Character Training – A Systematic Approach

How can you, as a parent, help your children to develop character, such as patience, joy, love, gentleness, and self-control? As family coaches, we meet with discouraged parents each week. Many of them experience tough child-related problems that require a God-centered character-development plan. You can’t create this type of plan in the heat of a discipline problem. Rather, this plan requires you to step back, identify each child’s strengths and weaknesses, and devise a systematic approach to changing difficult patterns by moving each child toward developing positive character qualities. You can help your children to make lifestyle changes, develop good habits, and build depth of character. Negative patterns in your children are often a result of a root cause or character-quality deficiency.

As you begin to address character issues in your children, it’s helpful to approach them from the perspective of a “parenting doctor.” Just as doctors follow specific plans when addressing problems, you can follow a similar six-step plan to identify, analyze, and strategize for positive behavioral change and character development in each child.

Step 1: Observation – Recognize the Problem:

Begin the process by taking time to identify and write out negative behaviors that need to change. Such behaviors are symptoms of character weaknesses. To get started, ask yourself questions such as “What is actually happening here? What words are being used? What don’t I like about this?” Many times negative behaviors may seem to be totally independent and unrelated to each other, but as you write them down, you will see patterns of behavior. Don’t try to make conclusions; just list as many facts as you can. You won’t show this list to each child. It’s merely a helpful worksheet for you. Your list may start out like this:

  • Didn’t finish homework again yesterday
  • Leaves room messy
  • Doesn’t complete chores without being reminded
  • Quits a game when not winning
  • Hits his brother
  • Says, “I can’t do it,” instead of trying to read difficult words

Step 2: Diagnosis – Name the Character Weakness:

Once you have your list of negative behaviors, look for patterns. Your list of negative behaviors can be summarized by three or four character weaknesses. In the previous illustration, for example, several problems listed suggest a lack of perseverance or lack of diligence. Look for misbehaviors that are related. Ask yourself questions such as “Do the problems reveal a pattern that happens at a particular time? Do the problems occur with certain people? Is there an underlying connection that several misbehaviors have in common?”

Try to determine root problems that cause the negative behaviors. Look for character-quality deficiencies. Look past behaviors that frustrate you to each child’s heart, where the root problems lie.

Sometimes, as you evaluate the problem behaviors, it’s helpful to define negative traits as positive qualities being misused. Good character qualities can be taken to an extreme and demonstrate a negative side. For instance, the organized child may become intolerant or inflexible in a less-structured situation. A child’s strength can lead to an area of weakness. Here is a list of positive character qualities with their negative counterparts. When you see a strength on one side of the list, you’re likely to see one or more of the negative expressions of that quality as well.

Positive Quality            Negative Counterpart

  • Affectionate                        Flirtatious, clingy, naïve in boy-girl relationships
  • Analytical                            Picky, petty, critical
  • Compassionate                  Easily angered, overly emotional, gullible, biased, lenient
  • Confident                             Prideful, bossy, insensitive, always has to lead, overconfident
  • Content                                Unmotivated, apathetic, lazy
  • Courageous                         Reckless, foolish, can’t see consequences of actions
  • Creative                                Deceptive, manipulative, mischievous,
  • Decisive                               Inflexible, domineering, impatient
  • Determined                        Hardheaded, stubborn, obstinate, argues, badgers
  • Discerning                         Judgmental, critical, faultfinding, jumps to conclusions
  • Disciplined                        Rigid, bossy, intolerant of change, inflexible, demanding
  • Eager to Please                Compromising, easily tempted, can’t take a stand for right
  • Efficient                             Slow, inflexible, demanding,
  • Enthusiastic                     Intense, insensitive, fanatical, extreme, thrill seeker
  • Expressive                        Talkative, wordy, dominates conversation, poor listener
  • Flexible                             Messy, disorganized, indecisive
  • Forgiving                          Lenient, unable to take a stand for right, people pleaser
  • Frank                                 Lacks tact, unloving, not compassionate, insulting,
  • Friendly                            People pleaser, compromising, avoids being alone
  • Frugal                               Stingy, selfish, judgmental
  • Generous                         Wasteful, gullible, lavish
  • Grateful                            Manipulative, flatterer
  • Honest                              Blunt, brutal, shares too much, insensitive
  • Hospitable                       Cliquish, butters people-up
  • Humble                             Self-effacing, shy, embarrassed, lacks initiative, lacks
  • Independent                    Uncooperative, rebellious, aloof, self-centered
  • Loyal                                  Possessive, unable to stand for right, too easily influenced
  • Neat                                    Perfectionist, inflexible, unwilling to share, holds back
  • Objective                           Insensitive, uncaring, lacks enthusiasm, critical
  • Optimistic                        Unrealistic, naïve, foolish
  • Patient                              Lenient, unwilling to confront
  • Persuasive                       Manipulative, pushy, demanding
  • Punctual                          Intolerant of lateness, impatient, critical
  • Resourceful                    Proud, manipulative, getting around limits
  • Sensitive                         Touchy, easily offended, moody
  • Thorough                       Meticulous, indecisive, hesitant

