Young children can sometimes be so sweet that they bring a tear to your eye. But we also know they are emotionally immature and, for the most part, focused on their own needs. That's why it's so hard to get toddlers and preschoolers to collaborate on an art project, keep track of their things, and consider another kid's feelings. But that doesn't mean you should hold off on introducing good values, like honesty and generosity. In fact, experts say it's a smart move to start instilling positive character traits by the time a child is 2 or 3.
"Children who learn values at a young age are capable of handling anything life throws at them," says Wiley Rasbury, PhD, a pediatric psychologist based in Detroit. "The earlier you start, the more ingrained these qualities will become."
For toddlers and preschoolers, the key is to make the process of learning values into a fun game. A lecture about sharing and caring is bound to go in one ear and out the other. "But when you introduce teamwork and compassion in a playful, hands-on way, even little kids can take them to heart," says Jamie Miller, author of 10-Minute Life Lessons for Kids.
Don't expect your child to pick up these traits overnight. Teaching her to be compassionate and generous takes patience, positive reinforcement, and lots of practice. Wondering how to get started? We've broken down nine key virtues into little projects you can work on together.
Why it's important Giving thanks isn't just about good manners. It's a state of mind that lets kids feel content with the things they have -- and don't have. "A child with a grateful heart doesn't take people's kindness for granted," says Miller. "She appreciates what others do for her."
Bring it to life Talk about people who deserve your child's gratitude, such as a teacher or a friend who gave a gift. Then write thank-you cards together. Also point out everyday things your child can be grateful for (such as a warm, comfy bed at night or a surprise visit from her cousin).
Read and learn The Secret of Saying Thanks, by Douglas Wood. In this beautifully illustrated book, a young girl learns to be thankful for the simple treasures of nature, such as a sunrise and the shade of a sheltering tree.
Why it's important A can-do attitude empowers kids to follow through on their dreams. Ironically, the best way to instill it is to let them struggle a bit. "Encourage them, then stand back and let them problem-solve on their own," says Dr. Rasbury.
Bring it to life Fill a sturdy gallon-size plastic baggie halfway with ice. Add six tablespoons of rock salt. In a separate quart-size plastic bag, pour in one cup of milk, two tablespoons of sugar, half a teaspoon of vanilla, and a handful of chocolate chips. Seal the smaller baggie and put it inside the larger bag (seal that one too). Shake the bag for 10 minutes, taking turns. It will seem like forever to a 4-year-old, but when the time's up, she'll find her perseverance has paid off -- with homemade chocolate-chip ice cream!
Read and learn The Very Quiet Cricket, by Eric Carle. This little insect tries again and again to chirp yet can't make a sound. But by the end, he chirps like a champ.
Why it's important Kids start fibbing as early as age 2 or 3 ("I didn't spill that milk"), and lying can quickly become a hard-to-break habit. "But if you teach your child to tell the truth, that becomes a habit too," says Richard Eyre, coauthor of Teaching Your Children Values. And honest kids will have an easier time establishing solid, trusting relationships.
Bring it to life Try this exercise: Tell your child you're going to say something and then he has to let you know whether you're telling the truth or not. Throw a ball up in the air, catch it, and say, "I caught the ball." Ask him if that's true. Then rub your tummy and say, "I'm patting my head." Ask again. This exercise will help him distinguish between being honest and lying.
Read and learn Franklin Fibs, by Paulette Bourgeois. Franklin the turtle tells a whopper to impress his friends -- and learns it's far better to tell the truth and deal with the consequences.
Why it's important "By the time he starts school, a child needs to begin thinking about other people besides himself," says Arthur Dobrin, DSW, professor of humanities at Hofstra University, in Hempstead, New York, and author of Teaching Right from Wrong: 40 Things You Can Do to Raise a Moral Child.
Bring it to life At the dinner table, write down various ways to show compassion on separate slips of paper (such as "give someone a hug" and "offer to help out"), and place them in a bowl. Ask your child to pick one, read it aloud, and then help him follow the instructions. Let everyone in your family take a turn.
