Disclaimer: While we fully endorse this product, this is not a paid advertisement. We weren't compensated to review it, we purchased it ourselves 11 years ago and we've been using it as part of our homeschool curriculum and system of child training and family discipleship.
Have you ever told your children that you expect "orderliness", or "diligence", or "gratefulness" from them, only to have them look at you with a mystified expression on their face revealing that they have no idea what you're talking about? Or maybe when you tell them that you expect this type of character they ask you "...Why?" and then find that you can't actually explain that character trait to them in a way they can understand and apply it? I certainly found this to be true for me! I began to discover how vague descriptions of character traits were to children and how that made character very difficult to understand. Let's look at,
- What is "character" exactly, anyway?
- Why should we care about character?
- One of the ways we teach character to our children
- How our own character can re-enforce or undermine our teaching efforts
What is "character" exactly, anyway?
I was taught growing up that I ought to have good character, and I had a few ideas of what that would mean; but when Bob and I became parents and I faced teaching our children character I realized that I really didn't know what that included! Here's a definition of Character,
"Good character is the inward values that determine outward actions" (Character First).
If our children value showing attentiveness when someone else is speaking to them (instructing, teaching, sharing something, performing, etc.) then they will do these five things:
(1) look at people when they speak to them
(2) ask questions if they don't understand
(3) sit or stand up strait
(4) not draw attention to themselves
(5) keep their eyes, ears, hands, feet, and mouth from distractions.
(Here is a photo of some of our children showing attentiveness at a violin recital)
If they do not value attentiveness at a music recital for example, then their outward actions will reflect it. They may be looking around at other things while the musician is performing; dismissing the music and tuning out if they don't like it; slouching in their chair reflecting boredom; drawing attention to them self by yawning blatantly, stretching, or giggling and playing with those around them; or fidgeting noisily with the papers they have, kicking the chair in front of them, noisily twirling a bracelet around on their finger, maybe unwrapping noisy candy wrappers or snacks and disturbing others.
Now our children are not perfect in demonstrating attentiveness yet, especially the younger ones, but they are learning. And having a defined goal is so important. *smile* They know what is expected (it's not vague in their mind), what attentiveness looks like, and why it's valuable. And they love it when others mention to us or to them how well they did during a recital, or during church, during a class, or even just in conversation. They love having the pastor or a church family member tell them that they felt honored by the children's effort to show attentiveness during the preaching. The children enjoy being invited to go places to have further educational experiences presented to them because they displayed attentiveness in a situation. When our 13-year-old daughter demonstrated attentiveness really well with our chiropractor she was honored by an invitation from him to attend (with one of her parents) a prestigious annual chiropractic event with him as a guest. Here she could learn from doctors a great deal about the body, how it works, how to maintain health in her own life, and if she desired to pursue a chiropractic practice in her life she would have a head start on what that would involve and whether or not she has the aptitudes and desire for it. There is good "fruit" to be had with good character. We've recently been invited to a friend's bakery for a tour, to have a tour of another friend's Blackhawk helicopter that he flies for Homeland Security, to yet another friend's dairy farm for a 2 hour tour, to visit a local radio station of Praise 106.5 and Anna Marie (age 8) even got to go on the air to give the local weather report for one day, and we've been invited to many other businesses and opportunities. We believe a large part of this is because the children show attentiveness, interest, appreciation, give value to, enjoy, and appreciate these opportunities.
Here is a list of 49 character traits from Character First that need to be taught to children and why - and which we parents need to be able to demonstrate, model, and teach: Attentiveness, Obedience, Truthfulness, Gratefulness, Generosity, Orderliness, Forgiveness, Sincerity, Virtue, Responsibility, Patience, Initiative, Self-Control, Punctuality, Resourcefulness, Tolerance, Creativity, Discretion, Diligence, Loyalty, Hospitality, Sensitivity, Enthusiasm, Flexibility, Discernment, Cautiousness, Boldness, Dependability, Thoroughness, Determination, Thriftiness, Availability, Deference, Compassion, Persuasiveness, and Wisdom.
Here is a printable list of the traits with definitions, courtesy of Character First (copyright permission granted). (click on the image below to enlarge; click again to enlarge a second time)
*whew!* After reading that for the first time I thought, "Well... that's nice to know...so now I'm totally overwhelmed. How in the world do I teach those things to children... and where do I start?!" Before getting in to the how of teaching character quite yet, let's look at why character training is important.
Why should we care about character?
