We have all met the perennial cheerleaders for the School of Hard Knocks—individuals for whom pain and suffering are the key ingredients to building character. You may be one of them. But intentionally allowing a child to suffer heartache and disappointment would be offensive. And ultimately, building character involves much more than that. So what factors are critical for building character in our children?
By definition, character is a complex accumulation of attributes that distinguish a person or a group of people. One’s character is an individual’s deepest reservoir of strength—the dynamic core of convictions, emotions, and behaviors that defines each person. One author wrote, “Nothing about my being is more me than my character. [Character] provides content for the word I.”*
Unfortunately the correct definition can lead to the incorrect conviction that we have the power within our- selves to form our own characters. We don’t. Character is shaped entirely by external influences. We are forced to rely on others to enter the data that will provide us with our identity and begin forming (or informing) our character. For better or worse, we are who we are because of the people around us. The implication for the importance of careful parenting is obvious.
What does character look like?
The Bible describes somewhere between 40 and 50 character traits (integrity, ambition, courage, chastity, diligence, patience, loyalty, reverence, etc.). Secular virtues are nearly identical to the biblical list. A well-grounded secular character looks and sounds very similar to the words and actions of good Christian character. It’s the heart’s motivation that makes the difference. It’s the connection to faith.
Well-grounded character is always anchored (or attached) to something bigger than the individual. The attachment can be to a physical community (a town or city), a social community (an association, club, or network), a cultural or ethnic community, a religious community, the community of family, or the community of people we associate with daily at school or on the job. The individual character grows from the foundation of the values and beliefs of that community.
Most of us have the mistaken notion that the character of a mature adult is etched in stone. Not so. Our character is constantly changing. In nuanced ways even elderly folks continue to be shaped and reshaped. The formation of a child’s character, on the other hand, is dramatic and profound. During their early lives children are like giant sponges, absorbing a flood of virtues that are being randomly passed on to them from the most influential people in their young lives. For boys this occurs until age 9 or 10; for girls the accumulation of this mixed bag is usually completed a year or two earlier.
In early adolescence young people begin validating or discarding the virtues that shape their characters. This sorting phase often continues for many years as young adults begin to organize their adopted virtues into a hierarchy that will help them make wise decisions as adults.
Within the community of believers, the pages of Scripture spell out what good character looks like. In nonnegotiable language God summarized his will in ten clearly stated commandments. God’s people have a distinct advantage over secular communities because the standard for shaping Christian character is absolute. God ordained it. Because we are still sinful creatures, we cannot achieve absolute perfection. God’s Son accomplished that for us. But, like Jesus, our approach to living a life of noble character begins with humble submission and selfless sacrifice; we serve others because Jesus gave up his throne in heaven to serve us.
Reaching for the highest goal
In an awkward two-steps-forward- one-step-backward process, one’s character is constantly growing. The Old Testament metaphor of the journey describes the process well. We read, for example, of the people of Israel wandering in the wilderness for 40 years before entering the Promised Land. Their journey was an on-again, off-again relationship with God. And yes, the Lord did use these years of pain and heartache to shape the character of an entire nation. In the New Testament, Jesus talked about building one’s house on a foundation of solid rock in preparation for the inevitable hurricanes of life. The words and promises found within the pages of Scripture provide the blueprint for character building. Character grows as a person learns to view life in the context of God’s grace.
Identity and performance
When stepping into a roomful of strangers, one’s first instinct is to look for a friendly face and strike up a conversation: “So tell me something about yourself; what do you do?” The stranger’s response is likely to reveal two things: who he is (I am an American; I am a man of God) and what he does (I am a welder; I am an engineer).
When it comes to character formation, knowing the distinction between identity and performance and placing the emphasis in the right place makes all the difference in the world.
Who I am (identity) and what I do (performance) are both important. But in terms of character, performance must always give way to identity. In other words, to be a man or woman of good Christian character, who I am must be dominant over what I do.
In training children, most parents tend to overlook identity and skip right to performance. We assume that our kids already know who they are. So we reward the things they do with ribbons and marks on a report card, with approving smiles and hugs, with trophies and trips to the ice-cream parlor. We do this because we live in a world that is driven by performance. But we also do it at the risk of undermining our child’s identity.
Children who grow up believing that what they do is their identity are missing the most important component of good character: their understanding of self.
Before a child can do, he or she must be.
Dear parent, celebrate your child’s being. Help your children understand: “I am a forgiven child of God” trumps “I do well in math or science” or “I sing better than others.” Teach your child: “I am a godly boy (girl)” is more important than getting recognition for my ability as an artist or an athlete. Explain to your child: “I am a member of God’s family” rises above “I try to be a good person.” The things our children do in life will reflect good character only if they first know who they are.
- “Character and the Christian Life: A Study in Theological Ethics,” Stanley Hauerwas, 1975.
Kenneth Kremer is a former elementary school principal, counselor, and family ministry editor. In that capacity he was instrumental in the development of Parents Crosslink. Kenn and his wife, Marlis, continue to serve the Lord in retirement in Appleton, Wisconsin.