Tag Archives: characterization

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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Maturity in children

Have you ever received a comment from a stranger that validates your parenting? Amid the daily ups and downs I have with my kids, I occasionally get such comments. I got one just last week.

Someone told me that William, my oldest, seems particularly mature for his age. Mature. We have our struggles, especially when his SPD (sensory processing disorder) rears its ugly head. If we get basic good behavior, I call it a good day. So why did this word strike me? I can think of a slew of other characteristics that I’d rather be complimented on:

  • Well mannered
  • Confident
  • Selfless
  • Respectful
  • Smart

But the word mature is especially flattering. Mature is how I would describe the children of the parents I most respect. When a child is mature, it means to me that they have all of these qualities and more. When a child is mature, it tells me the child has been taught how to confidently navigate his way through this world.

When a child has been taught how to navigate the world, he is given the foundation that allows him to develop confidence. With that foundation, the child is free to learn and grow.

What is that foundation built upon? Obedience. Yes, everything circles back to obedience.

“Freedom is not found in autonomy, it is found in obedience.” (Shepherding a Child’s Heart, Tedd Tripp, p. 27)

I’m reminded of a story my contact mom once told me. She said she and another mom were on a hike with their kids and reached a particularly treacherous area. The path was surrounded on one side by water and on the other side by a steep drop-off. It was a dangerous spot. The other mom held her children’s hands tightly to keep them from running away and to keep them safe. She couldn’t trust them.

Meanwhile, my contact mom had taught her children to obey her word. She was able to tell them to stay near her while still letting them walk freely. Because of their characteristic obedience, these children were given the freedom to appropriately explore their world. They could be trusted to keep themselves safe, and because of this obedience, they were allowed more freedom.

So do I want my children to be happy, respectful, confident and a host of other qualities? Of course. But will I strive most for obedience and maturity? No doubt.

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Set realistic expectations

One of the most important elements of good parenting is setting expectations. Some parents expect far too much of their children only to exasperate themselves and their children. Other parents expect far too little. I encourage you to constantly evaluate your expectations of your child.

Setting the bar
Many Ezzo parents are proud of the fact that they can expect relatively good behavior from their children. This stems from the fact that we often set the bar quite high. Yet some parents take this too far, setting the bar so high that it’s impossible for their children to reach it. This family finds themselves in constant struggle with children being disciplined regularly for goals that are simply unattainable.

On the other hand, some parents, permissive parents in particular, set the bar too low. They expect very little of their children and achieve exactly that. These parents are often just as frustrated, however, simply because of their children’s excessive misbehavior. The children of permissive parents don’t get off without frustrations of their own. While in their daily lives they escape discipline, they encounter certain situations where the parents decide to crack down. Typically, this is at a friend’s house or some other public location that has left permissive parents feeling so embarrassed they decide to take action. Their poor children don’t see it coming and are confused by the sudden change in the rules.

Find your happy medium between these two extremes. Set your bar high enough that you can expect good behavior and a solid moral conscience, but don’t set it so high that you exasperate yourself or your child.

Childishness vs. defiance
While setting the bar high will help improve your child’s behavior, we must not forget that they sometimes misbehave in innocence. Before disciplining your child, you must stop to think about the intent behind the misbehavior. You must determine whether the behavior was caused by simple childishness or whether the child was being defiant in his actions.

“We use the term childishness to refer to innocent immaturity. This includes those nonmalicious, nonrebellious, accidental mistakes our children make…. Defiance, on the other hand, implies bad motives. The child knew the act was wrong but did it anyway. Childishness is usually a head problem—a lack of knowledge. Defiance is usually a heart problem—the child does not want to do right,” (On Becoming Childwise, p. 132).

Clearly, defiance deserves correction. Childishness, however, must be treated differently. While childish acts can be just as grating on a parent’s nerves, they cannot be treated in the same way. Simply explain to your child why his actions were wrong so you give him the knowledge for next time. If he makes the same mistake again (and if it’s not a true accident), then the act deserves correction. If your child clearly understands your instruction and commits the offense again, the act moves from childishness to defiance.

Expectations change
One final note about setting expectations is to realize that they will—and should—change as your child gets older. Some actions will be treated as childishness with a young child, but the same actions in an older child are defiance. Yes, you must still tell your child what you expect of him, but also at some point he becomes old enough to know better.

