8 Steps to Raising a Well-Rounded Child

Don’t panic. In this discussion of raising a well-rounded child, we aren’t going to suggest you add three more activities to your already-maxed-out schedule. We’re not going to recommend expensive tutors. In fact, some experts are going to tell you to do less and let your kid make mistakes on their homework.


A well-rounded child is one who thinks for him- or herself, who is secure in his or her decisions and has a developing sense of who he or she is and where he or she fits in the world. These are big outcomes, but the steps to get there aren’t.

In fact, “We don’t use the term ‘well-rounded’ in the early grades,” says Kelly Monaco, director of admissions for Iolani School. “Family time and discovering the world should be the priority then,” she says. 

“From fourth grade on, the word ‘well-rounded’ is a good fit. Well-balanced kids should have a combination of classroom skills and good behavior, responsibility and work habits. There should be personal and social citizenship. Additionally, he or she would be involved in activities, communities and sports. We’re looking for good students and citizens,” says Monaco.

Here we’ve talked to parents, educators and psychologists to find the best advice to help your child become the best, most well-rounded kid he or she can be.


Step #1

Build a round house.

“In a family, you learn how to socially interact,” says Dr. Lisa Hartwell, a clinical psychologist in Honolulu who works with children.

Establishing good communication is the first step. “Make it safe for them to come to you no matter what, even if it’s that they don’t like their vegetables right now,” she says. That safety gives them the freedom to explore ideas without fear. A big mistake people make with young ones is yelling. “When you yell at your kids, you create a lack of safety,” says Hartwell, mother to 3-year-old Nainoa.

Also key is providing lots of context. “You want a child who’s exposed to a variety of things. It’s much more important to have a solid, enriched environment, doing things like traveling and involving them with different people, places and things, rather than racing to teach them more mathematics,” says Dr. David Elkind, a child development expert and author of The Power of Play.

Exposing your children to diverse experiences can start with daily work and interactions. “Instinctively, we do those things like storytelling, cooking alongside a child, having a cabinet full of Tupperware to play with,” says Kanoe Nanoe, mother of four children and CEO of INPEACE, a nonprofit that provides early-childhood programs in mostly native Hawaiian communities. 

Nanoe’s children volunteer in the community, are involved in the family budget and play water polo. “The brain is a web. The more things children see and hear and touch, the more intricate the spider web becomes. Then when they go to do things like read for comprehension, the more likely they are to catch the flies of comprehension in their web. It all gives them context.”

Step #2

Discover who your kid really is.

A well-rounded child has a strong sense of self. In the early years, this emerging personality can be surprisingly easy to derail.

“Identity is a cognitive process,” says Hartwell. “With the younger ones, their world is you. The biggest thing that parents do [wrong] is make it about them, so they base their kid’s identity on what they didn’t get as a kid.”

At ages 10 and younger, children are exploring how they’re different from you. The key is to respect the choices they make.

“If it’s not harmful, just roll with it,” Hartwell suggests. She explains how her own son is expressing his individuality. “Nainoa likes to wear pink. He was told boys don’t wear pink so he’s choosing to love pink. He has this pink umbrella. Someone at his school said, “That’s for girls,” so he asked, “but can’t the girls have blue umbrellas?”

If this weren’t allowed, he’d get the message he can’t make choices for himself.  “These choices might horrify you as an adult, but you have to let it go.”

Broader self-identity begins to form around age 11. “Support them in what they’re interested in: school, sports, types of relationships. This supports authentic wonder and engagement,” says Amber Makaiau, a teacher who also advocates a philosophic approach to teaching through a program at UH Manoa.

Be patient as they explore. “Be empathic. Remember how it was to be 11?” says Hartwell. “Is it okay to quit every time after three lessons? Yeah, it kinda is. They’re not feeling it, don’t force them.”

And keep the lines of communication open. You might want to know what they’re doing in class, but they want to talk about recess and friends. “They need to disassemble what’s going on with their peers, who misbehaved and what the teachers did about it,” says Meghan McCormick, a teacher at Wheeler Elementary and founder of the nonprofit Leaning First.

“I see parents who want to talk about everything academically, but say, ‘Whatever,’ when the kids want to talk about recess. The more involved a parent is in the child’s social life, the more confident the child becomes.”

If what’s going on with their peers is upsetting, McCormick says you don’t have to know exactly what to do. “The most important thing is just reassuring that this is okay and normal and that others go through this. Allocate 10 minutes to cry and emote and be dramatic. But by normalizing the behavior, you’re showing that you value them.”


