“LET US SING A NEW SONG, NOT WITH OUR LIPS BUT WITH OUR LIVES.”- AUGUSTINE
by Elaine & Willie Oliver
Theme: Parents play an active and important role in the facilitating the character development of their children and socializing them to relate positively to family and friends.
Parenting is one of the most important and challenging tasks God has given humanity. It may not always seem like an important task especially when you are wiping noses, cleaning up spills, and arguing about dirty rooms. However, just imagine what an awesome opportunity it is to raise a little person into an adult. Furthermore, consider the eternal significance of raising a little person into a “good” person, not just good as opposed to being bad, but a person with mature character. As Christians, of course we understand that all goodness comes from God, “for none is good, except God alone” (Mark 10:18).
Over the past century a wealth of data has been collected concerning the development of morality in children and adolescents. During this time much focus has been given to the role that adults, especially parents, play in children’s moral development. The research asserts that development of children’s morality or character lies at the heart of parenting.
In the book Child Guidance , Ellen White tells us, “No higher work was ever committed to mortals than shaping of character” (p. 163). It is Christian character which equips our children with the spiritual and emotional underpinnings necessary to be successful in their relationships.
Small Group Activity: Reflect on the following scenarios: Why do you think these things happen? What kind of concerns and fears do they engender in you as a parent? Who is responsible for these problems? What could be done to empower the children and youth in each scenario to address the problems they are facing in better ways?
(1) A seventh-grader walked up to a group of schoolmates who were waiting for the morning bell, pulled out a gun and began shooting. No students were killed, but five of the students were injured. When asked why he shot at his schoolmates, he replied, “I don’t know.” The 13-year-old boy is a straight A student, is very popular, has lots of friends and belongs to a teen Christian group. (Fort Gibson, Okla, 12/6/99)
(2) On her first day at her new school, six-year-old Jessie was told by some of her new classmates that she couldn’t play with them because of the color of her skin. Jessie’s new school is a Christian school; she and her new classmates attend church regularly.
(3) Two closely related families live within five miles of one another. The wives in the two families are sisters. Their father (Grandpa) employs both of their husbands in his family-owned business. Each family has a daughter in the same age range; the two cousins are best of friends. When Grandpa dies, he leaves his business, which for years has provided a good livelihood for both families, to his daughters. In time, however, disagreement over how to run the business fractures the relationship between the husbands. The conflict spreads to the wives as each takes the side of her own husband. Social interaction between the two families comes to a screeching halt. They sit on opposite sides of the church and avoid situations that bring them together. Conflict becomes more open and hostile as the business falters financially. The cousins struggle to remain apart from what is going on between their parents. Neither is welcome in one another’s homes. They meet at friends’ places, and even make a pact to remain friends despite all that is going on between their parents. But relationships between the cousins are strained seemingly beyond repair by manipulations on the part of one family who is in a stronger financial position to secure the family business for themselves, leaving the other family struggling even to maintain payments on their home. Friends get the message that the two families prefer not to be placed in the awkward position of even social interaction. Sometimes, however, the cousins confide to their friends how much they miss each other and wish they could do something about the situation that would bring them back together. But no one knows how to take the first step.
As we approach the third millennium, the task of shaping our children’s character becomes even more imperative as our children live in the milieu of societies which are hostile to our core Christian values and becoming increasingly desensitized to violence, abuse, discrimination and other societal ills.
We can debate gun control, we can put metal detectors in schools, we can build more youth centers in our communities, and even strengthen Adventist Youth programs, but ultimately we have the most power to change what happens in our own families.
Let’s keep in mind that none of us is the “perfect parent” who always does the right thing. Fortunately, by God’s grace, our children can grow up to be fine people having had parents who are less than perfect. We also need to remember not to expect our children to be perfect. They too will make mistakes, experience failures, and exhibit human foibles just like the rest of us. Parents need other parents for support and encouragement. We all need Jesus. The same Jesus that took little children on His knee promises to bless our children too. This seminar is about bringing us together to support one another and to bring our children to Jesus.
The “Good” Child
“And please be good!” a mother calls out the door as her children are off to the Pathfinder camp out. So much is encapsulated in those words! We all want our children to be “good.” But what do we mean by “good”? Certainly we aren’t meaning to pass a good-bad judgment on the value of a child. Every child is infinitely precious as the handiwork of our Creator God and a person for whom Christ died. Neither are we speaking about sinful human nature, in which sense the Scripture makes a clear declaration that no human is “good” (Phil. 2:21, Rom. 3:12, Jer. 17:9). So take a few moments to think about what you want for your children when you want them to be “good.”