Say you struggle with table manners with your toddler. In many ways, his actions (getting food all over his face, choosing to use his hands over utensils, etc.) are childish. But if you saw these same actions in a five-year-old, you would treat them as defiance. An older child has the capacity to use his utensils and keep food in his mouth—not to mention use a napkin—so if he acts like a toddler at the table, his actions must be corrected.

Be aware of this as your child ages and make sure you are moving your expectations and setting the bar higher and higher. And take the time right now to make sure your expectations are in the right place for today. You don’t want to discipline your child excessively nor do you want to set the bar too low. Take the time to figure out where your child’s bar belongs.

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Funnel Pitfall #2: You award freedoms based on age rather than responsibility

How many times have you said to your child, “When you’re four, you can go out back by yourself”? Or, “When you’re ten you can get your ears pierced”? Or even, “When you’re 16, you can drive a car”? We all say these things and perhaps even fulfill these promises, but I caution you against allowing freedoms based on your child’s age alone.

I remember getting my ears pierced when I was seven years old. Was there something special about that age? No. It just happened that my sister was dying to get her ears pierced and I suppose my mom figured she would kill two birds with one stone. My sister was plenty responsible for taking care of her ears, twisting the studs and applying rubbing alcohol every night. Did I do the same? No. I ended up in an urgent care clinic because the back of the earring got embedded in my ear lobe.

So what’s the lesson here? Award freedoms based on your child’s level of responsibility, not his age. Have your child prove to you that he is responsible for a certain freedom before you award it.

Let’s use the same example. Say your daughter has been asking to get her ears pierced. You tell her that she can get them pierced when she has shown you that she can be responsible for the freedom. Let her decide how she will prove that responsibility. Maybe she will walk the dog every morning. Maybe she will take good care of her other jewelry. The responsibility doesn’t necessarily need to relate to the freedom. It simply needs to show that she is responsible for other duties that would require the same level of responsibility as the freedom. If she forgets to walk the dog two days in a row, that shows you that she doesn’t have the consistency required for the daily care of newly pierced ears. You might want to see three weeks (or more) of consistent responsibility before you agree to the freedom.

When you consider responsibility over age, you might have a younger child who has the freedom to do something your older child does not. Your four-year-old son might have the responsibility to choose what he will wear in the morning, but your six-year-old daughter might not. Your daughter is likely much more interested in what she wears and might challenge your authority when you ask her to change or if you suddenly decide to choose her clothes for her. If your four-year-old son can handle changing his clothes when you ask without putting up a fuss, he is likely responsible enough for the freedom.

Now almost five, William is allowed to choose what he wears in the morning simply because it doesn’t matter to him what he wears. He chooses the shirt and pants that are on top. If I don’t like what he has chosen to wear and ask him to change, he will do so willingly.

Take the time to think through your child’s freedoms and ask yourself if he is truly responsible enough for the freedom. Does he whine and complain when you choose the wrong TV show for him to watch? Does he fuss when he isn’t allowed to brush his own teeth? Does he throw a fit when you tell him to ride his scooter instead of his bike? Perhaps these are freedoms and choices he shouldn’t be allowed to have.

Always, the true test of whether a child is responsible enough for a certain freedom is to take that freedom away. What happens? If he handles it well, he can be allowed the freedom. If he throws a fit and challenges your authority, it is clearly a freedom you need to take away until he is more responsible. He needs to show that he can submit to your authority and handle it graciously before he can be allowed the freedom.

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The funnel–keeping freedoms age-appropriate

The funnel is one of the best and perhaps most infamous analogies offered by the Ezzos. The funnel represents the freedoms you allow your child given his age. The funnel represents the guidance and boundaries you give your child. The Ezzos implore us to parent inside the funnel.

“A common mistake is to parent outside the funnel in the early years. In an effort to give the child confidence, parents sometimes allow their children behaviors or freedoms that are neither age-appropriate nor in harmony with the child’s moral and intellectual capabilities,” (On Becoming Childwise, p. 155).

What this means is that you consciously choose what freedoms are appropriate given your child’s age and maturity. You don’t allow a freedom that your child cannot be responsible for. You don’t allow a freedom that you will one day have to take away. You don’t allow your child to choose for himself what freedoms are appropriate.

