Character. What does it mean? Well, it’s hard to say. I looked at five different dictionary sources and none of them had an exact definition for character beyond the personal traits that make up someone. Wishy-washy. So, I’m going to give a go on defining character.
Character is the moral traits a person should exhibit to be considered trustworthy, honorable, and courageous. I might also throw in the ability to empathize, show kindness to people of different circumstances, and generosity.
Is that beginning to sound unrealistic? It shouldn’t. There was a time in history where a person considered their character to be more important than anything else they owned or accomplished. We might call it reputation today, but it goes so much further. Character is who you are at home in the middle of the night when no one but your dog or cat is watching. Reputation is often a façade you show the world that you may polish to look shinier than reality.
As a parent, I am dedicated to building character in my children. I care more about character than about school. For instance, my daughter cheated on a test one year. She was behind in the class and overwhelmed with the amount of material she was trying desperately to comprehend. She caved and slipped the teacher’s manual open to copy some of the answers. Thankfully, she’s not very good at lying, and her indiscretion was obvious. Her teacher wrote me a note, and I confronted her. She fully confessed, feeling horrible about the failure. I had her go to the teacher, confess, and apologize. I also realized how much she was struggling, and we decided she would repeat the subject. I did not berate her for this one failure, but we approached the subject with far more care and accountability the second time.
When I explain the circumstances that led to her failure, I’m not excusing her behavior. The best way to help a child develop character is to understand the situation in which they’re failing and meet that circumstance head on. Don’t ignore it. Don’t excuse it. Work through it with the child and help build this area of their character so the failure isn’t repeated. In fact, failures are an important tool to building character. Knowing intellectually that lying is wrong doesn’t offer the same gravity that experience of getting caught in a lie does.
What are some ways we, as parents, can focus on building character in our children? First, start early. Second, be consistent. Third, never give up.
I don’t know all there is to know about character or about building it in my children. But here is what I do know.
Eleven Reasons Why Building Character Is Important for Kids
1. Kids aren’t born with character.
Did you ever see a baby go to sleep early just to make it more convenient for his parents? No? Me, neither. Babies are great little bundles of snuggles, but they don’t know the first thing about manners or kindness.
2. Kids are born knowing how to lie, manipulate, and be selfish.
Once I asked my 2 year old who ate the last cookie, and she immediately pointed to her infant sister who couldn’t even stand up.
My first daughter walked at 13 months. My youngest walked somewhere around 16 months. Why expend the energy when you have four maids to do your bidding?
My first daughter’s first words were Mama and Dada. All my subsequent children’s first words were NO and MINE. Mama and Dada were less important when faced with playtime ownership.
3. Honey attracts more flies than vinegar.
Okay, so I don’t want flies on my kids, but you know what the old saying means. People like nice people, not sour ones. Even young children can learn basic manners. “Yes m’am,” instead of “whatever.” “Please” instead of “give it here.”
4. Old habits are hard to break.
Have you ever moved your trash can and then mindlessly thrown trash at the old location? Some “experts” say it takes about 21 days to learn a new habit. That’s a lot of trash on the floor. Kids are no different. Once they get accustomed to having their own way, it’s hard to harness them. Half-truths become whole lies. Bad attitudes become outright rebellion.
5. Your kids are going to grow up.
It’s a fact that children grow into adults. Unless you want them living with you for the next 50 years, they need to be gainfully employed throughout their adult lives. How many employers do you know that want to hire slackers? Not many.
6. Your kids are going to have kids.
Character is the ultimate legacy you can leave your kids and their kids.
7. Life can be tough. Character may be all they have left.
No one can guarantee an easy life. Bad things happen, but good character will not fail. In fact, it may be all your kids have left to see them through tough times. During the Great Depression of the 1920s, many people lost their jobs and homes. Some committed suicide or turned to lives of crime. The true survivors picked up the pieces to build new lives.
8. People like to help people who are honest and kind.
“Extreme Makeover, Home Edition” was a good example of people helping people who help people. They pick their families based on need and community involvement. Not all have turned out to be as deserving as they seemed, but most serve above and beyond what they have and often live in deplorable conditions to do so. I’m not saying someone’s going to build you a mansion because you were the Boy Scout leader for 30 years, but generosity begets generosity.
9. Our country needs a revival of character.
There was a time when a man’s word and a strong handshake was all people used to strike a deal. Now, it takes a team of lawyers, hours of mediation, and thousands of dollars to agree on the most basic of contracts. Scandal has become synonymous with big business and politicians. Infidelity and divorce are common, even promoted on television and in movies. Our country was built by men and women who worked hard and believed in the ability of the citizens to govern themselves. Unless we regain a similar character mind-set, we will continue our downward spiral and be a mere blip in history one day.
10. Doing the right thing never goes out of style.
The length of skirts changes with the breeze, but character is timeless. Telling the truth, returning lost items, helping neighbors, sharing extras. Does anyone ever get tired of that?
11. Character is not a virus. You don’t “catch it.”
Finally, character is generally not contagious. Sure, kids need to see it in action to really understand how it works, but they also need to be trained in what it means and why it’s important. Don’t leave character training to the television or Sunday School teachers. Do it yourself. Get involved and plan discussions and activities based around character qualities you want to develop in your children. You won’t regret it, and your children will reap a lifetime of benefit.
What is your favorite character trait and how do you help your kids develop it? Share your advice in the comments.