For July I am working with my kids on character development. The idea that entitlement impedes building quality character weighs heavily on my mind - you might have noticed I wrote an additional section about this that portrays why I think the two are connected.
I should start by saying that I do not expect that one month’s worth of work will solve my kids biggest character flaws. I see this month's experiment more as a “launching pad.”
My kids aren’t the greatest in exhibiting noble character. My kids are 11, 7 and 2 years old. I often look at them (well, at least the older two) and feel that I have failed them in this area. This may be due to having a negative temperament and always seeing the flawed side of things. In reality, I am not a perfect parent and my kids are not little angels. But praise God for grace, and the ability to learn from mistakes. Thank God as well for the Body of Christ and how there is freedom to admit where you screwed up and learn from others who have been through similar situations.
Kids should have an opportunity to learn a number of good character traits by living through life’s natural course of events. Oscar Wilde once said "I forgot that every little action of the common day makes or unmakes character." Situations arise daily where a child can learn things like kindness, patience and self-control. The tendency in our culture, however, is to rescue them from any situation that may be difficult. Your kid doesn’t like a particular food/sport/task? Then you quit or move on to something they like or for which they show more “talent” (lost opportunity for perseverance). Your child always wants a candy bar at the store? You tell them “yes” because telling them “no” results in temper tantrums (lost opportunity for self-control). Our entitled culture subscribes to the motto “My Happiness Now!”, which chokes out many character building opportunities.
Throughout the years I have talked to my kids about these attributes in general, and they have been taught to them in children’s bible studies as well. Years ago, when I was in charge of the children’s program, I even wrote a 10 week curriculum series on the Fruits of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, patience, etc.) based upon Galatians 5:22-23 that our church ended up using for its summer program. But as with most things, you hear (or teach) it once and there is little to no follow-up. It either grows cobwebs in your brain or is lost altogether. I wanted to do something that would stick, but not be too “preachy” and would be interactive with its application.
First, I chose character traits that I felt my kids, due to entitlement, struggled with the most. My oldest two are opposite in temperament, and they struggle in different areas, so they didn’t have the same character weaknesses that need to be worked on. It wasn’t easy, but I eventually narrowed it down to these five: Perseverance, Patience, Compassion, Gratitude and Forgiveness.
One of the first things I did was create a discussion sheet for each trait. I didn’t want it to be overwhelming, so in big print on one piece of paper I defined the character trait, listed its synonyms, and then a corresponding bible verse. We spent time discussing what the trait means, what it doesn’t mean, how entitlement makes you do the opposite, and the biblical perspective. We tacked this up on their corkboard that lists their daily responsibilities so it would be seen each day. Then at night we spent some time discussing how they exhibited (or not exhibited) that character for that day. We also memorized the bible verse.
I wasn’t at my computer very often this month, due to being out of town, so I didn’t take notes each week as I did with our other monthly experiments. I did capture some of the highlights though:
COMPASSION: We started with this trait, and discussed synonyms like being altruistic, unselfish and showing kindness. At the end of the day, the kids told us the ways in which they showed compassion and to whom they showed compassion. We read examples of how Jesus showed compassion. We talked about how feeling entitled to stuff places the focus on yourself and not other people. The kids learned their memory verse, which was Philippians 2:3,4: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.” I also took them to a homeless shelter where they served kids in need by helping them make a craft, teaching them to play a game and serving them food they made. I think they responded really well to this experience and as a side benefit, they expressed more gratitude for what they do have.
PERSEVERANCE: One reoccurring conversation that we had regarding perseverance (and endurance) was how learning this now will help them in so many areas as they grow older. It will help them in school, at a job, with their friendships, in their spiritual walk, and when difficult times come in their life. We built in some tasks that were extra difficult that they had to see all the way through. They didn’t like “practicing” very much, but I think they grasped some if its importance because they pushed through. We used the verse from Ecclesiastes 7:8 to memorize, which is “Finishing is better than starting. Patience is better than pride.” For two days Meagan misunderstood and kept saying “Fishing is better than starving.”
PATIENCE: The third week we kept the same memory verse, since the last half of Ecclesiastes 7:8 deals with patience. But we also supplemented with a few other verses as well. Fortunately we have had many opportunities to practice this throughout the years, so we focused on areas and circumstances in which they still have difficulties being patient.
GRATITUDE: Our memory verse this week was Ephesians 5:20:“Always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of Jesus.” There are so many great verses on thanks and gratitude, but I liked this one because it talks about the source for everything we have – God. Over the years, as we pray with our kids, this is one of the easier things for them to say in their prayers, such as thanking God for a home, friends and food. It is a really good basis from which to start. We talked about how entitlement robs us of being grateful, and why that is bad. One exercise we did was “gratitude walks,” where we went somewhere and thought about how we can be grateful for what we simply saw around us (and how we took it for granted).
FORGIVENESS: I had to throw this in the group mostly because I see bitterness in a lot of people today, and how it ruins their relationships. One thing underscoring bitterness is the idea that you are entitled to being treated a certain way and when you are wronged, you can’t let it go. That person isn’t worthy of your “forgiveness,” for whatever reason - it will let them off the hook, they need to show penance first, etc. Then you have no ability to truly love the person, and it comes across in how you treat them. I see in my two older girls how their lack of forgiving the other is damaging their long-term relationship. So we started off this week by explaining this verse: “Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.” (Colossians 3:13). Christ forgave them for all their horribleness, which is way more appalling than what they are doing to each other, so they should do the same. Without any surprise, they each had multiple opportunities to practice this!
This was a great experiment. It was really great to be mindful of these character traits and spend time understanding what they are. It even helped mom and dad! The best part was when life experiences came up where we had to take the character trait we were focusing on and actually put it into practice.
Postscript: For the rest of the summer we continued to work on the character traits, and I think some of it sunk in!