Wouldn’t it be great if there was a fail-safe, five-step program for building character in children? A handbook we could buy that would lay it all out? Or a class we could enroll our children in that actually made a difference?
Unfortunately, character building is too complex and time demanding to be so easily accomplished. Instead, it’s the result of a series of learnable “moments” spread over a period of years. Each of these moments is unique to the child and his environment. And nobody really knows the results until the child is far into adulthood.
Still, there are some aspects of character building that appear to be universal. And all of them have implications for homeschooling. Here are three of them:
Good character is not innate. It is learned.
Good character is a learned behavior. Children learn it from the people around them. If you surround children with people of poor character the odds are pretty strong that they will embrace at least some of the poor character traits for themselves. The converse holds true if you surround children with people of good character. Parents should be vigilant about making sure their children have good influences in their lives.
As a group, the people with the poorest character are children. And it’s not even close. Children have undeveloped moral codes. They don’t always understand the essence of right and wrong. And they are often too self-absorbed to even care. Sending your children to school so they can spend all day learning character from other children is a mistake. Unless you (the homeschooling parent) exhibit less character than a third grader, then homeschooling is an excellent choice for building character.
Good character is grasped and executed as people become convinced it assists in the accomplishment of personal goals and rewards.
This view of character may seem a little jaded, but it’s the reality of how people, both young and old, function.
Because young children are so pre-occupied with immediate self-gratification, most early character progress comes as a result of understanding that good character leads to immediate, personal gain. A very young child soon understands that he can avoid punishment if he engages in certain behaviors. Or he can impress a person if he uses a certain word. Or he can win a reward if he executes a task in a diligent way. These are the first baby steps of character building.
As people mature, they are able to see the benefits of good character as it relates to long-term goals. The goals may seem more noble, but they still stem from a desire for personal gain. The student who diligently does his homework so he can get a good grade. The athlete who practices hard so he can help his team. The young professional who throws himself into his job so he can support his family. Even religious people oftentimes engage in the best behaviors because of the ultimate, personal rewards involved – a “clean slate,” a place in heaven, community with God.
Since God leads his people with exhortations, promises, and systems of rewards and punishments, I think it’s reasonable for parents to institute similar methods for character building in their children. In young children, the rewards must be concrete and immediate for good behavior – a moment of praise, a hug, a privilege. As children get older, we can start to reason with our children, explaining the benefits and giving them reasons to delay short-term gratification in order to achieve long-term goals. This is also the time when we can start talking more about how the pursuit of God ultimately leads to personal happiness.
Acknowledging man’s selfish motivation in exercising character helps parents to know how to teach it. Saying to a child “do this because I said so,” probably isn’t very helpful because it leaves the wrong impression about character. It suggests that good character is something we do under orders and for no reason. Instead, we should always be making the connection between good behavior and reward for our children. They must learn, through exhortation, demonstration and personal experience, that at all behavior has consequences and that their choices define their future happiness.
Character building can be accelerated by placing children in activities that inspire and require good character.
Parents should always be looking for ways to motivate and engage children in character building activities. In our family, we often turn to sports for this, but there are other types of activities that can do it well.
In looking for character-building activities, there are three characteristics that I feel are essential for effective outcomes.
1. The activity must be fun or engaging. The activity must be able to grab the attention of a child and hold it over a period of time. Things that mom and dad would like to use to build character – like academics and chores– often don’t work because they don’t engage the child.
2. The activity must have positive consequences for success and negative consequences for failure. It can be difficult for parents to see a system of positive and negative consequence being meted out for their children, but it’s critical to the learning process. In sports, children begin to understand that when they don’t practice, they don’t play. When they don’t play well, they sit the bench. When the entire team plays poorly, they loose. Eventually, the child learns that these negative consequences can be replaced by positive consequences if he (and his team mates) begins to apply good character to the process.
3. Participation in the activity must have a big pay-off in the end. This step is the key to the process working from beginning to end. The nature of the activity engages the child in the beginning and the consequences adjust behavior over time. But the child will not stick with something unless there is a substantial pay-off in the end.
Sports have held that appeal for our children. Both the personal and corporate (team) results are easily measurable and children can see how their contribution has affected the results. The fun and satisfaction of going through this character building process with peers increases its appeal and impact.
However, keep in mind, the sports team (or whatever activity you choose) has to have a serious component to it. If the activity is “just for fun,” there is no big pay-off in the end because the child sees no real meaning or significance to what he is doing. The fun component grabs his attention, but it’s the significance of what he’s doing that will motivate him to devote himself to positive outcomes over a period of time.
If your child is not sports minded, there are many other activities that have the potential to be excellent character building opportunities. Theater and dance are two of my favorites because of the challenging performance component. Other possibilities are gymnastics, Bible-quizzing, and academic challenge teams, to name just a few. What all these activities have in common is they immediately engage students because of the team component. And they inspire and require good character because of the competition and/or performance component.
In my homeschool, I give more priority to these kinds of activities than I do to academics. If my children can learn to be self-disciplined and develop a strong work ethic, they can do anything – in school or beyond.
Until next time…Be fearless.