Allow participants 1-2 minutes to think individually, then ask for volunteers to share their answers. The following are examples the facilitator could use to initiate the discussion or add to it: You want your children to be fair, honest, trustworthy, forgiving, respectful of others rights, respect legitimate authority, responsible for their own behavior, capable of generosity and love, etc.
All of these qualities are part of being a “good” person and most parents who are concerned with raising good children would like to see these qualities in their children. When we speak about raising a “good” child, then, we are talking about developing character qualities or traits which give rise to behavior befitting our Christian values. Wynne & Walberg (1984) define character as “engaging in morally relevant conduct or words, or refraining from certain conduct or words.”
From a Christian perspective, however, the standard for character is set by God Himself. It is an awesome standard! One that left the hearers of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount convinced it would be useless even to try to attain it (see Matt. 5:31-32; cf. Matt. 19:8-10).
We cannot speak about character development without setting our understanding of what this means in the context of the gospel. The good news of the gospel is that Christ’s perfection of character stands for all of us. In Him, the law’s demands have been fulfilled. Character development on our part can add nothing to the abundant salvation which is ours in Christ. Such grace is truly amazing!
Our desire to “be good” and to raise “good” children, then, must not be misunderstood as in any way contributing to our salvation. It is only our response to grace. Thus, for the Christian, the goal toward which we stretch in the development of Christian character is to: reflect Jesus’ manner in the way we relate to others. To the authors’ way of thinking then, character is observable in an individual’s conduct. In this sense “character” can be differentiated from “values.” The term “value” as it is used in this seminar can be defined as an “orientation” or “disposition.” It is more philosophical in nature. Character is active. We might say it is the activation of knowledge and values. Character is made up of foundational traits like empathy, integrity, responsibility, faithfulness, generosity, and a sense of justice. When these qualities are part of a person’s character, one can expect them to be exhibited relatively persistently and consistently in the person’s behavior. One would not expect them to change as the person interacts with different people or in different situations.
Often, parents place much emphasis on and put enormous effort into developing their children’s intellectual ability. We become concerned and frustrated when our children do not seem to be achieving as well academically as their peers and so we go to great lengths to boost their performance. Or we focus our energies on developing musical or athletic talent. Some of us may be more concerned with our children’s physical attributes or artistic abilities.
While these are worthy pursuits, developing them is not in the same category as socializing our children to be persons with good and decent morals, whose behavior speaks of the Christian values they espouse. Without morals or strong character our children do not stand “tall” as individuals.
The Christian community has put much emphasis on teaching Christian values. It is a responsibility given to parents by Scripture (see Deut. 6:4-6). This seminar focuses on an important step beyond teaching values. While it is important to identify biblical values and present them engagingly, it is not enough. Foundational character traits like those mentioned above must become integral to who our children are as persons, and they must be empowered to translate these into everyday decision-making and action. This seminar is designed to give parents practical help to empower their children for Christian living, which gives testimony to the core character traits from which Christian conduct arises. Ellen White puts it succinctly: Mental ability and genius are not character, for these are often possessed by those who have the very opposite of a good character. Reputation is not character. True character is a quality of the soul, revealing itself in the conduct ( Child Guidance , p. 161).
So Who Is Responsible for Our Children’s Behavior?
Small Group Activity:
Reflect again on the three scenarios posed at the beginning. The first question on the lips of people looking on, even parents themselves, are: “What went wrong?” “What did I do wrong?” Do you think this is an appropriate question? Is it the best question? In what sense might you answer “yes”? In what sense “no”? After taking feedback from the groups, focus the discussion of the entire group on the question: “Is it the parent or the child who is responsible for the child’s behavior, for his or her moral maturity and readiness to relate positively to others and behave prosocially?”
How the question of responsibility is answered deeply impacts parents’ attitude toward their children and how they assume their responsibility for them. Parental answers lie all along a continuum between extremes. Some parents believe that responsibility for a child’s actions, be they successes or failures, lies solely at the parents’ door. Statutes have been proposed recently in some jurisdictions which would hold parents responsible for their children’s behavior to the extent of putting parents in jail for the likes of their child’s truancy. From this perspective, the way children behave, and ultimately the way they turn out as adults, reflects directly on how well they have been parented. This belief motivates many parents to high levels of control in their children’s lives.
At the other extreme are parents who believe most children will turn out pretty well if just left alone to develop as they will. When their child struggles, they are able to shrug it off with a “we did our best, but she has to be allowed to make her own choice.”
