Building Character Through Training Projects
Published in The Teaching Home magazine, February/April 1991
Most parents desire that their children develop good character. But because many of us were not reared in exactly the manner in which we would like for our own children, sometimes we fumble in knowing how to go about their training.
Scripture gives us at least three general ways in which we learn character traits. One is through example or social exposure. This ideally comes from heavy doses of involvement with parents and siblings. On the other side of the coin, I Corinthians 29:15 says, “Do not be deceived: Bad company corrupts good morals.” And in Proverbs 13:20 we read, “He who walks with wise men will be wise, but the companion of fools will suffer harm.”
Another way in which our children learn character is through discipline. Proverbs 29:15 says, “The rod and reproof give wisdom, but a child who gets his own way brings shame to his mother.” Pretty self-explanatory.
A third way in which we can train our children is through positive, constructive teaching. Here is where creativity comes in and where many of us often find ourselves at a loss for idea. We have found the following project ideas helpful with our children. No doubt there are dozens of character qualities you want your children to learn, but hopefully these ideas in these few areas will serve as a springboard for your own creativity.
Training sessions: Ever take your children with you to the supermarket and find that you needed a border collie to maintain order? We have.
But then we realized that under the circumstances, we were expecting too much from small children. We were taking them into a very interesting place full of pleasant distractions and one which was very unfamiliar to them. They literally didn’t know how to act. So we set up a training session.
First, at home we explained to them how we should act in the grocery store. Stay close to Mommy, walk behind her, use quiet voices, don’t touch things on the shelves unless Mommy says to because they belong to other people. Then we – that is, both my wife and I – took them to the store and walked through the instructions in the course of the shopping trip. If you make the rules of behavior few and simple and you generally have your children under control, a couple of such expeditions will be good enough to form good habits.
Obedience Exercises: This is sort of a game, but it really has a serious effect on a child’s obedience. Explain to the kids that you have a challenge for them and that if they do well they will get a reward. Go out in the yard if the weather permits or just do the project in the house. Call out instructions for the children, such as lie down, stand up, walk backward, walk forward, run forward, stop, turn left, hop on one foot. Make it a challenge. Act as if you are enjoying it yourself, which isn’t hard because some of the results when instructions come a little too fast or get confused are really funny. To make it really special, have Dad to the exercises with the kids while Mom calls out the instructions. Give occasional surprises, such as calling for a sudden stop and lie down in the middle of a dead run across the yard. Our kids always enjoy this game, and we spice it up by calling out lots of encouragement and challenges rather than by competition.
Sunday Box: Isaiah chapter 58 makes this promise: “If thou turn away thy foot from the Sabbath, from doing thy pleasure on my holy day; and call the Sabbath a delight, the holy of the Lord, honorable; and shalt honor him, not doing thine own ways, nor finding thine own pleasure, nor speaking thine own words: Then shalt thou delight thyself in the Lord, and I will cause thee to ride upon the high places of the earth, and feed thee with the heritage of Jacob thy father: for the mouth of the Lord has spoken it (Isaiah 58:13, 14).”
You have no doubt heard stories of the traditional abuses of the injunction to honor the Sabbath: Don’t move around too much, don’t get too loud, and above all, don’t have any fun. That, of course, is mostly ancient history, something our parents tell about. Nowadays the pendulum has swung toward the opposite extreme. Sundays are generally spent, other than going to church, in whatever pursuits happen to appeal to us. By ridding ourselves of a burdensome old tradition, it seems we have lost sight of an important principle which the practices originally represented: People need one day a week to concentrate on the things of the Lord. It is not a matter of what we should not be doing, but of what we should be doing. We will be spiritually healthier if we will spend a day a wee thinking about the Lord, letting other things step aside for that which is most important and, therefore, requires our undivided attention sometimes. But even if I am content to spend the day in spiritual pursuits, how do I get my children to do the same?
Put together a Sunday Box. Explain thoroughly to your children the reason for observing a special Lord’s Day. Then find a large box and fill it with delightful things for the kids to enjoy doing on Sunday. Be sure to let the kids take part in choosing things to put in the box. It should contain a variety of interesting things, and the contents will need to be changed from time to time in order to keep it fascinating. If you use creativity in stuffing the box, enclose a wide variety of contents, talk enthusiastically to the kids about it, and allow the box to be open only on Sunday, you will be surprised to find out how much your family comes to look forward to Sunday. What to include? Only those things which are very interesting to your children but also cause their minds to turn to the Lord. One example is special Bible story books for Dad to read.