How do you know if a behavior is outside the funnel?
This is very simple. Watch your child. Keep your eye out for behaviors that seem beyond his age level. If it bothers you that he exhibits a particular behavior, there’s a reason it bothers you. Listen to that intuition. If it bothers you, don’t allow it. Ask yourself if he does any of the following:

  • Enters any room of the house at will
  • Gets food from the pantry whenever he wants
  • Ransacks his room with little regard or respect for its contents
  • Puts up a fight about wearing the shorts and tank top even though it’s 40 degrees out
  • Insists that he eat cereal instead of eggs for breakfast
  • Climbs out of his crib or playpen even when told to stay put
  • Speaks disrespectfully to any adult, particularly you and your spouse
  • Leaves your side in public without informing you
  • Goes into the backyard without asking

These are just a few examples of a young child who is acting outside the funnel. He has been allowed freedoms that are not age-appropriate. Some of these freedoms are perhaps appropriate for a teenager. If your 2-year-old is exhibiting them, he is clearly outside the funnel.

Why should you limit your child’s freedoms?
There is nothing wrong with allowing your child to have some freedoms, as long as they are age-appropriate. For example, allowing your 3-year-old to choose his own toys is possibly a freedom he can be responsible for. If he plays with them appropriately and can take care of them by putting them away when he’s done, it is an age-appropriate freedom. Also consider whether he is characterized by respecting his property. If he consistently ransacks his room during roomtime, perhaps the toys or the room itself are freedoms he doesn’t have the responsibility to have.

Consider this. A group of researchers performed a study on a group of students to see how they would react if they took away the fences that lined the perimeter of the school. When the fences were up, the children would play freely, far away from the school buildings and even linger around the fence. When the fences were taken down, the students huddled much closer to the school buildings. The students felt more secure when those fences were up. Without the limits that the fences established, they were unsure as to how far they should go. The same goes with setting limits for your child. The more you set limits, the more secure your child will feel.

Also important is the fact that setting limits and parenting inside the funnel is yet another way to establish parental authority over your child. If your child defers to you to determine what he is allowed to say and do, he is much more likely to respect your authority.

But perhaps the reason that most interests you is the fact that limiting your child’s freedoms will improve his behavior and reduce your frustration.

How will this affect your child’s behavior?
Keeping your child inside the funnel and only allowing freedoms that are age-appropriate is huge in keeping his behavior in check. I mentioned that it builds your parental authority. Beyond this, it teaches your child that he does not have 100% freedom over his environment and his actions. Could this stifle his independence? Yes, it could. This is why you need to let your child grow into the wider parts of the funnel as he matures. But if he is right where he should be in the funnel, he will have much greater control over his own actions.

Think about the examples I gave above. The reason these freedoms are not age-appropriate for a 2-year-old is that a child that age does not have the moral or practical knowledge that accompanies those freedoms. A toddler does not understand the science of nutrition and wouldn’t know that a bowl of sugary cereal is less healthy than a breakfast of eggs and toast. Nor does he understand that the resulting sugar high would adversely affect his behavior.

This lack of moral and practical knowledge can be applied to many of the behaviors I listed. As you limit your child’s freedoms according to his age and understanding, his behaviors will improve quite immediately. Perhaps you get frustrated that your toddler climbs the stairs on his own. Once you remove that freedom, that frustration will disappear. Perhaps you get frustrated that your preschooler goes outside on his own. Once you remove that freedom, or at least require that he ask permission, that frustration will disappear. Imagine how peaceful your home can be.

Funnel utopia
Let me describe what it looks like when your child firmly knows his boundaries inside the funnel.

  • When your child wakes up in the morning, he dresses himself in the clothes you have laid out for him.
  • If he happens to wake up when you’re still sleeping, he stays in his room and plays quietly until you wake up.
  • He washes his hands when you ask and eats the food that is placed in front of him, no matter what dish it’s in.
  • After taking his dishes to the kitchen, he asks permission to play in the backyard and will abide by any instructions you give about outside play.
  • He knows that certain rooms in the house are off-limits.
  • He puts his toys away after playing with them.
  • He stays within your line of sight, as you have requested, in public places.
  • He keeps his hand on the shopping cart as you have asked, no matter how much he hates grocery shopping.
  • He goes to bed (and stays there) peacefully and quietly every night.