Character is the core of all people's behavior. Here's a great explanation from the curriculum I highly recommend called Character First as to why character is invaluable:
"We tend to judge people by wealth, position, demeanor, education, and external circumstances. We evaluate them by the size of their bank account, the model of their car, or their possession of the latest gadget. But how much can you really know by looking at these things?
Contrast such superficial 'success' with the contributions made by individuals such as Mother Theresa, Booker T. Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Thomas Edison. Each achieved a level of success admired by all who dare to believe they too can change their world.
Upon inspection, these heroes' success lay not in what they achieved, but in what propelled them to their achievements - personal character. Their impact rose from who they were as individuals. Character regulated the majority of their life decisions.
You have probably heard is said that 'knowledge is power.' But a person may understand difficult problems, have flawless logic, or know how to operate machinery perfectly, and still lack character. Consider the effects of knowledge without character. What good are facts without the ability to apply them with wisdom, discernment, and decisiveness?
Good character is the inward values that determine outward actions. It is the inward motivation to do what is right in every situation.
With character and competence, you will discover unlimited possibilities. You will see challenges overcome with determination, solutions achieved with creativity, opportunities uncovered with alertness, and relationships maintained with patience and forgiveness...Success is not limited to the elite or the rich. It is available to each person who develops the inward motivation to do what is right." ("What is Character", by Character First)
In 2003 I began using the Character First Curriculum to teach our children about character traits. When we first started within the first week the children began developing a very solid understanding of that first character trait we studied. Now when I say something to the children like, "While we're in church you need to show attentiveness", the children know exactly what I mean. They know what that looks like, what 5 things that it involves, and they have practiced it. They associate it with a historical figure they're now very familiar with, such as George Washington Carver, or Abraham Lincoln. They have observed how an animal in nature such as the deer shows attentiveness (each character trait is associated with an animal that demonstrates that trait), and they have memorized a very simple definition. The children can now (if they choose) have success in that situation requiring attentiveness because they fully understand it, why it's important and how to apply it. And I can offer correction if necessary and with confidence that the child fully understood what I was asking and expecting. The children learn crucial life skills that lay a foundation for success in learning and in their relationships. This helps them enjoy their own life and they can be all the more enjoyed by others around them.
One of the ways we teach character to our children
When I began homeschooling in 2003 I attended my first W.H.O. Convention (Washington Homeschool Organization) curriculum fair at the Puyallup Fair Grounds. One of the gems I came across was this curriculum for teaching character, called Character First geared for elementary aged children 6-12 years-old (although I've used it with 4-year-olds successfully, and with our oldest who is 15-year-old). It's awesome - one of the best teaching items I've ever purchased. I highly recommend this method for teaching character traits.
There are four binders available to be purchased individually ($49.99 each), and we've found that each binder can last one entire school year. They are intended to be gone through in order, session 1 (first binder) through session 4 (fourth binder), because the character traits build upon one another; they need the character traits developed from session 1 before they can really develop those in session 2. Here's a description from Character First about each binder: "Each kit includes 9 Elementary Teacher's Guides in a 3-ring binder plus one set of Character Cards. Each Teacher's Guide is 16-pages and provides lessons for students 6-12 years old—including history and nature stories, songs, crafts, coloring sheets, object lessons, and memory work for each character quality." Each day's lesson takes about 15 minutes to complete (not including a little bit of teacher preparation to be done in advance). It is so simple, so clear, so quick - and has such an impact on all the rest of your homeschooling! Here's my own system I've developed to teach each of the 9 character booklets ("Teacher Guides") within each binder:
First - We begin each CF lesson by reading the definition aloud and playing a couple quick games that take about 3 minutes each to help us learn it better. I will have put each word of the definition on a separate piece of colored paper and used Plasti-Tac (feels like silly putty, purchased at most grocery or office supply stores, and does not leave the sticky residue that tape does) to stick it to the sliding glass door. We keep the definition on the glass door the whole time we're learning that character trait, so most of the school year or summer there's been one of these paper definitions on the glass door. *smile* But I like it, and the kids see it all the time and read it aloud to themselves during lunch, or see who can recite it the fastest. This is the definition for Punctuality.
During Character First time, we read the definition together out loud, then sometimes I'll remove one word at a time while the children have their eyes closed, and see if they can guess which word is missing. Or, we'll mix the whole definition up and see if they can put it in order. This takes about 3 minutes.
Second - We say the 5 "I Will's" aloud together. These are the things we will do to practice that particular character trait. For example, for the character trait of Punctuality: "I will be at the right place at the right time; I will prepare for unexpected delays; I will do my work ahead of time; I will plan a daily schedule and keep it; I will not fall in to the trap of 'just one more'." This takes about 2 minutes.
