Joshua raced out the front door, baseball mitt in hand. “Don’t slam the d…,” his mother’s voiced trailed after him.
She glanced around the room as a slow sigh escaped from her throat. Josh’s unfinished math work lay on the coffee table. An empty soft drink can rested on the arm of the sofa; cookie crumbs spread across the seat. When will he ever learn to think before acting? she lamented.
We all want our children to develop godly character qualities, but who’s going to teach them? How is that going to happen? Should we schedule a Character Hour in our home? Can character development be planned and systematized like the teaching of math and physical education?
Perhaps a better question is: What kind of character is our child developing? Whether as parents we consciously work at it or not, our children’s characters are being shaped. Not only do we parents shape our children’s character, but their role models and playmates—in fact, each of their daily experiences—contribute to that character development.
We need not leave this important area to chance. We can take steps to mold our children’s character and we can pray for God’s work in their growing years to produce the qualities He desires them to have.
Parents have many opportunities to influence the things that affect their children’s character. The challenge is to be mindful of those elements and make the most of them. Here are six areas we parents can influence:
Sue woke up weary after a disrupted night’s sleep. Her baby’s fever had kept her awake. Now in her groggy state she pulled cold cereal boxes and bowls from the cupboard. Adding milk and bananas to the assortment on the table she called out, “Breakfast is ready,” to her two older eager children.
“You promised us pancakes for breakfast,” whined Heather.
Sue snapped, “I’m too tired to make pancakes. You’ll have to have cereal.”
Four-year-old Melissa joined in the protest. “You promised, you promised.”
“Stop that!” Sue yelled. “You’ll eat what I put in front of you.”
Try as she might throughout the day, Sue and the children didn’t pull out of the mood started by her early morning responses.
Could Sue have handled things differently? Perhaps if she consciously recognized that parental attitudes and mood swings are the primary factors determining a home’s atmosphere she could have determined with God’s help to pull herself together and have a pleasant attitude. With Heather’s morning objection she could whisper a prayer for grace and then think of an appropriate response to deliver in a deliberately calm voice, “I’m sorry I don’t have energy for pancakes. Scottie’s sick and I was up all night with him. We’ll have pancakes for lunch, okay?”
As children observe a parent making such choices as “which attitude Mom will have,” their characters are being shaped by parental example.
The way we choose to decorate our home and the selection of games and hobbies also can play a part in forming character. Dad can teach not only manual skills but also compassion and conviction as he works with his sons building shelves for a handicapped neighbor. A shopping trip with Mom for decorator items for the freshly painted family room can demonstrate the family’s financial priorities. She can point out to the children price differences between similar items as well as the wide choice of items that could meet their needs. The children will be learning not only thrift and caution, but also how to make wise shopping choices.
GUIDELINES AND BOUNDARIES
Perhaps no area of parenting more directly affects children’s character development than that of discipline. The Hebrew sage promised that if we train up a child in the way he should go, when he is old he will not depart from it. Hours of instruction and practice will not produce a winner if the athlete’s trainer doesn’t define the rules and hold his player to them. Wholesome training involves rules and reinforcement.
We as parents must decide what we want of our children. Then we should clearly communicate our expectations to them. Finally, we must follow through with praise and acknowledgment for positive effort when they do obey, or appropriate consequences when they fail to meet the standard. Earlier we saw Josh dash outside leaving unfinished school work and the remains of his afternoon snack. His mother must communicate to Josh that playing with his friends is allowed only if he meets his obligations. If she doesn’t call him back, insist he clean up after himself and finish his math assignment, she is contributing to the formation of slothfulness and irresponsibility rather than diligence, thoroughness and responsibility.
We’re living in a society where anything goes and parents tend to relinquish decision-making to their children. As a result we’re producing a generation of insecure, irresponsible, yet domineering young people. One sixteen-year-old boy bragged to his friends that it didn’t matter what time he got home from youth activities. When the boy and I were alone he pitifully added, “My parents don’t care where I go or when I come in. They just give me money and say goodbye.” Genuine love requires accountability. Parents can provide a sense of refuge and safety by defining clear boundaries for speech and conduct and holding the children to them.
Studies show that peer pressure is one of the strongest influences on children today. Christian teens are influenced by others just as other kids are. It can’t be avoided. Prayerful selection and screening of our children’s friends are vital. We need to stop periodically and ask ourselves several questions:
* Who is having a strong influence on our child?
* What is that influence and is it helping him to grow in godliness?
* Do we need to limit or restrict the amount of time and the circumstances of that friendship?
Part of our children’s character training is teaching them to evaluate relationships for themselves. One question we can teach our children to ask is, “Am I having an influence for good on this friend, or is the friendship, pulling me down?”
ADULT ROLE MODELS
In many ways character is caught, not taught. Children can develop godly character qualities through spending time with family members, relatives and members of their church family.
Role models can teach our children courage, decisiveness, understanding, and integrity. We would be wise to prayerfully provide our children with godly role models who can help shape their characters.
This may not be easy. Parents may find themselves jealous of friendships between their children and other adults. When we’ve established an open relationship with the child ourselves we can welcome and support such a friendship. It’s when our relationship is strained that we find it the most difficult to accept another adult in the child’s life. Yet this is when the child most needs the influence of a neutral and wholesome outside role model. By relying on God’s grace we can be grateful for the involvement of others in our children’s lives.
TV, movies, and music are having a powerful influence on most children and teens today. Even children of kindergarten age strive to talk and act like those they see on the screen. Families on outings in public places can be bombarded with outrageous behavior through music, billboards, even by others on the streets. Parents can handle this by leading a family discussion on the ride home. They can talk about what the underlying message is, how each person felt, and what effects such influences might have.
The day will come when each of our children will move beyond our direct influence. By planning ahead, now, we can help our children learn discernment and discretion for selecting entertainment for themselves.
Parents of young children make most of the decisions concerning entertainment. As children enter their teens, parents have less and less direct involvement in those decisions. We can teach our children to choose forms of entertainment that will augment their character development instead of hinder it. Here are some suggestions:
* Parents should preview material and determine which to share with the children for teaching purposes. Some things to keep in mind: What is the underlying message? What kind of role models are the performers? Does the content uphold the principles we’re trying to teach our children?
* Explain how you evaluate movies, music, and literature. What is the criteria you use? Where do you draw the line?
* Listen (or watch and listen) to music together discussing the words and visual presentation.
* Watch television shows together and explain objectionable aspects.
* Establish guidelines so the children know your expectations. Then hold to those limits.
* As new movies, programs, and CD’s are released, involve the children in the evaluation.
* Don’t be intimidated by “everybody else does it.” That statement is rarely accurate. Explain that each family must establish its own rules and the children must learn to live by them.
A broad range of resources that teach character qualities is available from Christian publishers, music and video producers. Many churches and Christian bookstores have such resources available for loan or rent.
Parents can create a home setting for specific lessons on Christ-like character qualities. Families can memorize selected scripture together. Discussions of Bible characters can include how their character strengths or weaknesses influenced the choices they made. Studies of historical and contemporary figures can involve discussion of the consequences of developing godly character. By using drama, children can visualize how a different choice would have changed the outcome of a familiar Bible story. When children study such Bible portions as The Ten Commandments and The Beatitudes, their philosophies and attitudes will be shaped—their characters molded.
We parents can’t control the many influences our children face daily, but by focusing on these six areas we’ll come closer to seeing our children’s character shaped into the image of Christ.
© Beverly Caruso
See our book Developing Godly Character in Children