Working on Character with your Children

Written by Ryan Evans on December 13th, 2016

If you had to name some character issues you are working on with your children, could you do it? Years ago I was speaking with a mother about a discipline matter with her son, and I asked her about the character traits she was working on with him. When she couldn’t think of any, it was a red flag to me.

The call to train our children is a challenging task; we need to be reflective and intentional as we seek to love and support our children while spurring them on to greater growth in character and virtue. Like adults, all kids are complex and growing, and God sanctifies them through our loving admonishment which requires a balance of firm standards and grace. As parents we sometimes find ourselves veering from a healthy middle ground. If we continue off that central course when training our children, we may find ourselves in what can be described as a parenting ditch. Below are just two ditches that damage our children’s ability to live responsible and mature lives.

Ditch #1: We erect high standards our children are incapable of attaining, and they are constantly frustrated that they cannot meet the bar we set for them. We expect too much and express strong disappointment at every failure as we try to raise perfect kids. Every sin gives us reason to doubt their salvation, and we are surprised when they fail to be perfect. We find ourselves consistently let down by our children because they aren’t behaving or performing according to our expectations.

Results of Ditch #1: We create perfectionist kids who grow so frustrated with the home environment that they can’t wait to get out. The expectation of perfection and a lack of grace and love sends them away bitter and disillusioned.

Ditch #2: We work hard to pave the way for our children and we deceive ourselves that they are incapable of failure. We are much too quick to defend them, providing excuses when they don’t succeed. We think the best of our children and the worst of everyone else. We blame adults and teachers for not providing the environment they need to thrive; we blame other kids when peer problems arise; we attribute successful parenting to dumb luck and assume that God grants faithful kids to some parents and unfaithful kids to others.

Results of Ditch #2: We tend to produce kids who cannot accept responsibility, who run to mom or dad to bail them out whenever conflict arises. They become emotionally manipulative, are incapable of owning their problems, and end up expecting more of others than they do of themselves.

Below are some tips (with input from greater minds) on how to avoid these ditches as we seek to train up well-balanced, faithful children.

Help to avoid Ditch #1: Ted Tripp writes in his classic book, Shepherding a Child’s Heart, “Having well behaved children is not a worthy goal. It is a great secondary benefit of biblical childrearing, but an unworthy goal in itself.” As parents we are often too focused on correcting outward behaviors, often so our children look polished on the outside. Tripp emphasizes the importance of training and shepherding the hearts of our children. Discipline and discipleship require a heavy investment of time and a strategic, purposeful plan. Below are some suggestions to help cultivate attitudes of grace, humility, and maturity in our children:

  • Spend family time together to talk about each day – Establish time to meet together such as nightly dinner time (no cell phones or TV allowed) or evening family devotions. We would all do well to remember the challenges of childhood as we listen to, empathize with, and encourage our kids.
  • Understand the difference between discipline and punishment – As Doug Wilson writes in his book, Standing on the Promises, “Discipline is corrective; it seeks to accomplish a change in the one being disciplined. Punishment is meted out in the simple interests of justice.” Discipline should be geared toward a heart change, not simply toward correcting a child’s behavior.
  • Set character goals for your children – Setting character goals emphasizes not performance or attainment, but growth in Christ and love for others. Goals might include being more gracious to siblings, obeying the first time without complaint, or speaking encouraging words to friends.
  • Admit your own mistakes and need for sanctification – God has been patient and gracious toward us, and it’s imperative that we model these virtues to our children. As Tripp writes, “On many occasions I have had to seek the forgiveness of my children for my anger or sinful response.” Most of us can afford to grow in this area!

Help to avoid Ditch #2: One of the best books I’ve read to counter ditch #2 is A Nation of Wimps: The High Cost of Invasive Parenting (how’s that for a provocative title?). Though not written from a Christian perspective, author Hara Estroff Marano offers great advice after analyzing the epidemic of parents who pander to their children. Below are a few of her tips, with some added commentary:

  • Learn how to praise your kids (and what for) – We often praise our kids for the wrong things. “You are handsome” or “You’re really smart” can accomplish more harm than good. Instead, we should focus on character traits such as perseverance, diligence, and kindness that move them toward Christ-likeness: “The way you showed compassion by sharing that last cookie was a picture of how Jesus would want us to show generosity toward others.”
  • Teach your kids to tolerate discomfort and encourage them to problem-solve – We as parents too often desire to make life comfortable for our children, and thus (with the best of intentions) prevent them from owning their mistakes. Allowing our children to “eat their own cooking” is a great motivator for behavior change and allows them to stop playing the victim. If my son loses his jacket, buying him a new one does nothing to help him learn from the experience; helping him think through how he can earn money to purchase a new one is much more instructive.
  • Learn how to criticize your kids – Learning how to appropriately criticize our own children is essential to raising kids who understand their weaknesses. To help our children grow and develop in godliness, we need to acknowledge and identify their weak areas in an environment balanced with love, encouragement, and affirmation.
  • Allow your kids to mess up, to experience a little bit of failure, to experience discomfort and boredom – “A child who never experiences failure will view anything less than total success as a failure; a wholly sanitized childhood will only defer failure until later.” Natural consequences are a great teacher; allowing our children to fail helps them learn responsibility and accountability.