Example: The caregiver might entice the child to become interested in a different activity or suggest trying the same activity with a variation. When using redirection and diversion the caregiver might spend a few minutes playing with the child to move play in a more positive direction.

While there are no foolproof cookbooks with character building recipes to hand down from generation to generation, use of the authoritative style of interaction tends to nurture the emergence of positive character traits in young children. We recognize that we will not be able to protect the children in our care from all of the undesirable influences in the environment. And, just as there are no perfect children, there are no perfect parents or teachers. Even when we know what we should do, we sometimes find ourselves saying and doing things we later regret. However, if we are consistently aware of how our words and actions impact children's development, we can become proactive forces in raising a generation of children with strength of character and ability to decide wisely the virtue of their behavior choices.

Sandra Crosser, Ph.D., is associate professor at Ohio Northern University in Ada, Ohio.

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