Parents: Start With Character

Arlene Pellicane
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Legendary basketball coach John Wooden said, “Be more concerned with your character than your reputation, because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are.” Kids can easily place more emphasis on appearance and reputation especially because of social media. As a parent, you must continually swing the pendulum back to character. Your child’s future success rises and falls on character. Is your child trustworthy? Is your child grateful and good? Does your child work hard? What is your child like when no one is watching?

“Character is often forged in the heat of adversity.”

Years ago, James and I were blessed to hear the famous football coach Lou Holtz share his three rules of life at a conference:

Rule #1: Do the right thing.
Rule #2: Do everything to the best of your ability with the time allotted.
Rule #3: Show people you care.

We adapted these rules and applied them to our household, teaching our kids from a young age to practice these four core values:

R: Do what’s Right.
O: Do to Others as you would have done to yourself.
B: Do your Best.
S: Smile.

James created this acronym ROBS to remind us that when we do less than this, we rob God and others. I wrote in my journal about a hard day with Lucy when she was in second grade:

Lucy has been very negative and hard on herself lately. She’ll say things like, “I can’t do it” and “I’m the slowest.” She overreacts when provoked by a sibling. She took more than thirty minutes to finish her smoothie. I gave her an assignment as a result to write an essay completing the sentence, “Instead of getting angry or frustrated, I will . . . ” She cried many tears about this task and finally sat down with a piece of paper for about twenty minutes.

Here’s what she wrote (unedited):

Instead of getting angry or frustrated, I will be pacient. I will not get angry by using self-talk (talking to yourself). Also I could count down from 10. And I could take a deap breath.

Instead of getting angry, I will think of good thing not negitive things.

I was so proud of her discoveries. She couldn’t wait to read the letter to James. Look at her statements within the grid of our four character rules:

Do what’s right: It’s the right thing to learn to control your negative emotions.
Do to others: She will be less angry at family members.
Do your best: Being patient is giving your best.
Smile: I’ll think of good things and not negative things.

At bedtime that night, I told Lucy reading her letter was the highlight of my day. She said, “It’s easier to be cheerful when you have God in your heart. When you don’t have God in your heart, it’s not easy. You can choose to be happy, but it’s hard.” Isn’t that the truth? We have a distinct advantage as Christians: the Holy Spirit can help us do what we can’t do in our own strength.

We use our four rules to guide the rewards and consequences the kids receive. If they lie
about something, we go to the four rules and ask, “Which rule(s) did you break by lying?” Rewards work this way too. One of my favorites is when James hides cash under random objects that need attention. For example, each Friday we receive a community newspaper in the driveway. James put $5 under the newspaper, waiting to see who would pick up the paper and get the money. Ethan kicked the newspaper, which led to him finding the $5. We gave him the benefit of the doubt that he was actually going to pick up the paper after he kicked it! Cleaning up around the house, even when it’s not a job assigned to you, shows you care and that you’re doing your best and doing what’s right.

“Parents, let’s not fix everything.”

Character is often forged in the heat of adversity. When Ethan was in kindergarten, he broke his right leg and had to wear a cast for six weeks. The doctor assigned a wheelchair to keep Ethan comfortable, but James would have nothing to do with that. He knew Ethan needed exercise to quicken his healing. We left with crutches instead. When the cast came off, Ethan had to do physical therapy that was quite boring, repetitive, tedious, and difficult for a little boy. But we saw in the weeks that followed that the difficulties Ethan had to overcome with his leg had a positive effect in his life.

He had worked his self-discipline muscle for weeks. When it was time to sit down for homework, practice the piano, or respond to a disappointment, he was more patient and capable of adjusting. The physical pain and inconvenience of wearing a cast toughened him up in a good way. Dan Kindlon, a child psychologist and lecturer at Harvard, said,

It’s like the way our body’s immune system develops. You have to be exposed to pathogens, or your body won’t know how to respond to an attack. Kids also need exposure to discomfort, failure, and struggle. I know parents who call up the school to complain if their kid doesn’t get to be in the school play or make the cut for the baseball team. I know of one kid who said that he didn’t like another kid in the carpool, so instead of having their child learn to tolerate the other kid, they offered to drive him to school themselves. By the time they’re teenagers, they have no experience with hardship. Civilization is about adapting to less-than-perfect situations, yet parents often have this instantaneous reaction to unpleasantness, which is “I can fix this.”

Parents, let’s not fix everything. Instead, embrace failure, struggle, and hardship as very useful teachers in our children’s lives. This is not about uncaring parenting; it’s about parenting that cultivates character.

For Further Reading:

Parents Rising

by Arlene Pellicane

How to raise godly children in a godless world Do you feel like you’re fighting a losing battle? Against the culture, against the...

book cover for Parents Rising