Read and learn One Winter's Day, by M. Christina Butler. Little Hedgehog helps creatures in need during a winter storm -- and is repaid for his kindness when they help rebuild his ruined nest.
Why it's important When kids know they can count on friends and family members, they feel more secure -- and will start to look out for others too. "Explain that we're all here to help and support one another," says Eyre.
Bring it to life Go through a family album with your child, and let her pick out a few of her favorite pictures. Have her stick them on a poster board (hint: write "My Family" on top). Then bring up a time when you've depended on one of the people she selected ("Remember when Uncle Fred helped us put your swingset together?"), and recall instances when your child has helped out someone else ("When you made that painting of a smiley face for Grandma because she wasn't feeling well, it really put a smile on her face").
Read and learn Will and Squill, by Emma Chichester Clark. When his parents get a new kitten, a boy ignores his squirrel buddy. Then he realizes he shouldn't abandon old friends.
Why it's important Whether they're playing soccer or building a block tower with friends, kids need to learn that cooperation is an essential component of success. "A child also needs to trust other people," says Miller. "Once he does, being part of a team becomes fun."
Bring it to life Give your child a toothpick and ask him to snap it (do this together with your child to avoid splinters). Then tie together a bunch of toothpicks with a rubber band and have him try to break them (he won't be able to). Explain that a group is stronger than any one of its members.
Read and learn Mrs. McBloom, Clean Up Your Classroom! by Kelly DiPucchio. The entire town joins the effort to help a retiring teacher clear out a classroom that hasn't been tidied up in 50 years.
Why it's important If you put a child in charge of things (feeding the dog, folding the towels), she'll learn that just as she counts on you, people (and pets) count on her too. "Feeling responsible will really help your child's confidence blossom," says Eyre.
Bring it to life Get two small spider plants. Have your child draw a happy face on one pot and a frown on the other. Put the plants on the windowsill, but have her water only the happy pot. After about a week, the second plant will begin to droop. Show her both and discuss the difference: The plant she took good care of is doing well, while the one she neglected is sick. Then have her water the second plant (and the first!). Within a day or two, it should perk up again.
Read and learn Horton Hatches the Egg, by Dr. Seuss. Horton pledges to guard a friend's egg, and he sticks to his promise -- even when the going gets tough.
Why it's important It often seems like a kid's favorite word is "Mine!" Learning to share will help your child think about others. Bonus: He'll make -- and keep -- friends more easily. "It's really about the Golden Rule," says Dr. Dobrin. "Kids need to treat people as they'd like to be treated."
Bring it to life When you're out with your child, point out people who seem unhappy (such as a baby crying at the park, an angry customer at a store, or a homeless person). Ask, "Why do you think she's sad? How can we make her feel better?" Explain that being generous -- whether it's offering a sticker to a cranky child, smiling kindly at a stranger, or giving money to help a poor person get some food -- shows other people we understand them and helps make them happy.
Read and learn The 100th Customer, by Byung-Gyu Kim and K.T. Hao. Ben Bear and Chris Croc open a restaurant together, and then discover the joy of giving when they donate a pizza and dessert to a needy boy and his grandma.
Why it's important Kids who trust their instincts and abilities learn to tackle challenges without your help. "It's like the little bird that needs to be nudged from the nest to fly on his own," says Diann Branch, a school counselor at Chattahoochee Elementary School, in Cumming, Georgia.
Bring it to life Make a progress chart in which your child sets her own goals. (You might need to supply some ideas, such as brushing her teeth by herself, writing her name, and learning to count to 10). Break each task down into manageable steps or increments (such as "count to three," "count to five," and so on). Let her decorate the chart with stickers as she reaches each milestone along the way.
Read and learn Stand Tall, Molly Lou Melon, by Patty Lovell. Though she's tiny and bucktoothed, Molly Lou has the confidence to charm her classmates at her new school.
Originally published in the May 2009 issue of Parents magazine.