How To Teach Character Qualities To Your Children
Over the past decade (and a bit more) of homeschooling my children, I’ve had to wrestle through many questions. Questions like:
Am I teaching them the right things?
Which curriculum do I choose?
How can I make this topic come alive to my children?
Am I teaching them enough?
But one of the big questions that I’ve had to wrestle with on more than one occasion….okay, on a LOT of occasions is this:
How do I teach my children the intangible?
How do I not only teach them about certain character qualities that I want them to have in their lives, but how do I help them cultivate these character qualities in their life?
Tangible verses Intangible
Let’s face it, when it comes to deciding how to teach math to you child, you have some choices. You have multiple curriculum options you can choose from. You can even choose to create your own (although, not being a math person myself, that was never an option for me!).
The point is, when you set out to teach math, you know you’re going to teach math, right? You’re going to work with numbers, present the lesson to them, give your child practice problems to make sure they understand the concept you’re teaching them, and more than likely you’ll use some form of manipulative to help them understand.
They can see it. They can write it. They can move around the manipulatives and feel the math problem. There is a very real, very tangible aspect to teaching math.
But what about the intangible things you want to teach your children?
What about things like compassion and empathy? What about kindness and serving? What about living with integrity? What about taking responsibility for both your own actions and your things?
You see, while all these and more are very important character qualities, there are no real tangible ways to teach these intangible qualities….
…or are there?
Teaching by Explaining
Now, when it comes to character qualities, you can start by explaining what the character quality is. In other words, you can give a definition.
For example, according to the dictionary, compassion is…
“a feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another who is stricken by misfortune, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate the suffering.”
In other words, compassion is seeing someone who is hurting, hurting along with them, and wanting to do something to help make it better.
But explaining and having your child understand the definition only goes so far.
Oh, don’t get me wrong: You need to know what something is in order to recognize when you are living out that character quality.
But at the same time, you can’t simply teach a child the definitions of different character qualities like responsibility, serving, compassion, and integrity in a week-long school lesson and expect that they will start to display those character qualities for their entire life.
It takes more than just giving a definition…
Teaching by Modeling
Modeling is one of the best things about homeschooling. In having your children with you all the time, they get to see the things you do day in and day out.
When you model compassion for others, you give your children a front-row seat to what compassion in action really looks like.
To what showing kindness looks like – even when someone might not deserve your kindness.
To what taking responsibility for your words, actions, and possessions looks like in real life.
Now the modeling teaching model is both a wonderful tool and an incredible challenge. And the challenge actually comes first!
You see, when you model the positive character qualities you want your children to have, that means you have to first display those character qualities!
If you’re teaching your children about responsibility and how they need to pick up their clothes off the floor of their room and place them where they belong (dirty or clean), you can’t leave your clothes all over the floor of your room. Well, I suppose you can, but if you do, you run the risk of your children not accepting the message you’re giving them. In that case, you’re teaching them that there is always a double standard in life. (Which opens up a whole ‘nother discussion!)
The point is: If you are wanting your children to learn responsibility by picking up their clothes, you need to model this behavior for them by making sure your clothing is picked up and put away in it’s correct spot.
And it doesn’t just apply to responsibility and picking up clothes! This is true of any character trait you want to instill in your children.
Caught verses Taught
Now, there’s this big debate going around about “caught verses taught.” There’s a lot of debate and wondering – and even scientific studies – about which method of learning is better. When it comes to teaching your children character qualities, my answer is: Yes!
You see, when you are showing compassion to other people, your children will see that. They will start to emulate that. But until you explain what you’re doing and the reason, the why behind your actions, they won’t truly understand what you’re doing is a tangible expression of compassion.
In other words, children need to be taught whatthe character qualities are and be given examples of what it might look like, but then they need to see it in action. They need to catch it just by being around someone who cares about others and models compassion in the words they say and the actions they do.
Learning by Doing
But it’s not just about learning the definition of compassion. It’s not just about watching someone else show compassion to others. You also need to give your children opportunities to show compassion.
You need to invite them into the process. Allow them to walk with you as you show compassion to to others.