In their book Raising Great Children (1999), Drs. Cloud and Townsend make three points in answer to the question, “Who is responsible”:
- Responsibility lies on a continuum between parent and child, and where it lies on the continuum changes over time. For example, at the beginning of a child’s life the only responsibility of the child is to need and to take in from the sources of life-parents are totally responsible. As the child becomes more self-sufficient, more ownership and responsibility for behavior is taken by the child and the parents assume less. Around the teen years, the parent exchanges a more controlling role for one which relies more on consultation and influence. By the late teens, the child should be taking full responsibility for his/her behavior and moral choices.
- Although responsibility shifts, parents and children have their own distinct and unique tasks. Parents provide safety and love. They also provide experiences which will help the child mature. The child responds to these experiences by taking risks and learning lessons through experience and consequences.
- Ultimately, the child bears responsibility for his/her life. No parent is perfect. All children will suffer some injuries along with the benefits they receive from their parents. We are told in 2 Corinthians 5:10 that in the end we will all be called to account for what we did in life, whether good or bad. Parents are responsible for providing the love, nurture and experiences which will move a child toward full responsibility for his/her moral life.
God has given parents their work, to form the characters of their children after the divine Pattern. By His grace they can accomplish the task; but it will require patient, painstaking effort, no less than firmness and decision, to guide the will and restrain the passion . . . . The character building of your children is of more importance than the cultivation of your farms, more essential than the building of houses to live in, or of prosecuting any manner of business or trade ( Child Guidance , p. 169).
Neither the church school nor college affords the opportunities for establishing a child’s character building upon the right foundation that are afforded in the home ( Child Guidance , p. 170).
This shift in responsibility over time, in keeping with the child’s developing capabilities and maturity, is a difficult challenge for parents. Many struggle to separate their own reputations from those of the child and exert strong pressure on children to make the family look good. Unfortunately, though children raised in such families often comply as children, they are likely to rebel when they are teens and the parents can no longer force control. Others struggle to let their children learn from the consequences of their choices. They mistake for love their desire to protect them from the painful consequences of their mistakes. Unfortunately, by the time these children learn that consequences always follow choices, the consequences they are facing are much more serious than they might have learned lessons from as children. Still others make the mistake of drawing their children into the adult arena for which they are ill prepared. These children are called upon to nurture their parents rather than the other way around and are robbed of their childhoods as a result. Unfortunately, rather than preparing these children for assuming adult responsibilities, these parents catapult their children into adulthood with needy hearts.
Should we let go or hold on? How much is too much or too little? Do we give the kids independence or exercise control? It’s a tricky balancing act, independence and control, but absolutely essential for raising good children from toddlerhood to teens. Children need parents to set clear limits. They rely on this guidance in both childhood and adolescence. Children begin asking for independence from very early on, however, the parent who gives independence without limits is not doing the child a favor. Rather, this creates havoc and insecurity for the child. Control without independence, on the other hand, is also a hindrance to development. Children must be respected as persons with a point of view and given opportunities to make choices. Our ultimate goal in parenting is for our children to become mature adults who reflect Christ’s manner in their relationships with others and the values of His kingdom when making decisions for their lives.
And the good news is, it’s never too late to start and we are not in this alone!
Jesus Himself, in His infinite mercy, is working on human hearts, effecting spiritual transformations so amazing that angels look on with astonishment and joy ( 5 Testimonies , p. 731).
The Process of Moral Growth
As parents help to facilitate their children’s moral growth, they must keep in mind that morality does not just appear fully formed. Children develop morally just as they develop in every other domain, in predictable stages. It is important to remember, however, that every child has his or her own built-in pace setter, so the approximate ages given are not as important in determining where your child is in the process as are the characteristics of children at each stage. The first work of parents who wish to be intentional about their children’s moral development, then, is to understand the stages. It is a way of getting inside the mind of a child, to see morality from the child’s view.
Small Group Activity:
Handout 1 , “The Stages of Moral Reasoning,” presents a user-friendly outline of the stages children grow through as their capacity for moral reasoning expands. (In small groups, review the stages together. Share stories from your experience with children that confirm the kind of reasoning research has discovered to be prevalent in a particular age range.)
When parents understand the stages of moral development, they can assess where their children are coming from and where they want to help them head. There is a sense in which the stages are like steps in a staircase, but it must be remembered that children, like adults, usually operate in a predominant stage at any given time, but they may slip back or even rise above where they are in some instances. Progression through the stages is a process which loops forward and back, but hopefully with steady forward movement. The process is not about racing to the goal, but about keeping the process moving steadily in the right direction as is appropriate for the child’s age and maturity.