Step #3

Teach them to listen and communicate.

Elementary-school children need basic communication skills. Reflective listening is something even we as adults could stand to relearn. “When someone says something, you reframe it and repeat it back,” says Hartwell.

Make sure you’re developing their ability to pay attention, too. “Give them language to show they’re listening and connected,” Makaiau says. With her daughter, Cappy, she tries not to make it a big deal if her attention wanes. “I’ll give her an instruction and say, ‘Tell me what I just said.’ If she’s not listening, I have her say, ‘I didn’t hear you.’ It’s okay not to be listening, she might be processing something else in her head.”

Another useful tool is to set out expectations before communicating with your child. “Making your own thinking explicit is good,” says Makaiau. “Like: We’re going to eat dinner, let’s remember we want to listen with our ears when someone’s saying something.”

Older kids need to be able to communicate without your intervention. “Let them speak for themselves as much as you can. When someone asks them a question, let them answer it,” says Kimi Frith, a history teacher at Iolani who also teaches social entrepreneurship. “I let all my kids order at the restaurant. If they need more water they can ask for it. They learn they have a voice.”

Today’s tech-savvy kids also need to master code switching—changing the language we use in different contexts.

“You communicate on Facebook differently than in a classroom,” says McCormick. “There, it’s fine to say, “C U l8er,” but, when they do homework, they’re code switching and that isn’t appropriate. I think they need to be aware of the different audience and environments.”


Step #4

Keep the curiosity alive.

Children are born with an innate curiosity about their world, and that is our most powerful ally in raising lifelong learners.

“It starts with creating an intellectually safe place,” says Makaiau. In an intellectually safe home, a child can ask virtually any question or make any comment so long as it’s respectful.

“For the young ones, it’s mainly asking open-ended questions and encouraging them to ask questions, too,” says McCormick, of Wheeler Elementary. She says to try to avoid just providing the answers and using the phrase, “Because I said so.”

“For instance, your child asks, ‘Why are the leaves falling off the trees?’ Ask back, ‘What do you think?’ You’re seeing your child’s opinion.” She suggests expanding on the question. “Look up different kinds of trees. It could go really far—go out and identify trees in the neighborhood. It teaches them, but it also shows them you value their opinions.”

In middle school, educators suggest parents draw children into conversation—places like the dinner table are ideal. “You can connect family life to things students are engaging in,” says Makaiau. “A well-rounded child can make connections to things you value as a family and things they’re interested in at school.”

“Homework is not to torture your child. It’s practicing the concepts they learn in class. Start by checking homework, or just being familiar with what they’re doing that week,” says McCormick.

Being interested in the homework doesn’t mean doing it for them. “In all of this, what you’re trying to do is teach self-responsibility. In middle school, we want them to take responsibility to make positive friends, to study for exams, get good grades,” says Hartwell. “You’re not doing homework for them, even if that means letting them fail.”

Teachers say that a well-rounded child can come in all sorts of packages. “I have one student who has autism, but he’s one of the most well-rounded kids I know. His mother has advocated for him, and provides a really stimulating environment at home and she knows when to ask for help,” McCormick says.


Step #5

Build their creativity.

The arts—dancing, theater, visual arts and music—are synonymous with well-roundedness. Kids need exposure to the arts because it develops creativity, and creativity leads to innovation.

“Creativity is part and parcel of a basic education,” says Marilyn Cristofori, chief executive officer of the Hawaii Arts Alliance. Arts help kids access information in a different way. “Music, movement and drama—they’re all different languages,” she says.

The youngest children should be exposed to all sorts of different art, not just one in particular. At these ages it’s easy—dancing at home, singing in the car, endlessly drawing.

But as kids get older, in today’s climate of decreasing arts budgets in schools, parents bear increasing responsibility to expose their kids to the arts during after-school and weekend hours.

“Parents should advocate for more arts in the school day with principals,” says Cristofori. “But look for the community groups offering private lessons, church groups with choirs or arts organizations in the community. Different museums have free open Sundays—such as the Honolulu Museum of Art and Hawaii State Art Museum.”

Recognizing how the arts complement traditional education, new charter school SEEQS (The School for Examining Essential Questions of Sustainability) has integrated it across the board.

“For example, the dramatic arts teacher helps the history teacher with debate skills,” says Buffy Cushman-Patz, head of school for SEEQS. Technological, visual and performing arts are used to produce group projects—the same set of skills children may one day need to integrate for projects in the workplace.

