We hear a lot these days about giving children social skills, cultivating critical thinking, resilience, emotional intelligence and the like, but it all boils down to character — a concept neglected for much of the 20th century.

So Family Edge reader Blanca Reilly was excited to stumble upon a great academic article on this subject recently in the US journal Reclaiming Children and Youth (interesting title). In “Building Strengths of Character” Nansook Park, associate professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, reviews the literature in this field and describes a project he is involved in called Values In Action (VIA).

This project has a positive focus, identifying 24 widely-valued character strengths and organising them under six broad virtues. It uses a self-report survey which is available online (www.viastrengths.org or www.authentichappiness.org)

Once individuals register on the website and complete the strengths survey, feedback is given about one’s top strengths–called “signature strengths.” Helping youth to identify their signature strengths and use them in their everyday lives may provide a route to a psychologically fulfilling life (Seligman, Steen, Park, & Peterson, 2005).

Overall, says Park, youth in America show most of the components of good character:

Despite widespread negative perceptions of youth, the majority of young people have developed character strengths. Among them, gratitude, humor, and love are most common, whereas prudence, forgiveness, spirituality, and self-regulation are least common, much as is found among adults.

In general, the strengths of character consistently related to life satisfaction are gratitude, hope, zest, curiosity, and perhaps most importantly, love, defined as the ability to sustain reciprocated close relationships with other people (Park & Peterson, 2006; Park, Peterson, & Seligman, 2004). Thus, for a good life, individuals need to cultivate in particular these five strengths.

Park says that although character education programmes are proliferating, there is little assessment of the young people who participate in them. Strengths of the heart need attention as well as strengths of the head, he points out. And programme should be specific:

Saying “do your best or be the best you can be” is not an effective way to cultivate good character. Children and youth need to be instructed to choose a target strength that they want to focus on, set the specific and measurable goal, and devise a concrete action plan to achieve the goal. For example, if kindness is the target strength, saying hello to at least one new person each day at school is an effective goal and action plan. Continuous monitoring and journaling of progress and making a life style change are critical.

And although character education needs to deal with weaknesses as well as strengths, a strength-based approach is recommended.

*“Building strengths of character…”, by Nansook Park, Reclaiming Children and Youth 18.2 (2009): 42+

MercatorNet has published articles on this theme by Thomas Lickona and Andrew Mullins, among others.



Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is the former deputy editor of MercatorNet