Can character be taught?

To some, this question might be a given. To others, the ability to teach character isn’t so certain. There are some parents who equate character with personality. These are the parents who stand by the idea that character cannot be taught. I agree that personality traits cannot be taught, but character is another story.

Let’s make the distinction between personality and character.

Personality traits include:

  • Adventurous
  • Chatty
  • Reserved
  • Cautious

Character traits include:

  • Respectful
  • Polite
  • Honest
  • Selfless

Personality traits are what make us the unique individuals we are. Character traits are what allow us to peacefully exist with others.

So can character be taught? Most definitely. In On Becoming Childwise, the Ezzos say:

“One of the first challenges for parents is to discover what character traits they desire to see in their children. They also need to determine what traits they don’t want to show up….Think about the teens you know. We have all met teens, pre-teens, and even younger children with whom we enjoy spending time. They are sociable, courteous, respectful, gracious, motivated, and genuine.

“What is it about these kids that make being with them enjoyable? What allows you to have fun with them (and them with you) without having to stoop to a buddy status? There seems to be a common thread between them: These children possess a moral maturity.”

Identifying character traits is just the first step of this years-long character-training process we call parenting. Having established the notion that character can be taught, I will spend the coming weeks discussing the factors that enable us to build a moral foundation within our children. These posts will center on the moral precepts as outlined in Childwise. They are:

  • Teach the way of virtue, not just the avoidance of wrong.
  • Moral training begins in parents’ hearts.
  • Know the why of moral training.
  • Provide the why of practical training.
  • Make moral judgments by examining context.
  • Avoid legalism when giving instruction.

You can walk away from this post (and future posts on moral training) with one of three attitudes. You can feel burdened by the idea of having to teach your children moral principles. You can ignore the idea altogether. Or you can be inspired by the fact that you can teach your children to behave in a way that will earn you (and them) accolades from friends, teachers, family members and even strangers.

I hope it’s the latter. Stay tuned for more!

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Transfer ownership of behavior

Do you focus too much on obedience? Is there an alternative? Yes. While it’s all well and good to teach our children to obey our word, at some point, we need to teach them to take responsibility for their own behaviors.

I’ll be the first to admit that I have been a bit blinded when it comes to this idea. My kids are doing pretty well with first-time obedience, but the mornings continue to be a pain in my side. Here’s how it typically goes:

7:30 am: They wake up and play while I shower.
8:15 am: I bring them their clothes and cajole them away from their toys to get them to get dressed.
8:25 am: They play while I make their breakfast.
8:30 am: They play while they eat.🙂
8:40 am: I encourage them to hurry up and finish to put on shoes and coats. (Yes, we’re still wearing coats in June. Don’t ask.)
8:42 am: They start dawdling. With very little time to spare, I sigh and go get their shoes and coats for them. No socks? I’m the one to run upstairs to grab a pair.
8:48 am: They squeeze in every last minute of play while we get in the car to be at school by 9:00.

As you might imagine, mornings are my least favorite time of day. Can you picture me yelling “hurry!” 50 times before the morning is over? And do you see how we have less and less time for each task as the morning progresses?

I’m sad to say that it took me this long to figure out what our problem is. Now that the school year is over (as of today), I have figured out that I have made no attempt to transfer ownership of these tasks to my boys. Age 3.5, Lucas still needs some help, but William, age 6.5, is certainly capable of taking responsibility for getting himself ready in the morning.

Here’s my plan. Now that school is out, we’ll use our lazy summer mornings to teach this. If it takes him two hours to put his shoes on, it will be okay. We’ll work on it. I will clearly outline each child’s tasks and make cards similar to the ones we use at bedtime. We won’t go anywhere until they accomplish each task on their own. I might even withhold breakfast until all the important tasks are done.

Hopefully we’ll have our act together in time for summer camps in early July so we can be ready and out the door by 9:00 without much yelling and cajoling. When school starts in September, I’ll allow him to be late. I’ll email the teacher and ask him to make a BIG deal if we don’t get there in time. It’s one thing for mommy to say it’s bad to be late, but if it comes from a well-respected teacher, it will carry much more weight.

