I often get asked to write about how we teach our kids good character traits… how to train them to be loving, generous, kind, joyful. Now before I had kids I would have been able to write a fabulous list post… full of practical tips!!! But I have had kids for a while now and I realise as my kids grow older that I have very little to do with lessons of the heart. Turns out these types of lessons cannot be taught in a lecturing/note-booking kind of way because like so many things – they can only be taught from life.
Now I am no font of information on this topic at all and while I know that many parenting and self-help books have been written about “training your children…” you can be assured that this is one book not on my lists of books to write. Worse in fact are the books directed at children: literally dozens of books – all declaring “lessons in good character” on the cover and packed with “how not to behave” on the inside. So, the question remains: “How do you teach your child to be generous or loving, kind and understanding?” I think the glib answer is to say “lead by example” but we all know that we aren’t always the best examples. For many children that is really a lesson in “do as I say, rather than do as I do” and instead of teaching them what you intended they see the paradox.
There is one huge and fatal flaw to the idea of leading by example… and that is very simply we all fail… time and time again. You know when I say: “Get to bed on time, you will have a much better day tomorrow… ” I could go on, but I needn’t because I am sure we could all make a list of ten of our faults, that we try and correct when they pop up in our children, without even blinking. How often at the end of the day have I sat down and thought that I totally failed on the mothering field that day. Not to mention, how often have I thought that if I was a better mother then my kids would be so much better at everything, including the long list of good character traits.
Just the other day I was chatting with my kids, we were talking about the whole “do as I say, not as I do” style of parenting and we were laughing at how many times I say things and then do the opposite. I saw broad smiles appear on my teens’ faces as they realised that I knew this was a fault of mine and that it wasn’t some deep and profound flaw in me that only they themselves had discovered!!! Luckily we were able to chat a little further and talk about how my failures are often bigger lessons for them than my successes. In fact, I tossed it back at them and mentioned that my mistakes were a perfect opportunity for them to learn from someone else’s mistakes… they did actually go for that!!! They liked the idea that when I fail and they notice – it is not so much about “I told you so” and a whole lot more about what they could do better themselves.
So yes our actions do speak louder than words but not always in the way that we would like them too. My children are not seeing me walk around as this saint of peace and serenity, offering up little pearls of wisdom throughout the day. They do see some one who dives in and makes mistakes time and time again – and now they know that they reason I have to make so many mistakes is so that they can learn so many lessons!!! God does indeed use all things for good… even our failures. Probably the biggest lessons that we can learn from the failures in our home, is that a quick and speedy dose of repentance and forgiveness really can turn a grumpy day around.
And all this leads right back to the start… how do we teach our children all these good qualities, especially when we don’t always practice them ourselves:
- Pray for Their Characters: Each of them every single day… we feed them everyday, we clothe them everyday… and their spiritual needs are often overlooked, we really need to pray for them every single day.
- Don’t Wait: There is not time to waste, even small children can learn to be polite and generous spirited, don’t wait until they are old enough “to understand.” Folk often underestimate their young children’s ability to be kind and loving, but they can and do do a lot of things well… encourage them when they are lovely, when they greet visitors without prompting, when they make a picture for the neighbour… they don’t need a chart with extra stars on it, they need a kind word and encouragement for their efforts.
- Expose Them to Amazing People: Nobody is perfect, don’t wait around looking for the perfect people to expose your kids too… you may wait a very long time!!! Give them a chance to meet folk who are putting their best foot forward. Let them see generous people in action: Not just financially generous… the person that is extra generous with greetings, the person who is generous with time, the person who has such a generous heart as to always be sharing.
- Read Through the Book of Proverbs with Them: The Book of Proverbs is packed with Wisdom and there are thirty one chapters… you can read just one chapter a day and read the whole book in a month. Then read it again the next month… it is an ongoing book and every single time you read it a new lesson will jump out at you.
- Provide them with Wholesome Books and Movies: There is plenty of material out there that is anything but what you want your children to learn, somehow unwholesome things are always so easily available. Supply them with fabulous books, focus on the good… rather than avoiding the bad. Focus on movies that they will enjoy rather than on watching movies and telling them why they are wrong. I never understand why folk would let their kids watch a show and then discuss why they shouldn’t watch it with them… if it is a program filled with unmentionables, however subtle, turn it off.
- Let your children read tons of biographies: While your children are young provide them with worthwhile heroes. Not just famous Christians from the past, though those are always a good place to start… but let them read about ordinary folk with extraordinary stories… Often we overlook the everyday, in search of someone bigger and better… but often we just need to focus on regular people who have incredible lessons to share.
- Give Them the Space to do the Right Thing: I was so bad at this as a new mom, telling my kids to thank folk and asking them to offer their granny tea… time has taught me that very often my kids will have thought of things long before I jump in… and they will do things of their own accord. I might have told my kids to make a card for the lady at the laundry’s birthday but honestly I forgot. Left to their own devices they took their music instruments over there and put on a concert for her… she loved it and so did they. Often it is a good thing to stand back and let them shine on their own.
- Don’t Expect Perfection: Your kids are going to fail, your kids are going to do such incredibly insane things that you can not even fathom where they are coming from. Not just once but many times. You can go on about it and give yourself heartburn, or let them accept the natural consequences of their behaviour and move on. Focus on their strengths. And here is one place that you really can lead by example… focus on your friends’ and family members’ strengths too… tell your kids how fabulous their grandfather is, tell them how wonderful the neighbour is… and tell them how great they are. We all have faults… we all get things wrong again and again. I know my kids don’t need to be reminded about how bad they are, and they do so much better when I mention the things that they have done well.
And the Se7en + 1th thing…
In conclusion… I cannot tell you how to train your kid to be better citizens, I am far too busy trying to train my own. I am sure that your kids are just as clever as mine are and see through our double-standards and duplicity. One thing I can say is that before your kids can toss the card: “You never do what you say…” or “Actions speak louder than words…” let them know that you know that. Not just their actions but your own. There does come a time when your kids no longer see you as a the ultimate dragon slayer – the one who can literally rip monsters out from under the bed and sweep them away with the feather duster… the time is coming when your children will see you for who you are… and all that time they have spent with you means that they will see you “warts and all.” Let your children know that you know you have faults and that your faults are indeed lessons for them to learn from.