Gratefulness Letters: One excellent way we can express appreciation, and in so doing teach others to express it also, is to write special letters to those from whose influence we have benefitted. We adults should do this much more often than we do, and our kids certainly need to learn to do it early. Perhaps if more attention were given to this and like sentiments, the “me” generation would never have been. Letters are due to any person who has helped your child: grandparent, friend, pastor, Sunday school teacher, etc. Our kids wrote a thankfulness letter to our neighbor, Mrs. Lusk, who will surely make the Guinness Book for good neighbors.
A Place for Everything: When we studied the quality of orderliness, we used this method to get the house in order. Part of this may be adding shelves to the child’s closet, buying plastic dishpans to hold toys, etc. The principle is that if there isn’t a place for everything, everything can’t be in its place. You can label each container with the name or a picture of its contents. Make it easy rather than hard for your children to be orderly.
Drawer Check: Announce early in the week that on Friday Mom is going to check all drawers and there will be a reward for those who have kept their drawers neat. Sometimes all the kids will run off and straighten their drawers immediately with the expected result that they are a disaster again by Friday, probably several times. But remind them again on Thursday evening, and most of them will look pretty good on Friday. Leave a treat or a small toy in each neat drawer.
Don’t be too strict, but don’t be too lenient either. Just make sure the kids have advance notice, but not too far in advance, and repeat it as often as you feel necessary. Gradually reduce the number of warnings over the weeks and begin to hold spot checks without notice except that there will be an unannounced drawer check soon. The goal is to get the point where the drawers will be kept neat at all times. We eventually began to do room checks too.
Matthew 5:44: God gives here a project for dealing with those who irritate us. He is quite specific:
An enemy (opponent) – Love him.
One who curses me – Bless him (speak well of him).
One who hates me – Do good to him.
One who despitefully uses me (slander, etc.) – Pray for him.
Good Report: When your child speaks negatively of another person, have him verbally list three good things about him.
Thought Patterns: When a child has a bad attitude toward another, discuss Phil. 4:8 with him, and talk about how he can think about the person in these ways.
Projects for Reinforcing All Character Traits
Bible Tapes: This is without question one of the most spiritually profitable projects we have ever done with our children. We have had excellent results over the years.
It has been said that the last thoughts on our minds at night will be on our minds all night and the first thoughts we think the next day. For this reason, bedtime and naptime are perhaps the very best times of all to play tapes of Scripture. When our Joshua was 5 years old, he loved the Gospels in the New International Version. He usually listened to them at both naptime and bedtime. The result was that after a few weeks, he amazed us with his memorization. Mom or Dad would start a verse from one of the Gospels, and little Josh would finish it and usually go on. These tapes will fill your child’s mind with God’s thoughts and give him proper food for meditation while he is resting or sleeping.
One good approach is to get the dramatized Bible tapes which utilize different voices reading the words people involved in conversations, etc. The commercially produced set of Bible tapes narrated by Alexander Scourby is very good.
Another good method, and perhaps the best, is to have Mom and Dad read Scripture into the tape recorder for the children’s tapes. In this way the kids can be read to by Daddy even when he is at work. Bible story tapes are great. Tapes of Scriptures dealing with a theme or topic are good – read into the recorder verses about obedience, godliness, purity, truthfulness, kindness, words, thankfulness, etc.
Music tapes of Scripture songs are something we all love at our house. Develop the ministry of your older kids by encouraging them to make tapes for their younger siblings. Our boys love to do this, and the babies think it’s wonderful.
Do your children have fears at bedtime with the lights go out? Daddy’s voice reading Psalm 91 will help. Scripture tapes at bedtime, by the way, are an excellent method of combating nightmares.
Bible Reading: Have older kids read through the Old Testament. They can do so at the rate of three chapters for one year. Have them look for principles of truth obeyed or violated in the lives of Bible characters and make notes of the results. For example, Abraham obeyed God in offering Isaac and received his son back with added blessing. On the other side of the coin, Abraham also compromised his morality at Sarah’s suggestion and reaped her rebellion and contempt as well as lasting conflict in his lineage.
