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Helping Your Child Grow in Character

The psalmist says, “Behold, children are a gift of the Lord. The fruit of the womb is a reward” (Ps 127:3). Children are precious! By “responsible parenting” we mean parenting that takes the responsibility to guide and direct one’s children seriously through the entire parenting cycle. So, our focus is not so much on calling some parents out for being blatantly irresponsible—even though we are concerned that children often suffer from parental neglect or insufficient involvement—but rather on taking one’s responsibility for guiding one’s children seriously, especially during the teenage years. Responsible parenting accepts the responsibility to lead and develop our children in the way they should go morally, relationally, and vocationally.

Probably all of us would affirm that character formation is critical in our child’s development, but why is it that character often gets lost in the shuffle?

Andreas: There are several reasons, I think. One is that character is hard to build and hard to measure. It’s a lot easier to measure winning on a sports team or getting good grades. Also, character doesn’t always seem to get you ahead in this life. Sometimes, cheating does; our culture doesn’t always reward scrupulous honesty. Also, character is often not what’s most popular among peers. The world prizes success and popularity over character. Too often we’re taught, or at least implicitly encouraged, to cut corners, to assert ourselves, to step over others to get ahead, and to use others to our own advantage. All this is to say, American culture doesn’t necessarily reward character.

Margaret: When it comes to parenting, I’d say that focusing consistently on developing character in our children takes a lot more devotion, prayer, and overall commitment than chauffeuring them to games or recitals or to dropping them off at school or checking their quarterly grade reports. A focus on character requires parents to be consistent and to be present with their children—that they truly care deeply for them. Trust in the Lord and his work in their lives but also do your part to work hard at building character and integrity in each of their children. Responsible parenting is grounded in relational parenting, as you can see! Character is not achieved overnight or accidentally. It is the fruit of patient, continual instruction over many years.

What are some virtues we should try to instill in our children as they grow up, and how can we practically do that?

Margaret: We have a lengthy list of virtues in our book! We recognize that once a child receives the Lord as their Savior, the direction of their life will hopefully turn toward growing in godliness. Even before salvation, we can introduce them to a lifestyle of faithfulness and a biblical worldview. We can set the atmosphere in the home, cultivate the soil, and ready them for their own personal pursuit of the Lord and righteousness. They can be set on the path of forming habits that can stay with them for the rest of their lives.

We recognize that Scripture encourages us to add virtues to our faith, so we want to set children on this same path. One important virtue to encourage in our child is diligence. We desire to help our children, even when they are young to just finish what they started. Encourage them and keep them accountable to do all their homework, to practice their instruments, and to persevere in accomplishing tasks they are assigned, even when they get tired or bored of them and want to give up. As part of diligence, in essence we are helping them develop a solid work ethic. Most things worth achieving require commitment and diligent work alongside a clear dependence God.

Andreas: Another often overlooked character trait is humility. I once wrote a dictionary entry on humility and did some research on humility in the ancient world. What I found out was that humility is a distinctive Christian virtue not generally prized in the general culture. In other words, our culture doesn’t think being humble is a good thing! Often the world tells us that we should flaunt our achievements, be self-promoting, and compile an impressive resume. But Jesus taught that humility is a distinctive mark of those who follow Christ.

Margaret: A third and (for now) final virtue is that of discernment. As we already mentioned, we consider it to be one of our primary goals as parents to help our children develop skills in making good decisions in every area of life. Like other character traits, discernment is not developed in an instant. Rather, as parents we can build discernment in our children by mentoring them in the truths of Scripture, by engaging them in continual discussion about various challenges they encounter and helping develop a love for the Lord and wisdom from his Word. We can advise them in relationships, we can counsel them in a variety of decisions they must make, etc.

How can we help our children learn to make good decisions?

Andreas: One of the most important goals in parenting is equipping our children to make good, God-honoring decisions, which takes wisdom and discernment. We recommend asking the following questions (and elaborate on this in some detail in our book):

  • Why do I want to do this? In other words, what are my motives? And what am I trying to achieve? Asking this question can be very helpful, as it may reveal that we have improper motives, or at least mixed motives. In such cases, we can address a given decision we are called to make on the level of motivation or desired goals and outcomes.
  • What will happen if I do this? Again, the question seems obvious, but the problem is, our children don’t always think ahead! The proverbial fool fails to pause to consider what the consequences of his actions will be. Often, there will be negative consequences attached to a decision we make and considering this may cause our children to reconsider.
  • What are my alternatives? This calls for the tried-and-true pro-and-con list. What are the pros, and what are the cons, of a contemplated course of action? Often weighing advantages and disadvantages will help our children realize what will be the best decision.
  • What do people I trust recommend? Just the other day, our son called both of us, one at a time, to see what we suggested he do in a given matter. Without knowing what the other person said, we gave him very similar advice. In the end, our son was able to take our pieces of advice and to make an informed decision.

Asking these kinds of questions before deciding can help our children anticipate negative consequences of decisions, weigh alternatives, and seek the counsel of others.

You say we should foster humility in our children, but what about parents proudly parading their children’s accomplishments on social media? Isn’t there a bit of a tension here?

Margaret: Most of us parade our children’s successes but don’t ever talk about weaknesses. We project a perfect image but may not realize that we make others feel bad or provoke them to jealousy. Our use of social media is important—to be careful to model humility before our children, restraint in a social media display of family, which will hopefully also help them to be wise in their own restraint and practice of humility. Parents often post “humble brags” about their children—and probably we have been those parents ourselves.

Within this idea of humility, we also value privacy, the ability to work out our own lives with our children in the presence of each other and with our Lord. The meddling of other uninvited and unwelcome influences, such as “friends” on social media, can creep into the mix, causing tension between the child and the parent—out of the desire to impress the friend, or to go along with what everyone else is doing, jealousy and pride can arise. The decisions we make as a family may be particularly unique as we try to follow closely with the Lord in our parenting as well as counter-cultural, and we value privacy in order to be able to work our parenting out without these unnecessary temptations on our children.

Social media presents us with special challenges and opportunities (some would say mostly challenges!). How do you recommend we deal with cell phones and social media in the lives of our teenagers?

Margaret: In addition to what we said about social media earlier, let me say that that social media is one primary way in which character, specifically self-control, is revealed. Social media is an issue for parents as well as children, so parents need to address this matter first for themselves. Certainly, social media can be a tremendous time-waster and drain on our productivity. Parental guidance is crucial—the earlier the better. The preteen years can be the most receptive of a child’s development when they’re old enough to understand many of the issues but are not yet anywhere near the point of independence. So, begin talking about issues such as these and consider the preteen years a key time of modeling before your children how to handle social media and technology.

Personally, we don’t recommend that young teenagers use social media very much at all, though every parent needs to make their own decision. Regarding phone use, be aware that even though you have restrictions on your phone, if you haven’t restricted app usage and downloading of apps, you may have made available access to many venues without realizing it. There are often games, links to the app store, and other ways to connect with people of which you may not be aware your children are connecting with. So, without intending to or realizing it, you may open your child to a variety of social and cultural influences. Therefore, make sure your children have the wisdom and self-control to handle the responsibility that comes with smart phone usage and social media.

Note: Equipping for Life: A Guide for New, Aspiring & Struggling Parents by Andreas and Margaret Köstenberger is available for purchase on Amazon and in the UK at Christian Focus Publications.

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