Skip to main content

Building Character with Integrity

Apr 11, 2023 08:00AM ● By Karen Conley

Photo by Robert Collins on Unsplash

What do we mean when we say we want our children to have strong character and a sense of integrity? Integrity and character are ambiguous terms that can be hard for us to define as adults. And for children, who are concrete thinkers that focus on their five senses to guide them in a physical world, it can be challenging to teach them abstract concepts like integrity and character.

However, research shows children start knowing what it feels like to do the right thing by age 5. And knowing that children are naturally empathetic and typically kind, creative, and curious, the answer is breaking down these adult ideals into bite-size lessons that can help them through childhood.

Integrity is the ability to consistently act according to our values, beliefs, and principles that we strive to uphold. For most of us, these values include:

  • Honesty
  • Compassion
  • Courage
  • Honor
  • Patience
  • Responsibility
  • Respect
  • Authenticity
  • Self-discipline

Karen Conley is President, CEO and founder of Charity for Change, a non-profit social-emotional learning educational organization funded by philanthropy.

Integrity goes beyond being trustworthy; it is part of every decision we make. To make the right choice for the right reason – not for praise or fear of consequences – but because it is right for those values we hold dear. It shapes our perception of right and wrong, good and evil, and just and unjust.

There is a famous quote attributed to Dwight D. Eisenhower, a five-star Army general and the 34th president of the United States:

“The supreme quality for leadership is unquestionably integrity. Without it, no real success is possible, no matter whether it is on a section gang, a football field, in an army, or in an office.”

Mr. Eisenhower’s point is that when it comes to any endeavor, you can have the smartest and the most talented team to work with. Still, you will not accomplish anything if you cannot trust them, if they are not responsible or respectful, and if they do not have integrity.

History shows us that our success and achievements depend on courage, respect, honesty, and trust. Integrity carries over into many facets of our lives and can positively impact our:

  • Ability to form healthy, good relationships
  • Decision-making and effect on others
  • Understanding of consequences, ethics, and morals
  • Capacity to recognize and seize opportunities
  • Leadership and teamwork skills
  • Happiness and chances for a fulfilling life

When you consider these impacts a foundation of integrity and strong character can have, you can see that success is more than good grades and extracurriculars.

Today, it can be hard to find examples of integrity. As parents, caregivers, teachers, leaders, and neighbors, there are things we can each do to instill and impart integrity to our children and students.

Lead by Example. Children may not understand the complexities and challenges of being an adult, but they do understand right and wrong – and while they may not be able to spell hypocrisy, they can recognize it. Instead of falling back on the cliché, “Do as I say, not as I do,” try to live a life of integrity. Be honest, treat people with respect and kindness, and look for the good in others. And if you make a mistake, as we all do because we are human, own up to it and make it right.

Be Specific with Your Ask. Children tend to be literal. So, when you ask them to be patient or polite, describe what that means. Use examples and talk about why it is good to act that way. When they do as you ask, be sure to comment and give praise. And when they veer off path, gently steer them back and calmly discuss what went wrong.

Inject Integrity into Situations. Whether you are reading a bedtime story or watching a movie, these forms of entertainment offer further discussions on integrity. You can discuss why the story’s main character chose to do the right thing even if it was hard or why the villain acts the way they do and what they should do instead. In the classroom, do not just reward students for good grades. Acknowledge courage, hard work, respect, kindness, and honesty so children appreciate the value of learning.

Character development is multifaceted, and building that foundation takes time and life experience. Know that there will be slips and blunders along the way. These are small teachable moments you can use to help guide a child to become an adult with integrity.

Karen Conley is President, CEO and founder of Charity for Change, a non-profit social-emotional learning educational organization funded by philanthropy. For information, visit