Character training is a part of giving our children the skills they need to live a relational and intentional life. I define character as the quality of our responses to people and circumstances. Character is what we call the actions we take based on our values. I certainly want my children to not only know what virtues to value, but I want them to know how to live that out so we have intentionally taught our children character based responses to life.
We all know that our children watch and copy everything we do, and never more so than in our character driven actions. Our kids will observe the times we speak snarkily, or tell a little white lie, or are constantly late for things – they know.
This is a very poignant quote for parents to remember:
What you do speaks so loudly that I cannot hear what you say.
Ralph Waldo Emerson
So before we teach our kids we have to look at our own life. Are you prepared to change your heart, your habits, your attitudes in order to set the model that your children need to see? Do you know the virtues you want to live by? Does your life line up with those values? Okay, so we are not all perfect – we will fail, at times we will show our kids a terrible example of the very trait we are working on with them!
When this happens (and it will) we need to acknowledge it, confess it, apologise for it, be humble and move on! This sets such an incredible example of forgiveness (which is a character trait of itself) that the children will not lose respect for you, but rather probably gain it. Because our children see our weaknesses and failings, they actually lose respect when we don’t ‘fess up and deal with it so we have nothing to lose when we are honest and open with them.
Where to start with Character Training?
When our children were school age we would generally study one character trait a month. By focusing on one trait a month it gave us time to process information and gain understanding – it takes time for knowledge to move from our head, to our heart and then out to our hands – that is character training is more than head knowledge, more than information and we need to give ourselves, and our kids, time to take hold of the information and make it something we choose to live by. We need time to change habits and to let this particular character based response become the way we react to people or circumstances. If we just jump from learning about one trait to another it is simply head knowledge.
Though I don’t think it really matters what trait you start with I can see that these three are the foundation for relationships and learning so they are a good place to start.
As to which one comes first, I haven’t been able to figure it out. I no sooner think that in order to obey a child needs to respect or have self-control then I start to think no, due to the sin nature of a child he needs self-control before he decides to respect. Round and round I go. So I have come to the conclusion that these three are the top three, initial character traits that need to be taught to our children.
Choosing what trait to study:
I see two situations for the study of character – proactive and reactive.
The proactive is the time we sit down to planned lessons where we put information into our children’s hearts as well as give them an opportunity to make character based decisions in their every day lives. For this course of study I tend to follow the order that Character First releases in their Education Series, which starts with Attentiveness. Oddly enough, the Christian book starts with Love and the Family book is alphabetically, so I don’t really think it matters. Going with the order Character First has set out in the Education/Primary school series means one less decision for me to make as well as the fact that I only need to buy one binder at a time.
As I mentioned there is also a reactive side to character education. This is when our children have heart issues. We often address their choices from a character perspective. For this reactive situation I still use my Character First resources, though I isolate the missing character trait and teach from that.
Training Tools for teaching Character:
— Teach from your heart – Though I have used the Character First materials to help me understand character traits that I want to teach the lessons that have made the biggest impact have been the lessons that I taught from my heart – not from a book. For this to happen, I had to spend time reading, pondering, and working on growing my own character before I taught my kids.
–Use Character words – we don’t use character based words these days. We tend to gloss over choices and say – you are a good girl. What does good mean? It probably meant that she showed patience, or helpfulness, or diligence. Use the word of the character trait that you mean – especially when you teach what it actually means. Don’t just say – be attentive! Instead say: “You need to be attentive right now, that means, you need to look mummy in the eyes and listen real heard to what I have to say.” See how the expected action is included with using the big word so the kids learn what the definition and action look like in their life. We need to use words of character (words that define and explain what attitude or action we want) in our instructions, in our reminders, corrections and praise.
–Find examples in every day life – Relate the character trait to every day life. Talk to your kids about character choices you’ve had to make in your day. Talk about community folk who have made good character based choices – talk about the consequences of poor choices (be careful not to slip into gossip here). One safe way to talk about the negative consequences of poor character choices is to use movie, TV or book characters. When they make a good choice – talk about them as heroes, but when they make poor choices these fictional characters make great conversation starters which will help our children understand the place of character in their own life.
–Character is a choice – and we need to let our kids know that living a life of character is a personal choice. If we look again at my definition of character – it is the quality of our response to people or circumstances. We can choose to respond out of kindness or meanness, we can choose to obey or not obey, we can choose to be responsible or be lazy. The choice is theirs. I teach my kids: you can choose your actions, but you cannot choose the consequences of those actions. There are consequences to poor choices and we need to be careful not to shield our children from them.
Teaching character is a life skill – we are teaching them how to respond to people and circumstances in a way that is consistent with their values. In our family the Bible, and our love for Jesus, establishes those values – and it comes down to: Loving God and loving others. Unpacking these character traits over the years has given our children an ability to understand what that looks like.
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