How to Encourage Your Kids to Do What’s Right

Illustration of a winding road with cars and pedestrians. Several stops on the path show areas of hard work, self-control and honesty
Rebecca Gibbons

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   Listen to a broadcast about managing your digital habits with Arlene Pellicane.

"Are we there yet?"

Imagine driving with your family on a long road trip without having directions of any sort. No GPS, no familiarity with the route, not even a friendly tip to get you started on the right road. I daresay it would be a journey to remember — but for all the wrong reasons!

I wonder how often we try something similar in our parenting. We have a goal in mind — a destination — to raise kids of integrity and character. We may talk about that destination, looking forward to it, but do we equip our kids with the directions they need to get there? Children don't usually drift into a life of godliness and character by chance. We live in a world where wrong is right and right is old-fashioned. Celebrity status ranks higher than character, hype over hard work. But we can still raise future adults who value character and integrity, who will be honest and morally upright. Here are five keys to making that happen:

Offer a guiding voice

One day I heard my 8-year-old daughter, Lucy, singing, but something was off — the lyrics stopped me in my tracks. It was a pop song she had heard at school. From time to time, her teacher plays a music video for the kids to get their wiggles out. But this song was hardly appropriate for third grade.

We had a talk about the importance of good lyrics and about choosing entertainment that didn't promote unhealthy messages. Lucy admitted that she'd felt uncomfortable with the song, but that it was one of those tunes that had gotten stuck in her head. I was proud of her when she agreed that the song had a poor message and that she needed to stop singing it. And I was also happy that Lucy's teacher responded positively when I emailed her with my concerns.

What would have happened if I had never talked with Lucy about the situation? She might have kept on singing that song, perhaps to a point where suggestive or explicit lyrics no longer troubled her. Here, she needed my intervention to understand how the secular world's entertainment often runs against the ways of God.

As parents, we are faced with such scenarios almost every day: Do we keep quiet about the little decisions kids are making that can, over time, weaken their integrity? Or do we chime in when we observe something that can compromise character in our child's life?

Just as we listen to the voice on our GPS to know whether to turn, our children need to hear our guiding voice above the noise of an immoral culture.

Give a good name

Every time I walk through a clothing store I am amazed at the T-shirt messages sold to parents. They either give kids a grandiose sense of self or they applaud sloth or defiance. Can you imagine your grandmother as a little girl wearing a hoodie declaring "I'm the Boss"? Or your grandpa's T-shirt declaring "Homework Kills My Vibe"?

You couldn't pay me to get my middle schooler Ethan to wear "I'm Lazy and I'm OK With It." If I could, I'd buy clothing with the opposite message: "I'm Hard Working. You Can Count on Me."

Give your children a good name to live up to, a destination they can point their life toward. Describe your kids as responsible, kind, honest, strong, courageous, humble and self-controlled. Let your children occasionally overhear you praising their character to others. Then, help your kids connect integrity with their everyday decisions. In conversation with your kids, weave in positive and hope-filled expectations. You might say things like:

"As a faithful friend, what is the right thing to do?"

"I know you make wise choices. What would be the best choice in this situation?"

"You are honest. I'm so grateful I can trust you."

What if your children aren't doing anything particularly praiseworthy at the moment? Affirm their character anyway. When children observe your belief in their potential, they are better equipped to put effort into possessing these virtues you value.

Win over technology

I often ask parents of teens and young adults a question: "What is one thing you wish you would have done differently in parenting?" The consistency of their responses is worth notice: Ten out of 10 times, these parents' answers involve technology. The single most common answer these days is "I should have taken away the phone at night."

Personal technology is amazingly effective at eroding self-control, a foundational element of good character. The screen-driven world often pushes a child's willpower to the breaking point. Brilliant minds in the tech industry strive to design irresistible, addictive video games and social media sites. Experts estimate that the average young person will spend more than 10,000 hours consuming digital media by the time he or she reaches 21.

Technology erodes self-control by making life incredibly easy. Your daughter doesn't have to wait for a favorite TV show to air — she can watch the whole series at her convenience, without an opportunity to develop patience. Your son can ask Siri for a quick answer instead of doing more in-depth research at the library. Constant amusement is at their fingertips. A child's brain grows accustomed to this instant gratification. Yet making wise choices in life is rarely this quick or easy.

It's difficult for a teen boy to make the best moral choice when a classmate texts a pornographic photo in the middle of the night. As the parent, you must help your child by limiting and guiding his use of technology. Collect your child's phone and other devices at night, every night. You can be assured that nothing morally upright is happening on that phone after 10 p.m. #BibleStudy is not popping up in his feed at 3 a.m.

Don't be afraid to be the mean parent, the "only" parent who won't buy the smartphone and allow social media or violent video games. Children grow deeper in their moral character when they are not constantly influenced by immorality. Most of the loud voices on social media, in Hollywood and in the music world aren't voices we want our children to follow.

Honor honesty

No one has a perfect record of righteousness, except Jesus. So when your children make mistakes, they need to know they can safely talk to their parents. Nurture this open-door atmosphere in your home. If your child unloads some dark secret, decide in advance that you will not go ballistic.

A teacher emailed me recently, telling me that my daughter had forged my signature on a permission slip. The problem wasn't so much in the forgery. My daughter knew I'd said the activity was OK. But the slip was due, and she'd forgotten to have me sign it. So she signed it.

The problem arose when the teacher asked her, "Did your mother sign this?" My daughter lied and said "yes." There were tears of repentance that night and a long apology written to the teacher to regain trust.

Months later, my daughter said she appreciated that I didn't overreact about that incident. She said that many of her friends avoided telling their parents certain things because they knew their parents would get angry. My daughter experienced reconciliation through her confession, and it made her honesty rewarding. It's likely when the next character test comes, she'll want to talk about it.

When we calmly listen to our children's confessions and then dole out fair consequences, it makes all the difference in the world. Strong character flourishes in an environment where it's safe to confess.

Ask the big question

When God appeared to King Solomon in a dream and invited him to ask for anything he wanted, Solomon asked for wisdom to discern between good and evil (1 Kings 3:9). This answer pleased the Lord, and it provides a simple moral guide for children.

We can train our children to ask this question when faced with a choice: What is the wise thing for me to do? If a child's friend asks him for a few answers on an exam, train your child to immediately think, What is the wise thing for me to do? (The wise thing would be to cover your paper so you don't get in trouble for cheating!)

Let's raise our kids to lead the way in a crooked and lost society. Let them hear your loving voice guiding them to make choices that do not conform to this world (Romans 12:2). Our society desperately needs kids who will become future adults with moral strength and integrity. As we train our kids to make moral choices, it will change the direction of their lives for the better.

Arlene Pellicane is a speaker and the author of Parents Rising: 8 strategies for raising kids who love God, respect authority, and value what's right.
This article first appeared in the December 2018/January 2019 issue of Focus on the Family magazine and was originally titled "The Road to Character." If you enjoyed this article, read more like it in Focus on the Family's marriage and parenting magazine. Get this publication delivered to your home by subscribing to it for a gift of any amount.
© 2018 by Arlene Pellicane. Used by permission.

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