Meditation: Teach your children the principles of meditation. One good way is to have them quote a Bible verse that is meaningful to them and ask them to how it applies to their life. Another good tool is paraphrasing. Have the child write out a verse or passage then rewrite it in his own words changing each major word in the passage to a synonym.
Let the child choose a passage suitable to his own personal needs. Here are some sections of Scripture dealing with various topics: Dealing with temptation, James 1; insight into everyday problems, Proverbs; foundational teachings of Christ, Matthew 5, 6, 7; values, Colossians 3; conflicts of old and new natures, Romans 5, 6, 7; controlling the tongue, James 4; real love, I Corinthians 13.
Example Stories: This is good for family devotions, among other things. Read a chapter of Scripture, perhaps Proverbs, and pick out a phrase or a whole verse. Or let the kids pick out a verse from that chapter or elsewhere in Scripture. Then take the verse or phrase and tell a story about it. It’s easier to tell interesting stories than you may think. Use a true story from your childhood or a story about someone you know or have read about. Use a story from the Bible or a story from the newspaper.
For instance, Proverbs 27:23: “Be thou diligent to know the state of thy flocks, and look well to thy herds.” “I remember when I was a little boy on the farm, we had a herd of cows in a pasture over the hill from the house. I was responsible to walk over the hill every day and check on the cows. Well, one morning…..”
Real-Life Character Stories. One story we have told our children is about a friend’s son, David. When David was just a very small boy, he had crossed the street for some reason and was about to step into the street to come back home. His father, apparently just having realized that David wasn’t where he had supposed, looked up and saw Dave about to walk out in front of a car. Dad shouted, “David, No!” David stopped in his tracks as the car went whizzing by. Because David knew the meaning of the word “No” and obeyed without hesitation, he was alive and unhurt. Had he failed to obey, and obey instantly, he likely would have been killed.
Such stories are very valuable. Our children love to hear about real events in the lives of real people, and if they know the person the story is about, so much the better. Perhaps the best character-lesson stories of all are the ones from our own life experiences. I have told them about the time I burned my face and almost lost my sight playing with firecracker powder.
I have told them about how my horse kicked me in the chest because of my own carelessness. Come to think of it, I’ve made quite a few mistakes to tell them stories about. No matter, if it keeps them from making the same mistakes.
This is a very good tool for teaching character and wisdom to your children in a very interesting way. In fact, on those occasions when I am alone with my kids for a minute, such as when Mom is in the store and we’re waiting in the car, the first thing that often happens is that somebody begs, “Dad, tell us a story!”
Proverbs Character Studies: This is a good idea for Mom and Dad to do on their own and then share with the kids; or with older children, you can go through the studies together. This is a good opportunity to teach children to use a concordance and make a chart of their findings. Give younger children the Scripture references and let them just look up the verses. There are at least 64 negative/positive character contrasts in the book of Proverbs. It is suggested that they be studied in contrasting pairs, if appropriate, and charted in some form. Sample headings for your chart are: Character Type/Scripture Ref./Characteristics/Instructions to or Concerning Him.
Some character types in Proverbs: diligent v. sluggard; wicked v. righteous; prudent v. naïve; talebearer v. faithful witness; liar v. truthful; just v. unjust; proud v. humble; foolish v. wise; strange woman v. virtuous woman; backslider; arrogant; and deceiver. The purpose of the study is to teach ourselves and our children to discern character strengths and weaknesses in our ourselves and those around us and to know the scriptural directives for dealing with different types of people.
Is this really necessary? Consider how many times you have heard someone say after being influenced to foolish actions by a con artist, led astray by wicked friends, or marrying or hiring a person with serious character flaws, “Oh, if only I had known what they were really like!”
Building Character Through Names
Children may be motivated to live up to the meaning of their names when parents work to attach special literal, Biblical, and character connotations to them.
Name plaques: Make or buy a plaque and decoupage a purchased or homemade motif of the child’s name, its meaning, and a Bible verse with some reference to a character quality reflected in the meaning of the name.
Place mats: Marilyn sewed pieces of heavy clear plastic together to make a cover for place mats. The plastic is sewn on three sides only, to allow for removal and replacement of the mat. The mats are drawn by the kids themselves on light-colored construction paper. Under the heading God Made Me in a Special Way for a Special Purpose, we included the following elements: the child’s name, its meaning , a few sentences applying this meaning to his life, the name of a Bible character who exemplifies the name’s meaning, and an appropriate Bible verse.