How have you done when it comes to teaching your kids to take ownership of their behavior? Here’s what the Ezzos have to say about it:

“Childwise Principle #12: Constantly reminding a child to do what is expected only means you have no expectation.”

“Instilling self-generated follow-through is a life skill worthy of any parent’s attention. … Please note the difference between obedience training and responsibility training. Parents unintentionally tend to do more of the first and less of the second.

“Obedience says: the child will do it when reminded. Responsibility says: the child will do it before he needs reminding. Which category of training would you rather be in? That is why we encourage you to seriously consider this ownership issue and the verbiage associated with it.”

There’s one hitch to teaching children to take ownership of behaviors. They need to be ready for them. With our first-borns, we are often tempted to ask too much of them too soon. With subsequent kids, it’s easy to treat them as “the baby” and not require enough of them.

As Childwise says, “Remember principle one. Parents own all behaviors until the child is both ready and able to take ownership. Moms and dads own not only behaviors but decisions governing behaviors until they are able to successfully transfer the rights and responsibilities to the child. Someday, going outside to play, picking out school clothes, and visiting the refrigerator will be the child’s decision.”

Do what I say and not what I do. Be prepared for this day! Teach your children today to take ownership of daily tasks. Note, however, that these are tasks that you assign to them. William is quite independent and very capable of accomplishing many tasks. The issue is getting him to do things that need to be done, not things that he wants to be doing.

 

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Regularly evaluate first-time obedience

Have you ever been blindsided by your child’s disobedience? It goes something like this. You are moving along contentedly, going through the motions of daily life. Most of the time, your daily life can be fairly child-centric without necessarily harming anything. But then suddenly you encounter an adult situation during which your child disobeys miserably, causing huge amounts of frustration and embarrassment for you, your spouse and everyone else involved. You leave the event vowing to your spouse that you will get your child’s obedience under control immediately.

There are two problems with this. First, of course, is that you had to experience the frustration and embarrassment in the first place. Second, your poor child is suddenly faced with super strict parents who have given the child no warning that things are going to change. His likely response will be to rebel even more, which only compounds the problem.

The million dollar question then becomes, How do you avoid being blindsided in the first place? The answer: evaluate your child’s level of first-time obedience (FTO) regularly. Think of the events that happen on a weekly, monthly or bi-annual basis, and set a reminder to yourself to evaluate your child’s FTO. Maybe you decide to do it every Sunday afternoon after church. Or you schedule it once a month when you pay bills. Perhaps you evaluate FTO every six months when you change the batteries in your smoke detectors. Associate it with some other event and jot it down on your calendar so you won’t forget.

Actually evaluating your child’s first-time obedience is quite simple. Just call your child’s name several times in the day and see how well he responds with “yes, mommy” and eye contact. At the end of the day, decide on a general percentage of how well he did. If you are the analytical type and need an exact percentage, count the number of times you called his name and the number of times he responded appropriately. Divide one by the other and you’ll get your percentage.

What percentage is acceptable? This of course depends on how old your child is and how long you have been working on it. If you have a two-year-old who has only been learning how to respond for two weeks, then 20 percent is probably acceptable (as long as you keep working at it). If you have a ten-year-old who has had a high level of FTO in the past, you might only accept 90 percent.

As you proceed through this process, always keep your goal in mind. The percentage does you no good unless you do something with it. If it’s lower than you’d like, that’s your cue that you need to work on FTO before you encounter a situation that will require greater obedience. Save yourselves the frustration and heartache by evaluating and working on first-time obedience before you really need it.

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Give individual instruction

Credit: kiwinz via Flickr

Do you have two or more children? If so, this is for you. Have you ever given an instruction that applies to both children and gotten zero response? Doesn’t it seem logical to give an instruction to two or more kids at the same time than to get their attention individually? We should be able to do so, but unfortunately, it doesn’t work.

If you’ve been following this blog, you’re no stranger to the idea that we need to call our kids’ names and get a “yes, mommy” and eye contact before we give an instruction. It makes perfect sense and works very well when you’re working with one child.

