Of all the words that characterize the life of Jesus — love, courage, obedience, grace, leadership — high on that list must be humility. The Son of God began His earthly life with a humble birth in a stable in the village of Bethlehem. He was raised in a humble little town called Nazareth. He owned no home, acquired few possessions and had no place of His own to rest His head at night. In fact, humble is how Jesus described His own character: “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:29, NIV).
Humility is one of the most desperately needed character traits. How can we develop this trait in our children? The first step is helping them have an understanding of what real humility is.
Humility, in its simplest sense, is the ability to consider others ahead of oneself. It has been said that a humble person doesn’t think less of himself; he simply thinks of himself less. Talk with your kids about what that may look like in daily life, how a genuinely humble person can be confident without being arrogant and can respect others while maintaining his self-respect. And a humble person’s self-esteem isn’t tied to what other people say about him. As Mother Teresa once put it: “If you are humble, nothing will touch you, neither praise nor disgrace, because you know what you are.”
As you study the Bible as a family, observe how humility is one of the most commended character traits in all of Scripture — and how it is an important part of our relationship with God. The prophet Micah wrote, “And what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8). Jesus often spoke of humility, saying that “whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted” (Matthew 23:12). Our Savior taught that our reliance on God — our humility before Him — should be the same as that of a little child (Matthew 18:4).
So many virtues flow from this quality called humility. Respectfulness, kindness, generosity, compassion, patience — humility includes all these qualities. A truly humble person will demonstrate these traits — and these traits contribute to one’s humility. If you are humble, you think of others, you empathize with others, you put their welfare and feelings ahead of yours. Here are a few ways we can help build this character trait in our kids:
Teach them to be servants
Jesus repeatedly taught this lesson to His disciples: “If anyone would be first, he must be the last of all and servant of all” (Mark 9:35). There’s no such thing as an arrogant servant; a servant is humble by definition. If kids learn to see themselves as servants of God and others, they will more naturally develop an attitude of humility.
Let your kids see and participate in service to your neighbors, to people in your church, to your family members. It’s never too early to start practicing this trait. Remember that you may be developing more than just a servant heart in your kids. As you step out and serve others, you are also teaching your children to build social skills, overcome shyness and develop confidence.
Encourage them to admit mistakes
Children can’t demonstrate humility if they can’t admit to being wrong — the ability to own mistakes is a key component of integrity. When our kids face criticism, they must learn to though ully consider that criticism instead of instantly defending themselves.
One way to encourage kids to admit mistakes is by showing mercy when they confess their sins and errors. Confession makes life easier than a cover-up or a lie. Kids who feel they can safely approach their parents with the truth are less likely to be dishonest and defensive.
We model this behavior by being able to admit our own errors. Some parents feel the need to keep up a front of perfection, as if admitting mistakes would diminish them in their children’s eyes. In reality, when we say to our kids, “I was wrong; please forgive me,” their respect for us increases.
Raise a team player
Part of humility is the ability to consider the needs and feelings of others. Children often don’t have this ability naturally — they need to be taught sensitivity to the feelings and needs of those around them. As parents, we can start developing empathy in our kids by creating an atmosphere of teamwork and cooperation in our homes. Practice recognizing how each family member contributes, how each member needs help. Encourage your children to approach school and church relationships with that same spirit of teamwork. Talk with them about how they can help a classmate who is struggling, how they might befriend someone who is unloved, how they might help bring out the best in others around them.
Encourage mature responses to accomplishments
When children perform well, it’s good for them to feel that warm joy that comes from a job well done. But let them know that arrogant or disrespectful behavior is not acceptable. Affirm signs of maturity, letting them know that you’ve noticed their character growth and the way they conducted themselves.
When kids excel in academics, sports or music, monitor their attitude. Be alert to signals that they feel superior or look down on others. Also, help them understand that people of great character continually acknowledge the achievements of others; only small-minded people engage in smack talk and put-downs.
Let your kids enjoy the feeling of a job well done, thanking God for His gifts of talent, strength and health, which make it possible for them to achieve their goals. We can’t take credit for a gift; we can only be grateful to the Giver.
Instill a teachable spirit
Our kids need to be willing learners. A humble person recognizes that no matter how much he thinks he knows, he can still improve. Whenever you teach your kids, be positive. If your kids come to know you as positive and encouraging, they will be more likely to listen and follow your instruction. If we expect too much of them, we undermine their confidence. Having a low self-esteem is not the same thing as having humility!
Lastly, as in much of parenting, it is critical that you model a teachable spirit. Let your kids see you looking for help through reading, listening or seeking direction from others. Our kids are watching every move we make. If they detect hypocrisy, they’ll begin to disregard what we say. Our children will become what we are — so we must start becoming what we want them to be.
Pat Williams is a motivational speaker, vice president of the NBA’s Orlando Magic and author of Leadership Excellence Devotional.