We saw several articles this month outlining a variety of ways to build character in our kids. But, what if none of our efforts seem to make any difference?
What if our kids continue being mean, in spite of our attempt to teach them compassion?
What if our kids continue to be bossy, in spite of our attempt to teach them politeness?
What if all our attempts to teach them to be responsible come up short?
As parents invested in raising kids with good character, this can be very frustrating.
But the reasons for these setbacks may actually just be us unintentionally sabotaging our character education attempts with some common mistakes.
Check below to see if any of these mistakes are holding you down:
Mistake #1: Believing how kids act on the outside mirrors who they are on the inside
A child with good character is not a child that is perfect all the time.
Successfully building character in your children will come with a lot of mistakes. Kids are learning everyday – and character building is a part of that learning process. Children’s brains are not wired to understand impulse control and selflessness from the beginning. These are actually learned traits that parents are responsible for instilling in their children.
It takes time. And it’s not easy work. But the older my children get the more thankful I am that my husband and I have put in the work.
Parenting and disciplining isn’t about “fixing” your kids. Done right, it’s about shepherding them and growing yourself each day so that your goodness can fill their hearts.
Discipline in its truest definition doesn’t have a negative connotation. Parenting and discipline should involve (1) providing the best shaping influences you can and (2) the careful shepherding of your children’s responses through those influences.
– From Shepherding a Child’s Heart
Does that definition change your view? How are you disciplining your children? Are you providing wise council that they should listen to? Are you following that up by leading by example? We all know that modeling and careful direction are the best ways to teach kids!
Mistake #2: Not making it clear to kids what values matter in your family
As parents we know good from bad, and we assume that kids do too. When their behavior falls short, we get upset….
But, kids don’t know unless we teach them.
Since kids are developing and learning constantly, it is important to name the traits you are looking for and use positive reinforcement to guide. The traits your family seeks to highlight should be reflected in a family mission statement.
For us, honesty and sincerity are tops. We say often that if our kids know how to problem solve and work through disagreements and issues with those around them, then we have done our jobs. This takes a lot of modeling on our part and constant positive reinforcement for a job well done.
When our kids were small, we used a fruits of the spirit tree to help them understand different character traits and positively reinforce behavior. The idea comes from Galatians 5:22 in the Bible… “But the fruits of the spirit are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against these things, there is no law.”
While the Bible is speaking of the intangible fruits of your spirit, we felt a physical representation would serve as a good reminder for our children. This technique was not punitive at all, it was more of a “caught you being good” type of system. At this point, we were honestly just trying to put words and actions together – that way, when we said, “I need you to practice self-control,” our children understood what behavior response was needed.
Each time one of my children exhibited a desired character trait, we placed a fruit on the tree. I just used butcher paper and construction paper cut-outs to create the items and the idea caught on quickly with our kids.
Now that my children are older, and we know they understand the behaviors that are expected of them, we use a “stick jar” to help reward good behavior. These are simply mason jars with each child’s initials on them. We have a system for cashing out the sticks for a variety of treats – the most frequently requested are iPad time and dates with mom or dad.
[Note from Sumitha: I am agnostic and believe in borrowing whatever works from whichever religion and trying it in our family. No matter what your religious background, I hope you find value in how Brit used the fruits of the spirit tree to help her kids name the traits she wanted them to learn.]
Mistake #3: Expecting overnight results
Focus on the learning, not the end result. Our fruits of the spirit tree was very helpful in giving our children an understanding of the qualities we were seeking, especially during the toddler stage. Even with older kids, so much of learning character traits and expected behavior is trial-and-error.
I can’t tell you how many times I have been told not to do something or how to act, but I tossed that advice aside until I figured things out for myself. I know my kids are the same way, and I have to give them some leniency for that. I think so often what parents see as willful disobedience is actually a part of the learning process.
Like baking a cake, this learning stuff is messy, but the end result is so worth the effort we put in!
Since you aren’t a perfect parent, it is important that you admit your mistakes to your kids. Your character building process is ongoing and admitting that to your children, while allowing them to walk through some of your mistakes with you, will only build their character more.
This also allows children to see the process behind admitting and creating restitution for the mistakes they make. Our family mission highly prizes owning up to one’s actions, and finding ways to mend mistakes is an imperative step in our family’s character education process.
And, oh how I fail!
I fail on a daily basis and I know my kids are watching. Just this morning I was a walking, talking example of a mother in need of the character traits of goodness, self-control and patience. If I don’t talk to my kids about my faults, they will see my behavior as acceptable and begin to emulate it. Yet, if I tell them my shortcomings, these lapses in my own positive character building actually become opportunities to learn.
