Focus on the Family

Teaching Character to Your Kids

by Shana Schutte

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?

Remember little eyes are watching, so model by example

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."

Examine your beliefs because they determine your behavior

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.

Remember there are no perfect parents

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.

Television: An Obstacle to Building Character

Is the do-as-I-say-not-as-the-TV-character-does approach to parenting working for you? Here's why it probably isn't.

by Shana Schutte

Remember the last time you had a babysitter watch your children? Imagine if the sitter told your kids sexual jokes, taught them how to steal a car and murder someone with a revolver? Would you want this sitter to stay with your kids again?

Absolutely not. Why? Because you want your children to develop godly character.

Unfortunately, many parents never consider that the television is like an evil babysitter with a corrupting influence that can be a big obstacle in building godly character in their kids.

Television corrupts through "cool"

Imagine your confusion if you were five again and your mom said, "Don't hit anyone," then allowed you to watch a daily TV program during which people pummeled each other. If you want your parenting job to be easier, don't send contrary messages to your kids by allowing them to watch ungodly programming. And if your kids do see something you disagree with, use it as a teachable moment about what not to do. Otherwise, it can keep them from developing the kind of character you desire.

If you believe your kids won't be affected by television's messages because they know you mean business about not hitting, taking drugs and other ungodly behavior, think again. The fact is, if your kids think what's on TV is "cool?" It may drown out your voice of correction.

During the late 80s, as a preschool teacher, I was like many parents; one of my main goals (and that of the other preschool staff) was to keep the students safe and teach them how to be kind.

Unfortunately, no matter how noble our aim, our collective voice of correction was drowned out by some green television turtles. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (affectionately called "Heroes in a Half Shell") beat up bad guys with karate chops while shouting, ""Cowabunga!" Not surprisingly, many kids picked up on this dangerous and unkind behavior and emulated it, no matter what I, or any other teacher said against it. Why? Because as one little boy said, "But, Ms. Schutte, they're [the Turtles] cool."

My experience with the turtle troupe reminded me that kids learn by example and that "cool" can be a huge motivator for gravitating toward wrong behavior.

Television corrupts by promoting a lack of compassion

Today it seems that many kids don't know it's not OK to hit someone, call them names, run them over with a bicycle — or even kill them.

According to researchers of a 17-year longitudinal study published in the journal Science, television may "desensitize viewers," especially if the violence is shown without consequence.

Shankar Weantam, The Washington Post, March 29, 2002, p. A01.
It makes sense that kids would assume it's OK to do unto others what you would not want done unto you. Even movies applaud violent villains who are rewarded for bad behavior.

A lack of compassion isn't perpetuated by TV alone, however. Remember the iPod your kid is carrying? You might want to know what he's playing on it. The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, reports that violent song lyrics can cause a [negative] change in behavior and that sexually explicit music can desensitize children to violence and promote sexual stereotyping.

Susan Villani, M.D., "Impact of Media on Children and Adolescents: A 10-Year Review of the Research," Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychology, Vol. 40, No. 4 (April 2001), pp. 392-401.

Television corrupts by stealing character-building time

During my youth, my father had a love affair with television; so in the evenings, he usually watched the sports channel. Because I longed to spend time with my Dad, I often approached him timidly while he sat on his "arm chair throne." Then I'd ask a question and wait for his eyes to meet mine.

Only they rarely did.

Instead, he'd mumble an answer to my inquiry without looking up. Sadly, I knew what Dad meant, even if he never said it: You're not important to me.

So I'd slink away as quietly as I had come—until the next time when I'd try to connect with my father.

Oh! How I regret the character-building time I didn't get to spend with Dad. He never taught me how to say "no" to a request for sex, deal with rejection from a peer, or how to pray and seek God, because television stole my father's time.

Thankfully, other Christ-followers pointed me to God's wisdom and ways, but there's still no denying it—no one can teach a child godly character like their parent.

If you spend time in front of the TV (or with any other technology), it's your responsibility to put your children and spouse first. And, if your child is spending too much time with television — it's your responsibility to monitor their use so you can be the greatest character influence in your child's life.

You might be thinking, Wait a minute! Yes, we watch a lot of television at home, but we watch it together. My question is this: How much time do you spend in meaningful communication with your child? If the TV is doing more teaching than you are (and your child is watching the national average of 4 hours of television per day, whether it's with you or not), there is a good chance that Hollywood is having more say in the character development of your children then you'd like.

In his book, The Literacy Hoax, Paul Copperman writes: "Consider what a child misses during the 15,000 hours (from birth to age 17) he spends in front of the TV screen. He is not working in the garage with his father, or in the garden with his mother. He is not doing homework, or reading, or collecting stamps. He is not cleaning his room, washing the supper dishes or cutting the lawn. He is not listening to a discussion about community politics among his parents and their friends. He is not playing baseball or going fishing or painting pictures. Exactly what does television offer that is so valuable it can replace these activities, which help to transform an impulsive, self-absorbed child into a critically-thinking adult?"

What character-building activities is your child missing when TV is taking up too much time in your home? And what will you do about it?

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