Facilitating Moral Growth
(Read the following story by Leo Tolstoy to the group.)
Grandfather had become very old. His legs wouldn’t go, his eyes didn’t see, his ears didn’t hear, he had no teeth. And when he ate, the food dripped from his mouth.
His son and daughter-in-law stopped setting a place for him at the table and gave him his supper in back of the stove. Once they brought dinner down to him in a cup. The old man wanted to move the cup, but he dropped and broke it. The daughter-in-law began to grumble at the old man for spoiling everything in the house and breaking the cup. She would have to give him his dinner in a dishpan. The old man only sighed and said nothing.
One day the husband and wife were at home watching their small son playing on the floor with some wooden planks. He was building something. The father asked, “What is that you are doing, Misha?”
Misha replied, “Dear Father, I am making a dishpan so that when you and dear Mother become old, you may be fed from this dishpan.”
The husband and wife looked at one another and began to weep. They became ashamed of so offending the old man, they seated him at the table and waited on him from that day on.
Small Group Activity:
Reflect on this story and discuss the questions, “How is morality developed?” “How did your own parents influence your moral development?” “What lessons have you learned from your children?”
If we are to facilitate the development of our children’s characters, there are several important truisms we must understand and implement in our relationships with them (Lickona, 1983):
1) Morality is respect. Respect is at the core of morality-respect for ourselves, for others and for God. We must respect children and expect respect in return. If we want to raise moral children, we must treat them as persons. A pastor was jarred into this realization when a church member touched his shoulder as he was taking a step backward and said, “Careful, there’s a person behind you.” Turning to excuse himself to another adult, he was surprised instead to see a two-year-old struggling to stay on his feet. Indeed, a person was behind him, and learning about respect cannot begin too early. Even as we are reminded to treat even the smallest child with respect, so they must learn to have respect for us as parents. Respect is a two-way street; it’s give and take. It is living by the Golden Rule in all our relationships-“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” (cf. Luke 6:31).
2) Actions speak louder than words. Children take stock of everything we do, they observe, file away, and later imitate how we adults live, what we do and how we treat those around us. Modeling is a very effective teacher. But remember, modeling isn’t about perfection. It is about letting our children see our commitment to Christian ideals. It is also about modeling what Christians do when they have made a mistake. It’s saying you are sorry. It’s talking to kids about your struggles to live the way you believe . It’s about turning together to the Savior you all need.
3) Values must be both seen and heard. As the old saying puts it, “We must not only practice what we preach, but preach what we practice.” Children need our words as well as our actions. For maximum impact, they must not only be taught the values, but they need to know the reasons and beliefs which lie behind them. Parents need to guide, instruct, listen and advise. In the Valuegenesis Study of 12,000 Seventh-day Adventist young people, one of the best predictors of high levels of faith development in youth was parents who talked openly about their faith.
4) A capacity to think is vital. Parents need to teach their children to think, not what to think. One person shares his parents’ successful strategy:
Whenever I did something wrong, my parents didn’t just demand that I stop my behavior. Instead, they almost always asked, “How would you feel if someone did that to you?” That gave me a chance to reflect on whatever I did and how I’d like to have it done to me.
I feel this has helped me throughout my life. Now I always try to stop and ask myself that question before I do something, rather than after the fact. (Lickona, 1983, p. 24)
There are two very important lessons here: first, take the time to think; second, put yourself in the other person’s shoes. Neither of these things come naturally to children. They need our encouragement and much practice. Situations present themselves every day-in family living, in the newspaper, on the television, etc.-which can be turned into opportunities to engage our children’s thinking. Even when real situations do not present themselves, we can pose scenarios to help children exercise and sharpen their moral reasoning.
5) Love is foundational. Love is the foundation on which parents build. The Scripture says, “God is love” (1 John 4:16). It is His love that we reflect to our children. Children need to be rooted and grounded in love (Ephesians 3:17), the kind of love that God bestows upon us-unconditional love. The kind of love that doesn’t require anything in return. This kind of love helps our children develop a positive self-concept, a sense of worth, an inner strength.
Love bonds us to each other and it connects us to God. Being loved helps us to love ourselves. The biblical command to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39) recognizes that we must first understand our own value as persons before we can value or love someone else. Children (or adults) who do not feel loved have much difficulty opening up to or loving others.
Love can be spelled in many ways.
- It is spelled f-o-c-u-s-e-d a-t-t-e-n-t-i-o-n . Children need to know they are being heard and that they are important enough for you to devote your full attention to what they have to say.