Mistake #4: Forgetting about peer pressure and outside influence
Character education does not happen at home alone! The outside world has a huge influence on our kids. Instead of fighting it, use it as a way to learn.
Ask constant questions and really listen to the answers. For example, “how do you feel when your friends treat you a certain way?” or, “what do you look for in a friend?” These types of questions will help your kids understand the character traits they are drawn to and give them models within their peer group.
There are many other outside influences that will affect a child’s character:
- What are your children watching on television? What do you listen to on the radio in the car?
- How involved is their teacher? How does the teacher handle situations in the classroom?
What cultural/religious/social gatherings do you attend? How aligned are your families values with how people behave at these gatherings?
- How is their internet usage monitored? What types of video games are they playing?
What are their favorite fictional characters (from books, movies or video games)? What values do they embody?
While we as parents can serve as great models for behavior, kids are more apt to find models in their peers. This will work for good or bad, so a large part of character education in the younger years, in my opinion, extends well beyond the walls of my home.
Recently, while my boys and I were waiting on my daughter to finish her gymnastics class, they began playing with another little boy in the observation room. The boy was very bossy and began playing rough. I could tell that my boys weren’t into it… and I tried not to intervene too much just to see how they would handle the situation. Eventually, my three boys stuck close to each other and the other child lost interest.
When we got in the car, I recapped the situation with them. They often get bossy and rough with each other, so it was a good example to move inside our home.
These times of investing in my children go a long way – and serve as gentle reminders for them moving forward.
Character education is a process. You’re knee-deep in this process WITH your kids everyday.
I wish raising kids with strong values and good character was as simple as “stick with it,” but if it was, wouldn’t we all be perfect parents? While consistency is imperative, there is so much more to our daily lives. My best advice is to listen to your children and really hear what they are saying. I’ve learned so much from simple interactions with my kids – things I can do better, the influences their friends have on them, patterns and problems at school, etc.
To support your own growth, get some personal accountability. This could be from a friend, mentor or parent. It is important that we as parents surround ourselves with people who are striving for the same goals as us. We all rub off on each other, right?
As your children get older, especially, your investment in helping them to build strong character will allow them to carry a piece of you with them in each decision they make.
When my children walk out of the door, I want the people in my community to know that they are my kids – I am proud of the choices they make, and I’m there to support them when they need me. And, that support will be needed — often. At points they are going to make mistakes, but our family is resolved to learn from those mistakes and use them as a way to grow stronger in character together.
I began parenting believing that the way my children acted on the outside was a mirror of who they are on the inside, but I’ve learned that this thought process is completely untrue. It’s best to think of kids and their behavior as “work in progress”.
My kids will make mistakes, but those mistakes do not indicate that I fail as a parent. If I do not use those mistakes as an opportunity to help my kids grow and learn however, then I am failing.
I wake up each day fresh and tell myself that this will be the day that I show patience, this will be the day that I exude self-control… but, you know what? It’s not.
Every single day is a day for me to show my kids that I’m learning WITH them, while giving them the benefit of learning from my mistakes WITH me.
The 2-Minute Action Plan for Fine Parents
Create a positive reinforcement system. The materials for our family’s stick jars can be found in many homes, or easily purchased for less than $5 a jar. All you need is a mason jar and a stash of craft sticks. Since there are multiple children in my home, we have labeled each jar with the first letter of their name.
When I catch my kids demonstrating a positive character trait, I put a stick in the jar. We also reward helpfulness with our system, so sticks are freely given for extra chores that the kids do on their own, without being asked.
I’ve heard of people using marble jars or other kinds of little trinket jars – some people even use quarters or pennies. A sticker chart would work too. Whatever you have on hand and whatever works best for you can be used to turn good behavior into a habit. The key is talking through the trait and wholeheartedly thanking the child for their behavior. It’s amazing how far simple acknowledgement and heart-felt compliments can go!
The Ongoing Action Plan for Fine Parents
Over the course of the next week pay attention to see if you are making any of these mistakes in your home and if you are, fix them.
For instance, do you tend to get agitated when your kids behave poorly? Do your respond from the fear that this behavior is an indication of who your child is / will grow up to be?
Do you talk to your kids about what is expected of them before getting frustrated about an act that disappoints you?
How often do you reinforce positive behavior? How often do you chastise them for a negative behavior? Don’t worry, none of us can be positive all the time, and that’s OK — just focus on increasing the ratio of positive to negative response and it will all work out.
Are you taking into account the influence of the outside world on your kids? Like it or not, the world will shape our kids – rather than lament it, let’s use it to our advantage!