Step 3: Solution – Name and Define Each Solution:

During the solution step, you determine the character qualities on which each child needs to work. Focus on the positive. One mom, thrilled to discover this step, said, “This is changing the way I relate to my son, Devin. I used to focus on the negative: ‘Get your shoes. Clean your room. Where’s your backpack? You left your bike out again?’ Now I still have to discipline him, but I’ve used the character quality of organization to direct my discussion. I feel like I’m teaching him something for the future, not just complaining about the present.”

Sometimes a number of character qualities would help your child in a particular area, but start with just one. Be careful not to try to change too much too quickly. (Some children can handle two character-development programs at the same time, but few can handle more than that without feeling overwhelmed.) Choose a name for the quality you want to work on, and then define it in a way that is easy for the child to understand. Don’t use dictionary definitions; use working definitions. The name of this positive character quality and its definition will provide direction for your child and for you, so it’s clear to you both what your child is working on.

Identifying a positive character quality gives each child something to work toward. Many children know their weaknesses all too well. They have become magnets for correction, and they know they disappoint themselves and others with their mistakes. Romans 5:4 says that building character produces hope, an important quality that each child desperately needs.

When you discuss this positive character quality, spend a few minutes giving the child a vision for why it’s helpful. You might say, for example, “When you develop this quality in your life, you’ll be more successful because…” A positive character quality gives your child a target to shoot for. Give him or her a vision for change by explaining the value of the particular character quality you’ll be working on.

Sometimes people ask us for our working definitions of certain positive character qualities. Here are some definitions to get you thinking. They will also help you learn how to create your own working definitions.

When my son was twelve, my wife and I wanted to prepare him for the teen years by identifying nine character qualities that contribute to successful adolescence. We created what we call the “Teenage Challenge.” We gave him a notebook listing those nine character qualities. We defined each quality in a way that he could understand, included a verse related to each quality for him to memorize, and gave him an activity or assignment to allow him to practice each one. The goal wasn’t to develop those qualities in the weeks prior to his birthday, but to identify them for him so he could spend the next several years working on them.

Remember, you’re not just dealing with behavioral changes; you’re building character. Words such as “stop complaining” focus on behavior. “Gratefulness,” on the other hand, is a character quality. A child who is having a hard time staying in bed after saying good night may need to work on self-discipline. Each solution simply identifies and defines the positive quality that will cause the negative behavior(s) to diminish.

Children often like the character-development plan because it gives them a positive way to work on problems they realize they have. Some children may resist the process, but after they see growth, they are often encouraged.

As you put the pressure on, your children develop perseverance that produces the character that results in hope. This process is not easy most of the time, but it works. We’ve watched hundreds of parents apply pressure in the right way to their children and see lasting results. Not only are the parents less frustrated, but the kids feel better about themselves, too. It’s worth the work.