- It is spelled t-i-m-e . There are no shortcuts, even for busy parents. No “quality” of time makes up for minimal “quantity.” Strong families structure their schedules, however busy and hectic, to spend time together eating, working, and playing. The bottom line-parenting takes time.
- It is spelled s-u-p-p-o-r-t . Growing is about taking risks. Taking risks is scary. Fortunate is the child whose parents foster an I-can-do-it attitude and encourage children to try new things, who celebrate successes and reframe “failures” as simply “tries which teach us what doesn’t work.” Fortunate also, is the child who receives much more praise and appreciation than criticism and complaint. Such parents help their children to develop a sense of themselves as “good” and competent persons who can stand up for what is right and who don’t need the approval of the group at any price.
- It is spelled c-o-n-n-e-c-t-e-d-n-e-s-s . The latest research indicates that the young people most likely to be involved in high-risk behaviors (drugs, alcohol, premarital sex, fast driving, etc.) are the ones who feel disconnected. On the other hand, those who experience strong connectedness with family, church, school and community are least vulnerable to such behavior.
- It is spelled l-i-m-i-t-s . Love and limits go together. A review of 500 studies of parenting styles isolated these two factors as the most significant predictors of the kind of parenting that produces children most likely to buy into their parents values and most likely to have the capacity to establish warm, positive relationships with others.
- It is also spelled c-o-m-m-i-t-m-e-n-t . Ultimately, children need most of all to know there is nothing they can ever say or do or be that moves them out of the circle of your love.
From Christian Values to Christian Behavior
Understanding the stages of moral reasoning is one thing, but how do we help our children move from thinking to doing? How do we help our children turn nouns such as generosity, kindness, thoughtfulness, sensitivity, forgiveness, compassion into action verbs? Children do not acquire what Robert Coles (1997) calls “moral intelligence” by memorization of rules and regulations. A list of good qualities and virtues will be as quickly forgotten as they are memorized, but practice in actual situations, created scenarios or imagined plots set the stage for action. As values are internalized, being “good” becomes a part of our children’s identity. Their commitment to Christian values moves beyond mere belief and talk; it is acted upon.
Hear this testimony from a thirteen-year old boy:
If you just try to remember to be polite, and help someone, if you can; if you try to be friendly to folks, and not be a wise guy . . . then you are off to a start, because it’s on your mind (you see?), it’s on your mind that you should be out there doing something about it, what you believe is right, is good, and not just talking about it (Coles, 1997, p. 17).
Small Group Activity:
Parents are encouraged to provide their children with many opportunities to develop into “good” persons. Any time is a good time for character building. The traits on which you focus will depend upon the situation at hand. Teachable moments present themselves everyday as you interact with your child or watch your child interact with others and make decisions. Teachable moments can also be planned with the intent of opening dialogue and creating opportunities for action. (Share stories of teachable moments in your experience with children. Handout 2 , “Teachable Moments” may be used to stimulate this discussion.)
Parents can not take away all of the storms and stresses of their children’s passage to moral adulthood. There will be growing pains for parents as well as children. However, when parents set the foundation for character development in their children’s lives, then children will have the best chance of becoming the persons God intends them to be. They will be able to choose right when they are faced with tough decisions; they will not be easily swayed by other’s opinions; and their relationships will have the best chance of flourishing. They will find that not only does the “good” life benefit them personally, but they will be a benefit to the family, church and society as a whole because they have been given the essential building blocks for life.
Ellen White states it well:
If Christian [parents] will present to society children with integrity of character, with firm principles, and sound morals, they will have performed the most important of all missionary labors. Their children, thoroughly educated to take their places in society, are the greatest evidence of Christianity that can be given to the world ( Child Guidance , p. 163).
Cloud, H. & Townsend, J. (1999). Raising great kids. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.
Coles, R. (1997). The moral intelligence of children. New York: Random House.
Lickona, T. (1983). Raising good children. New York: Bantam Books.
Osborne, R. (1998). Your child and the Christian life. Chicago: Moody Press.
White, E.G. (1954). Child guidance. Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Publishing Association.
White, E.G. (1948). Testimonies for the church. Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Publishing Association.
Wynne, E., & Walberg, H. (Eds.). (1984). Developing character: Transmitting knowledge. Posen, IL: ARL. In
W. Huitt, (1999). Moral and Character Development. Paper presented at Valdosta State University, 1991.
Reprinted from Karen & Ron Flowers, New Beginnings. Silver Spring, MD: Department of Family Ministries, General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, 2000.