Third - On the first day of a new character trait I read aloud the page-and-a-half of an example of how that character trait is demonstrated in nature while the children color the coloring page that matches (if I have 3 children going through CF then I copy in advance 3 copies of each of the 9 character traits coloring pages so I have those ready to be used for the whole year). This takes about 15 minutes. Here's the example from the trait of Punctuality. (click photo to enlarge)
- On the rest of the days of that character trait (each character trait/booklet could take 1-2 weeks) for this third step we say/sing the little ditty with hand motions, and do one of the 12 or 15 available activities from the book. I will have decided the week before which of the activities we'll do, I put a starred post-it note beside it to mark it for myself, and I gathered the few supplies from around the house that we'll need to do each activity. So when the children are gathered with me I just pull out my few supplies and we do the activity together. This takes about 10 minutes at the most.
I made this post-it note for myself and I keep it stuck to the front of the current booklet I'm working in to help me remember what our plan is for each day that we do CF (sometimes it's been 5 days a week, sometimes it's only been 3).
So I prepare for one week at a time in advance like this:
- I make a definition out of paper if I don't already have it made from the previous week.
- I make up a few simple hand motions for our ditty to help the children learn it if that's not already done from the previous week. I like to write my ideas down on a post-it note (surprise, surprise *laugh*) and stick it beside the ditty in the book so I have it before my eyes while I'm teaching the children. (click photo to enlarge)
- I choose which activities we'll be doing that week, post-it note star them using the same 5 mini post-it notes each week by just moving them ahead, and I gather those few simple supplies from around the house that I'll need for the activities we'll be doing.
How our parental character can re-enforce or undermine our teaching efforts
Bob and I are always noticing areas in which we need to develop our own character as well, and we feel thisit is crucial for us to "practice what we preach". It is especially important with adolescents who are really watching our adult example, and this HUGELY effects both our relationships with them and our ability to lead by example instead of driving them towards what they should be. In the latest Growing Families International (GFI) class we took called "Reaching the Heart of Your Teen" we were taught that one of the thing teens hate most is hypocrisy. Parents often have high expectations of their children and teens, but do we ourselves model, for example, Diligence (definition: Investing all my energy to complete the tasks assigned to me")? Joyfulness (definition: Maintaining a good attitude, even when faced with unpleasant conditions)? Punctuality (definition: Showing esteem for others by doing the right thing at the right time)? Orderliness (definition: Arranging myself and my surroundings to achieve greater efficiency)? Our character as parents can re-enforce or undermine our teaching efforts. It's not complicated to learn or practice, it's actually simple when we take just one character trait at a time (not easy necessarily, mind you, but simple; not complicated) - and the "fruit" is so very sweet for us, for our children, and for everyone else we and they come in contact with.
Bob and I are fully convinced that one of the reasons God gives parents children is to help refine our own adult character. Like a rough-cut diamond He refines us, chips off the undesirable parts, buffs and lovingly polishes us until we sparkle and ultimately come closer to the example of His Son, Jesus. It's not always easy - in fact, it's often really hard at first to form new habits in ourselves and in our children - but it's invaluable. And the world notices, and desires what we have. It's actually a witnessing tool! And drawing others closer to, or pointing them towards Christ is so important. *smile*
So we've looked at what it means to develop great character in children, why it's valuable, and at least one great method for doing so. Building actual character comes through practice and life experience. For new, young homeschoolers we've used this as their only "curriculum" initially, or we've used it for a summer curriculum. If they work on character skills alone for preschool, and as a supplement for kindergarten on up, it will prepare them for all the rest of their schooling years, their career, and their relationships. I have had older children joining in (and it's at least as valuable for them as it is for the younger children!) even though the curriculum is obviously set to a younger age group, so I've had the older ones help the younger ones and learn it simultaneously themselves. Using Character First is still the best way I've found to learn character traits no matter what the age - adults included. Our oldest daughters are currently ages 14 and 15 and from my recommendation, and a desire to improve their character, they will sometimes pick up a binder and just read through the aspects of the character traits to learn them that way on their own.
This spring if you are considering which homeschool curriculum to purchase for next year, I would highly recommend Character First. It's one of our highest priorities with family discipleship.
Blessings on your efforts!
You also might be interested in reading my related posts:
Developing the Character of Faithfulness
Orderliness - A Closer Look
Homeschooling: HOW We Do It, Part 1 of 2
Orderliness - A Closer Look
Homeschooling: HOW We Do It, Part 1 of 2
"Reaching the Heart of Your Teen", Growing Families International 6-session DVD class with workbook (also available on CD).