Cushman-Patz explains that the arts also teach specific life skills that our generation never learned before we got our first jobs. During project presentations, her students get help from arts teachers. “To do a presentation you need the confidence, voice and stature from the performing arts. You learn how to stand, how to breathe. You can learn by doing them, too, but with the arts you learn how to do it explicitly.”


Step #6

Get them moving.

“Exercise stimulates the brain. If we have the first activity of the day be physical activity, it will enhance education,” says Cushman-Patz. Every day, SEEQS seventh- and eighth-grade students do some sort of physical activity together. “Part of it is community-building. We’re having students and teachers doing it together, so it changes the dynamic between teachers and kids.”

Exercise stimulates the brain, and sports combines physical exertion with some valuable life lessons: How to work in groups, working for goals and building your identity.

Says McCormick, of Wheeler Elementary, “The kids who are on sports teams and in dance just work better as a team. Some people think it makes it more competitive, but in my class it makes them more used to the competition.”

“Sports help kids figure out who they are and where they fit in,” says Chad Miller, a teacher and director of teacher education at the University of Hawaii at Mānoa’s Uehiro Academy for Philosophy and Ethics in Education.

Miller, once a college athlete, says he wouldn’t be who he is today without sports. “My mom said that I was super shy until I started football. Something about being in the huddle helped me figure out who I was in the world,” he says.

Being part of a team is “being aware that there are other people to worry about,” Miller says. “Team sports build trust between players on the teams and everyone is working toward a goal together.”

This is easily applied to Miller’s experience inside the classroom. “If I want kids to experience the same things I do in team sports, then you have to create a team in the classroom—a community of trust, they can take risks and move out of their comfort zones and, if they fail, there are other people to pick them up.”



Step #7

Focus on free time.

“Play is the major way in which children learn,” says author and child-development expert Elkind. “They learn social skills through games and playing with other children. Parents have to insist that children have time for play and academic work.”  

The curiosity, collaboration and imagination required for free play builds an important foundation for all future learning, he says, but too many of us focus instead on memorization.

“There’s this idea that education is a race, and that’s false. We want to go so quickly. But you stunt things when you go too fast.”

For example, you might be teaching a young child the word for “dog” by showing her a flash card with one dog over and over. It would be better to show the child many different dogs—in books and in real life.

Elkind says children have lost eight hours a week of unstructured and outdoor playtime. Adding that playtime back to crammed schedules can be tricky, but there are some simple ways to do it.

For older kids, this unstructured time means turning off the technology and rethinking the schedule. “A lot of kids are overscheduled, and others have too much free time and their choices are much more electronics-based,” says Monaco, of ‘Iolani.

Give screen-addicted kids nontechnology choices of what to do, and use that to check in on where their interests and priorities are. It can be a guide to improvement or a wonderful affirmation of your child’s development.

Nanoe says she has seen great choices in her teenage son. “We told him we were going to treat him like an adult and that he could see his friends whenever he wanted—just let us know what he’s doing. Interestingly, he’s not taken much advantage of that. He’s gone with us to do a beach cleanup. He comes to church. He’s choosing to do what not a lot of self-absorbed teenagers would choose.”



Step #8

Open up their worlds.

A well-rounded child should see where they fit in relation to the greater community. Often this means volunteerism, through community groups, church or at school.

“Community is a strong native Hawaiian value,” says Nanoe. “When you teach kids to care about others and volunteer, it forces them not to be self-centered. We did an event with my kids at school where one child said she was happy if she got ketchup or shoyu on her rice at mealtime,” she says. “When you have firsthand knowledge that there are people who are happy to have ketchup on their rice, like that’s a great meal for dinner, it makes all that material stuff seem less important.”

As a community activist, its not surprising Nanoe’s kids are all involved in volunteerism. But she says it’s important that you, as a parent, are, too. “My kids all volunteer at the children’s ark at church. I started doing it, they saw me and they wanted to do it, too.”

Teacher Kimi Frith, of Iolani, says her course on social entrepreneurship shows how a child’s interests can also serve the community. In her classes, kids create business plans that involve both. “They can make jewelry and hire elderly people or physically disabled people. Other kids who are totally into technology create businesses that tutor senior citizens on how to use the iPad,” she says.

“That’s a well-rounded person. Someone who’s aware of the issues and takes action on giving back,” she says. “It actually gives children great happiness that they’ve helped someone. It’s almost contagious: When you do it, you want to do it more.”