For example, perhaps you know someone who has just had major surgery (maybe a knee replacement) and is now home recuperating. One way that you might be able to show compassion is to prepare a meal and deliver it to their home. But instead of taking this entire project on yourself, why not involve your children?
Explain to them (at the appropriate level) why this person had to have this particular surgery. Explain how they will have to take it slow and allow their body to rest and heal. Then, share with them the opportunity you have to show compassion by bringing them a meal.
But don’t stop there! Actually prepare the meal – and have your children help you! Get them involved in the process of showing compassion. If possible, take your children (or maybe just one or two of them) along with you when it’s time to deliver the meal. Allow them to be part of the process by walking with you each step of the way.
How It Looks In Everyday Life
Now, I realize that it’s not every day you have the opportunity to take someone a meal or help rake the leaves of an elderly person in your neighborhood. So, how do you teach character qualities on a day to day basis?
The tricky part comes in the fact that everyone’s answer will be a little bit different. Each family is a little different and so the ways you model these character qualities will be a little different from family to family.
Even the season of your life will play into your answer! For example, if you’ve just welcomed a new baby into your family, you will likely be the one receiving the meals instead of preparing them for others. If you have smaller children, the opportunities will most likely be simpler and shorter in duration. But if you have teenagers, you are able to take on more because you have older children who can help in raking leaves or preparing meals or other things like this.
And yet, seeing (or in this case, reading) examples of what this looks like can help you understand things so much better. (It’s like using those math blocks while trying to understand a math problem. Sometimes you just have to see it to understand it.)
Here are some things you might try:
When something falls in the house, respond with “Are you okay?” This shows that you care more about the person than about any physical thing like a chair or plate. It also demonstrates kindness by showing you care about the person.
When a sibling is hurt, teach your children to ask if they are okay, then offer to go get them an ice pack or a favorite blanket or stuffed animal to cuddle. This shows compassion and a simple way of serving or helping each other.
When one of your children offers to share something with someone else or offers to help another with a difficult task, tell them you notice! Catch them in the act of kindness and tell them how much you appreciate seeing them show kindness to others.
Give your children a simple task to accomplish on their own. This could be completing a school worksheet or sweeping the floor or helping to pick up their toys, perhaps as you are completing another task nearby. When they finish, thank them for completing what they started. This teaches responsibility and follow through.
If you hear of someone in your community that is in need of a meal, offer to prepare and take them a meal. This shows compassion and serving.
If there are elderly people in your neighborhood that need help with yard work (no matter what the season!) or if they are struggling to fix something that might be broken in their home, offer to lend a hand and do the yardwork or fix what is broken. This shows compassion, serving, and it can also teach valuable life skills in learning how to fix things around the house!
What Happens When You Mess Up?
It happens. We are human beings after all. We mess up.
We see opportunities and don’t take them…
We lose our patience and don’t show kindness when we could have…
We forget that we committed to doing something and don’t show up when we’re supposed to…
What happens then? Is all this teaching lost and for nothing? Not at all!
As weird as this might sound, the moments when you mess up are also teaching opportunities. But – fair warning – they are the most uncomfortable teaching opportunities as a parent!
These moments are the ones where we need to own up to our mistakes. To take responsibility for the way we messed up, to show humility and even ask for forgiveness – yes, even from our children!
It’s in these moments of being real and honest that your true character qualities shine through. Qualities like honesty, integrity, humility, and responsibility. It’s not easy. Many times it’s not comfortable. But at the same time, your children need to see what these character qualities look like in the good situations and in the messy situations.
You see, it’s not about giving this facade of perfection to our children. In fact, that’s all perfection is: A facade!
It’s all about learning together. Teaching through the process. Walking through the mess together so you can learn and develop these strong character qualities in your children. The intangible lessons that will serve them well and last for a lifetime.
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Elizabeth Tatham, founder of Inspiration in the Everyday, is a homeschooling momma of 5 who loves helping other homeschooling mommas create a unique homeschooling adventure your kids will love…without the overwhelm! Join in on the journey with 7 simple steps to make your homeschooling day go faster, easier, and with less tears here.