But what do you do when you have an instruction for two or more children? Should you:

  • Option #1: Skip the process and just give your instruction?
  • Option #2: Call both children’s names at the same time?
  • Option #3: Call each name individually and go through the process as you would with one child?

I speak from experience when I suggest that you do the latter. Yes, it sounds very inefficient and like over-kill, but it works. Here’s how these scenarios play out in my home:

Option #1

Me: Boys, go wash your hands for dinner!

Them: Silence and inaction.

Option #2

Me: William and Lucas?

Them: Silence as they each wait for the other to respond.

Option #3

Me: William?

William: Yes, mommy?

Me: Go wash your hands for dinner.

William: Yes, mommy (as he goes to wash up).

Me: Lucas?

Lucas: Yes, mommy?

Me: Go wash your hands for dinner.

Lucas: Yes, mommy (as he goes to wash up).

When you do this, it’s always wise to call the older child first (assuming your older child has a better level of first-time obedience). You want the child who has better first-time obedience to set the example for the younger child. That way, the younger child will easily follow suit.

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Character foundations: respect, honor and honesty

I flipped open my Growing Kids God’s Way workbook just now and came upon a passage I had previously highlighted. I’ve been thinking a lot about my children’s character lately, so it’s fitting that the book opened to this page. Here’s the quote:

“The quality of your character and that of your children is best exemplified by the presence or absence of three attributes: respect, honor and honesty. … Respect, honor and honesty are critical fibers in the moral fabric of our being. To respect our fellow man is to honor him, and to honor him is to live honestly before him. The parent’s job is to take the intangible concepts of respect, honor and honesty and make them tangible—to take their abstract meanings and make them concrete. They must show their children what moral truth looks like,” (Growing Kids God’s Way, p. 90-91).

With this in mind, I looked at the house rules I have displayed on my white board to see if they help accomplish this goal. I have had these rules on my board for quite a while and considered revising them simply because my kids are older, but ultimately I decided to leave them as they are. This tells me that these rules—founded on the basis of respect, honor and honesty—are constants in our lives. Following is a list of house rules you might consider as you expect these character traits in your children.

  • Obey mommy and daddy; say “yes, mommy” and “yes, daddy”
  • Be true in all things; never tell a lie
  • Always use nice words; nasty attitudes are never tolerated
  • Be polite; say “please” and “thank you”
  • Answer when spoken to; say “hello” and “goodbye”
  • Respect and obey adults; make eye contact and respond kindly

As I was writing this, I started to wonder what the real difference is between respect and honor. According to Microsoft Word, the words are synonymous. Yet, there is a wise quote from a 19-year-old girl in the GKGW workbook that distinguishes the two:

“I can never remember a time in my life when I was not required to show all those in positions of authority respect. It is second-nature for me to do so, although it is hard sometimes to respect a person who is in authority over you because of a lack of integrity in their personal life. It helped when my parents explained the difference between respecting the person and respecting the position. I can always respect a position of authority out of a sense of duty. When I respect someone in authority because of the way they conduct their life, I am honoring them out of a sense of devotion. Understanding the difference between ‘duty’ and ‘devotion’ helps me always respect authority figures,” (Growing Kids God’s Way, p. 91).

I think of respect as being action-oriented while honor is more of an attitude or belief. While our children are young, we ought to expect actions that reflect respect. With such a foundation then, they are well equipped to develop a sense of honor for those things they have been taught to respect.

How well does your parenting teach your children to show respect, honor and honesty?

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Tuesday Triumphs: Family stability

Notice how the parents are in the center of this picture. In most family pictures, the children are in the center. I like it much better this way.🙂

On Friday, my husband went to a friend’s house after work, so the kids and I were on our own for dinner and bedtime. I took them out to dinner, and while we were out, I told them that I would need their cooperation since I would be putting them to bed by myself. William looked at me like I had three heads and asked, “How are you going to do that?!”

What makes his comment noteworthy is that not long ago, I put them to bed by myself every night—for six months. My husband was deployed to Afghanistan and just came home in November.

I reminded William of this, and he seemed to remember, but I’m still shocked by his initial reaction. My husband has been home less than four months, which seems like nothing to me, but I suppose in the life of a child, four months is a long time.

