Do you want your children to mature into young men and women whose integrity makes them shine like stars? Do you want your kids to have great character — but you don't know how to help them become all that both you (and God) desire?
When I was an elementary school teacher, I wanted my 2nd grade students to understand the connection between bad behavior and consequences. So rather than tell them, "If you have bad behavior, there will be consequences" (which they'd probably heard a million times) I thought I would tell a clever story instead. So I used a little analogy of planting seeds. "If you plant bad seeds, you are going to get weeds. If you plant good seeds, you'll get a good crop." Then, I said that it's the same way with doing the wrong thing — it's like planting bad seeds that will yield nasty weeds in our lives.
I had no idea if they understood what I'd said until the next week.
As I sped down the road on my way to school the following Monday, I battled inwardly. Yes, I know what the speed limit is in here, but I'm late and if I don't go fast, I won't get to school on time. I hoped no one would see me as I pushed the pedal to the medal.
Whooooo! Whoooooo! Whooooo! Bright police car lights flashed in my rearview mirror. My stomach muscles tightened. Ah, darn! Now I'm going to get a ticket and I'm really going to be late! After a few moments, I drove away with a little pink slip of paper inviting me to the courthouse.
How humilitating! I thought. I hope no one noticed.
Later that afternoon, when my 2nd grade art students filed into my classroom, there was no doubt that they understood the connection between planting bad seeds and consequences — and that they had seen me get a ticket. "Miss Schutte planted bad seeds! Miss Schutte planted bad seeds!" they chanted.
I was instantly reminded that character must be modeled and that even if we think no one notices that we're speeding, cheating on our tax returns, lying to someone on the phone, canceling an appointment when we shouldn't, calling in sick when we're really not, someone usually does notice — and those "someones" are often the little people in our lives.
In their book, How to Raise Totally Awesome Kids, Dr. Chuck Borsellino and his wife Jenni write, "Teach by example. Model what you desire. For our children to develop character and integrity, they must first see the integrity of our character."
When I was seven, my older sister and I heard a circus was coming to our little Southern Idaho town. We couldn't wait. When the big day arrived, we walked to the high school football field a half mile away, found a seat high on the bleachers and waited for the show to start. I don't remember anything about the circus — except for one terrifying incident.
Part way through the show, the animal trainers rolled out a large male gorilla in a cage. Then, one of the men carefully opened the enclosure to let the black beast out. I was fascinated. Just as I stretched my neck around the girl in front of me to see what he would do, the gorilla jumped over the chain-link fence and ran up the bleachers. Children shrieked and scattered as he ran straight for me. Wide-eyed and terrified, I darted away just in time. I didn't know what happened to my sister and I didn't care — I just wanted my mom. I'm also not sure how I got to the street below, but I do remember running as fast as I could all the way home.
In my early thirties the fright of my memory turned to hilarious laughter as I thought back on the incident and realized that the gorilla wasn't a gorilla at all — it was just a man in a gorilla suit.
This funny story reveals a profound truth: we will always act out what we believe. If we believe we'll fail at a job, we'll act accordingly; if we think God doesn't love us, our lives will reflect that lie; and if we think a gorilla is real, we'll scream and run all the way home.
So what does this have to do with modeling character to your kids? If we want to be a good example to our children, we've got to get our belief system right on the inside so that our "outside modeling behavior" can be effective. Otherwise, we'll be going around saying, "Do as I say, not as I do," and there isn't a kid alive who will respect that, or will want to learn from it. Remember, good character is caught more than it is taught. That means, as you live out godly character before your kids, they'll naturally get it more than if you just tell them what it's supposed to look like.
Here are some things you can do to help you live out Godly character in front of your kids:
Your kids will be glad you did.
Because I'm an idealist, I've often thought that I'll jump up and down and scream more than most when I get to heaven. My ideals will finally be realized. There will be perfect love, perfect peace, perfect joy, perfect provision and perfect people. However, until then, while we strive to teach our children character, we have to remember that there are no perfect people, and that means there aren't any perfect parents. Remembering this will help when you mess up and don't model character flawlessly. Be willing to humbly confess and ask forgiveness – from the child you've offended, as well as from God. A heart-felt admission and apology go a long way for a child's heart.
And even though there are no perfect parents, we do serve a perfect Heavenly Father, who is always willing to forgive, and to continue teaching us godly character while we pass it on to our kids.