Developing character in children, praise the behavior or the character?

Children have sensitive periods for character development

The New York Times today published an opinion piece entitled “Raising a Moral Child”[1] in which they point out a discrepancy between parental interventions that raise achievement and those that build moral character. It is now well-established that when parents notice and praise a child’s effort (in lieu of outcome) that they build achievement.

But what about the development of moral behaviors? Should parents praise the behavior from which one’s moral character can be inferred? Or should they jump make the connection between action and character explicit? That is should they say: “I noticed that you shared your dolls with your friends today.” or should they say: “I see that you are the kind of person who enjoys helping others by sharing what you have.”?

It turns out that praising the character rather than the behavior, at least in children around the age of 8 years, increased altruistic behavior. Among children younger and older than this sensitive period, the differential effects of the two types of praise were not as significant. This suggests the presence of a critical age of development where a child’s identity begins to solidify into the form that it will be as an adult.


  1. Grant, A. (2014, April 13). Raising a moral child. The New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/12/opinion/sunday/raising-a-moral-child.html, accessed 2014-04-13.