But more important is the idea that my kids have bounced back so easily from the deployment. Those six months were definitely a struggle for all of us. We all had times when we missed him terribly. I expected William to have a harder time with it since he’s older and more aware than his brother, but I didn’t expect him to forget about it less than four months later.

The experience tells me that my kids are resilient to any change or difficulty in our lives, and it’s probably because of the stability we have here at home. Despite the change and difficulty that the deployment brought, our family life is very stable.

This circles back to the marriage priority that I have learned from the Ezzo books. Honestly, if I hadn’t been introduced to these books, I never would have thought to make my marriage a priority for the sake of the children. In fact, most parents these days believe they must put the children above all else, including the marriage. Yet, if we make our marriages the priority, we establish firm family stability—for the children.

Feeling grateful

Ever since I started writing these Tuesday Triumphs, I have become all the more aware of how great my kids are and how meaningful the Ezzos’ books have been to my parenting. Yesterday, when I started contemplating what to write about, I couldn’t really think of much. The troubles we’ve had this week seemed to outweigh the good times. But then I was reminded of this one little comment that William made, and not only did it turn into a whole blog post, but it makes me think about the big picture and validates almost everything I’m doing as a parent.

Your opinion?

So I love to write these posts, but of course, I’m not writing for myself. I’d love to get your thoughts on this series. Do you enjoy reading about our triumphs? Are they entertaining? Are they helpful at all? My intentions are to continue blogging about general parenting, but there’s only so much time in the day. Given that I have a limited amount of time to blog, would you prefer that I offer more generic parenting advice and stick to the books, or should I keep going with my Tuesday Triumphs? Are there any topics that you’d like me to blog about?

Let me know what you think! Please leave a comment below.

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Tuesday Triumphs: Character development

Just last week, a parent who frequently volunteers in William’s classroom complimented me on his character. She said, “William is such a confident child, but he’s sweet and kind-hearted, not arrogant.” Her implication was that confidence often brings out arrogance and that William proves that the two don’t necessarily go hand in hand.

Her comment made me smile, of course, but more than that, it made me wonder what it is that makes him this way. There’s no doubt that he is confident. And he is a very sweet child.

When I think of his confidence in school, I immediately feel validation for our decision to delay Kindergarten. His birthday is just two weeks before our state’s cut-off date, so no matter which way we went, he was going to be either the oldest or the youngest. There was no middle ground. His first year of pre-K, he was the youngest. His immaturity was blatant. His second year of pre-K (same school, same teachers), he was one of the oldest, and his teachers (and I) were amazed by what a different child he was. The confidence and maturity he gained made all the difference.

But aside from his age compared to his classmates, I knew there was more, especially since he is in a mixed-age class right now. I know that I would never accept arrogance from my child, but how exactly did that translate in a way that an outsider would notice? What I couldn’t figure out was whether this is just his personality or whether I did something as a parent to encourage this in his character. Then I picked up my copy of Childwise, and the first page I turned to gave me my answer:

“Certainly a child is born with a particular temperament on which personality is built. However, these do not excuse a child from appropriate character training. The combination of virtues instilled in a child’s heart must be the same [no matter his inborn temperament].

Character, in fact, is not about a person’s temperament or personality. It is the quality of a person’s personality and the moral restraint or encouragement of his temperament. It is the outward reflection of the inner person. Our character reflects our morality and our morality defines our character. They are inseparable,” (pg. 89-90).

To be honest, I have never consciously worked on William’s character. I remember once finding a list of character qualities and wanting to incorporate them into our daily routine, but it never really happened. What I think happened is that by implementing the Ezzos’ parenting philosophies, building his character became a natural by-product of all of the other work we had been doing.

The book makes it clear that we are to teach our children to respect authority, respect property, treat others with kindness and encourage service to others. By spelling out the character traits we should instill in our children, the Ezzos have validated all of the traits that I have always wanted in my boys. And not only do they spell it out, they give me a road map to achieving it.

Ultimately, what this shows me is that the relatively minor details of my parenting—like developing a schedule, defining a discipline plan and working towards first-time obedience—are all part of a much bigger effort in character development. I’m happy to see that it’s all working as I had hoped.

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