Does this all sound too good to be true? These are things that my 4-year-old son William is characterized by doing on a consistent basis. This utopia is a reality in my home. Did this happen on its own overnight? Certainly not. It required diligent parenting on my part. If you apply the same amount of diligence, while considering many of the other aspects of preventing misbehavior, your home can also look like this.

Start thinking through your child’s freedoms and strongly consider whether he has freedoms that you need to take away. In my next post, I’ll go into more detail about some of the common pitfalls parents run into when keeping their children’s behaviors inside the funnel.

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Wise parenting vs. power parenting

While it’s clear that we need to maintain authority over our children, some parents take this idea too far. These parents tend to be legalistic in their parenting. What they say goes, no matter what. Legalistic parenting is characterized by the power we exert over our children rather than the wisdom we bring to the relationship. Be sure to make the distinction between wise parenting and power parenting in your relationship with your child.

A common effect of power parenting is the power struggle.

“A power struggle results when parents fail to exercise their authority wisely. That is, they allow themselves to be forced into a ‘must-win’ situation over a seemingly minor conflict. There will be some early parent/child conflicts in which parental resolve must be victorious, but you should choose well which hill you’re willing to die on. Wise parenting is superior to power parenting,” (p. 228, On Becoming Childwise).

Say you are putting your 3-year-old down for a nap. You do your usual naptime transition and lie him down with a kiss on the forehead. All is sweet but as you walk out of the room you expect a fight. Before you leave the room, your child starts talking and flipping his legs around all over the bed. His mood is anything but sleepy. You turn back around and remind him sweetly that it’s naptime. Another kiss on the forehead. His behavior doesn’t change. Your tone gets tense and angry as you tell him over and over that he must go to sleep. Still no change. He is as hyper as ever. You then physically lift his legs and put them on the bed and under the covers. He quickly removes the covers and starts kicking his legs again. You pinch his lips closed and tell him to be quiet. Your child erupts into a nervous laughter. You continue to remind him to be quiet and physically put his legs back on the bed under the covers. This goes on for 30 minutes before you leave the room frustrated and in a sweat.

This is a power struggle. You are clearly fighting with your child to determine who has power over the situation. When it comes to children and sleep, they are the ones with ultimate power. We can do all we can to help them go to sleep, but whether they actually fall asleep is ultimately up to them.

In such a situation, a wise parent would recognize that a power struggle might erupt and would stop it in its tracks. A wise parent might realize that the child is close to dropping the nap altogether. He sleeps 12 hours at night, so he might not need the nap anymore or his night sleep might need to be adjusted. A wise parent might allow the child to read a book or two in bed before going to sleep. A wise parent might remove the covers altogether to prevent the child from playing with them. A wise parent would realize that giving the child sugar before naptime is a bad idea. A wise parent would be on the lookout for defiant behavior at other times of the day. A wise parent does not give in to the child and let naptime be over just because the child doesn’t want to sleep. Naptime is naptime whether the child sleeps or not.

Here are some signs that you might be engaging in power struggles with your child:

  • You attempt to physically force your child to comply with your instructions.
  • You attempt to exert supreme authority in situations where the child has ultimate control (sleeping, eating, potty training).
  • You say and do the same thing again and again despite the fact that it doesn’t change the child’s behavior.
  • You make a big deal over a minor conflict.
  • You attempt to teach the child when he’s in the throes of a tantrum.
  • The child continues the behavior (and struggles with you) for more than 10 minutes.
  • You end up frustrated and in a sweat.
  • Your threats and punishments increase quickly and the behavior still doesn’t change.
  • You feel like you have lost the battle.

How do you avoid power struggles while still maintaining authority over your child? Wise parenting looks like this:

  • You rely on non-conflict training to teach him what is expected. You teach him clearly and thoroughly before you are in the heat of the moment.
  • You ask your child to tell you what is expected of him. (This is called dialogue questioning.)
  • You consider the context of the situation.
  • You consider the characterization of the child.
  • You watch out for defiant behaviors at other times of the day and potentially reduce his freedoms.
  • You walk away and ignore the child when he attempts to engage you in a power struggle.
  • You remove any sources of contention, where possible.
  • You remove the child from the situation, where possible.
  • You pay attention to your own emotions and simply walk away if you feel yourself getting angry.

So are you a wise parent or a power parent? Be on the lookout for possible power struggles throughout your day and carefully consider how a wise parent might react to the situation.

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