Building Children of Character

A recent Psychology Today article began with this paragraph:

‘I don’t know about you, but when I think about the future, one thing seizes my mind – children.’

My children – your children – everyone’s children.

Children connect us organically, ineluctably and automatically with what lies ahead.

We have a friend who we scarcely dare to ask, ‘And how are your children?’ for we know the next 45 minutes will be totally consumed with an intricately detailed answer. And grandparents are even more enthusiastic!

Children have a prominant place in our society today, much more than in previous generations.  There are pre-schools, early-learning centres, play-groups, kinder-gyms, music programmes, parenting magazines, parenting courses, playgrounds, play-cafes and schools bursting at the seams.

The old adage, ‘Children should be seen and not heard’ is extremely out-dated.

It is hard not to think about children, especially if you are a parent. And even if you are an older parent or grandparent you never cease to feel some responsibility in love for them. Whatever they are going through.

The Scriptures are greatly concerned with children, with them being referred to over 1400 times. God has a lot to say in helping children become His kind of children, young people and adults.

Proverbs 3: 1-6 reminds us of what children most need to have if they are to grow up and life productive lives beyond that.

What they most need is to be equipped for whatever the future holds, such as:

  • helping them to become people who can relate well to others,
  • who can face temptation and crises,
  • who can adapt to change creatively,
  • who can bring joy to God, and
  • who can think of others in loving and sacrificial ways.

It seems like kind of a tall order, but to boil this all down, what will most help them to accomplish all these things is – character.

Character – not affluence, or Disneyland holidays, or massive inheritances, or computer packages, or the latest computer games but character. 

So what is character?

Character is applied integrity.

It says, ‘yes’ when it should, and ‘no’ when it should not, and makes a difference for the better in our world.

It is the strength American media personality Phil Donahue writes about in his autobiography when he relates covering a mining disaster early in his career. As he was gathering in the freezing conditions with the worried families waiting for the rescue teams to return, some began to sing, ‘What a friend we have in Jesus’. Then it was quiet. A pastor stepped out of the crowded and said, ‘Let us pray’. He prayed a brief and moving prayer.

Donahue’s camera froze, and it took him a few minutes to warm it up and get it working. Then he went to the minister and asked him to repeat the prayer in front of the camera.  The pastor declined. Donahue protested, ‘I represent 260 stations, millions of people will hear your beautiful prayer.’ The old country pastor again said, ‘No,’ and just walked away.

Donahue was dumb-founded and furious but about a year later it hit him. He had witnessed integrity; character. The man would not ‘showbiz’ for Jesus. He would not sell his soul for television. Not even CBS.

And we as parents and Christians are encouraged to do what we can to see that kind of character developed in children.

How does that happen? Well, the Old Testament reminds us that it can happen in four ways.

1. Looking Backwards

I want children to know that they can learn much from the past. It is vital that children develop a sense of history.

Nicholas Berdayev, a 19th Century Russian philosopher said, ‘Those who do not learn from the past are condemned to repeat its errors in the future’.

Solomon says in the Proverbs ‘My son, do not forget my teaching but keep my commands in your heart.’

What can be learnt from the past? More than we have time to focus on, but there are a couple of things I want to draw out.

I want children to know that they are heirs to 2000+ years of positive Christian influence. For example, a Roman father used to own his child, and unless they specifically raised it up in acknowledgement of it, the child could be left to die. If you were a deformed child you stood almost no chance of survival, and if you were a female, you had less chance than a male. But after Jesus Christ, infanticide ended within a couple of centuries

Christians said, ‘Bring your unwanted children to the church and we will have them.’ Soon foundling homes, orphanages and nursery homes were started to house the children. Infanticide soon became outlawed as Christian influence spread. Jesus, through his disciples changed society as the principle of the sacredness of life spread throughout the world. The coming of Christianity also led to a higher status and legal protection for women.

It led to the development of hospitals, of charities for the poor, and of legal systems being established based upon the teaching of Scripture. It led to the opposition of abortion and to the establishment of democracy itself through the implications of works from people like the Genevan reformer John Calvin.

I want our children to know that Jesus Christ, through his people, has made a difference for good in the world and they are heirs to that.

Recognising that will help them to develop character.

2. Looking Forwards

Proverbs 3: 2 says Solomon’s teaching to his son, ‘will prolong [his] life many years and bring [him] prosperity’.

One of the saddest little people I read about was 80s television star Gary Coleman. The star of Different Strokes said he blamed his parents for his lack of maturity and resultant reputation as a difficult, spoiled child star. He said, ‘I just hoped people understood that if I was crazy or rude, it was 10% my fault and 90% of those who cared for me.’

Children develop character when they don’t blame others for their mistakes or limitations, and learn to work through their difficulties constructively.  We live in an age where few people ever accept responsibility for their own actions. There are a number of law cases in America being defended on the ground that the criminal offense was inevitable given the genetics of the person involved.

Closer to home I remember hearing this spirited defence offered within our own family in the face of disciplinary action where one of our children would say, ‘It was because of my genes!’

And as I think about my own activities in earlier years, he did have a point. What goes against him is the totally countervailing genetic input of his mother, so he is defenceless.

Character in children comes from looking forward to their lives, and being determined to use the opportunities they have to make a difference for good.

John Sculley in his book Odyssey, writes of his career decision to move from being President of Pepsi-Cola to being President of Apple Computers. The founder of Apple, Steve Jobs, worked on him long and hard. After hours of debate, Sculley was finally won over when Jobs said to him, ‘Do you want to spend the rest of your life selling sugared water, or do you want a chance to change the world?’  He took the job.

Let us help to build up character so that our precious ones will want to help change the world for good.

3. Looking Upwards and Inwards

A child develops character by seeing within themselves gifts and limitations, victories and failures, an inclination to love and an inclination to sin.

We can help children to grow character through encouraging Bible reading habits, and through teaching in children’s programmes and youth groups. By praying with them and listening to them at the end of a bad day, we can all help children to see the inner complexity and needs of their young lives.

Once a child has learnt that there is power greater than that of sin, and that you do not have to carry all your sins around with you then they are on your way to real life. Once a child has learned that they are forgiven through the Cross of Jesus and that they are called to love the Lord and serve others then they are on your way to real life.

After living a dissolute life as a young man, the church father Augustine made a discovery. He heard a child in a garden calling out, ‘Take and read, take and read,’ which he took as being a word from the God he had fought telling him to take up the Scriptures. And then he heard a word spoken which called him away from sin, to life – Jesus’ life.

In his confessions, Augustine later wrote, ‘Thou hast made us for thyself and we have no rest until we find ourselves in thee.’

A child finds meaning beyond the events of life in a power greater than an inclination to sin; in Jesus Christ, who loves, welcomes, baptises, leads and becomes Lord.

The one perfect character who lived a life of perfect faith and integrity is available to become Lord of our Lives. May we seek him, and as we grow in the character he gives, may our children grow in character too.

By George Robert Iles