  • Definitions of Positive Character Qualities
  • Patience: waiting with a happy heart
  • Patience: giving others a little more time than I feel comfortable with
  • Humility: giving God and others credit for their work in my life
  • Humility: listening to others and rejoicing in their stories instead of having to  tell my own
  • Flexibility: changing my plans to help others
  • Courage: taking a stand for what I know is right
  • Courage: doing something difficult even though it makes me feel uncomfortable
  • Resourcefulness: looking for ways to solve my own problems instead of bringing them to others
  • Resourcefulness: helping others to find solutions when they’re stuck

Step 4: Treatment – Provide Instructions for Working on the Solution:

Once you’ve determined the first positive character quality you want your child to develop, go back to your list of negative behaviors and identify ones that relate. Quite likely, you’ll have more than one group of negative behaviors to address.

With your list of negative symptoms on one side of the paper, create a new list identifying how the positive character quality would demonstrate itself. Which specific, positive behaviors could help to define the character quality and replace the negative actions? Be as specific, clear, simple, and practical as possible. This list will become your measuring stick for improvement. Remember, young children are concrete thinkers, so it’s important for you to paint the picture of what this new character quality will look like on a day-to-day basis. For example, your daughter may respond poorly when you give her instructions. She may grumble, complain, or become angry when you ask her to do a task. As you work through the character-development plan, you may determine that she needs the character quality of respectfulness or graciousness. The treatment step asks the question, “What would you like your child to do differently?” You might teach her that when you instruct her, she needs to answer, “Okay,” and maintain a good attitude.

One dad said, “This step was interesting for us. Sometimes I would get stuck not knowing what a better response would be. When Ryan (age 13) was mean to Ricky (age 11), Ricky became angry, mean, and resentful. But what was a better response? It’s hard to experience mistreatment without retaliating. The treatment step gave Ricky and me some great opportunities to talk. I could empathize with him, and he felt like I understood his predicament.”

The dad continued. “I saw that I needed to get involved more in their conflict, and I invited Ricky to come to me when he was feeling abused by his brother. I helped him know how to respond with graciousness and forgiveness instead of anger and bitterness. My involvement in the boys’ conflict was the single most effective approach I used to connect with Ricky on a deeper level. He grew quite a bit through that.”

Of course, it’s also important to work with the offender, not just the victim. When children are young, they sometimes hit, kick, bite, or grab when they’re trying to solve problems. You may tell them that they need to be kind to each other, but it’s best to also give them specific things they can do to demonstrate kindness. Encourage them to talk about the problem, to “use words.” When children are very young, tell them exactly which words to use, such as “I don’t like it when you do that!” Then teach them that if words don’t work effectively, they should get help from a responsible adult, rather than resorting to fighting.

Step 5: Motivation – Inspire Change:

Determining the right behavior is not enough. The ultimate goal is to help each child want to make right choices. Developing new character qualities involves breaking old habits. Everyone can empathize with a child who is trying to break a habit; it’s not easy. When developing positive character qualities in your children, it’s important to have a motivational system to help them change and succeed.

Be positive with your kids by emphasizing solutions instead of problems. In fact, receiving a parent’s praise may be all the motivation that’s necessary to change a particular problem once a child recognizes it and knows what to do instead. People feel good about themselves when they do the right things. That internal motivation is powerful. Encourage it whenever possible.

People occasionally ask, “Why should we reward children for doing something they should be doing already, such as cleaning their rooms?” That’s a good question and can be answered when we understand the difference between internal and external motivation.

Internal or intrinsic motivation is that inner drive to do what’s right, the desire to make wise choices. We want to develop internal motivation in our children. External motivation sometimes becomes the vehicle to do just that.

External or extrinsic motivation comes from outside a person. Consequences, both positive and negative, are external attempts to motivate children in the right direction. We typically view these as behavior-modification techniques. A parent might say, for example, “You can watch a video after you get your homework done,” or “Clean up your room, and then you can go out and play.” Behavior modification works in the short run because it allows children to have something they want if they’ll do what their parents say. Unfortunately, in the long run these children often don’t develop character. They learn to do good things when there is something in it for them.

The key to using external motivation appropriately is to tie character into your plan. Then you’re working more deeply to shape your child’s heart. The principle to remember is that external motivation is helpful if it builds internal motivation. If you give an external reward when your child completes a task, talk about the internal quality you want your child to develop and why it’s beneficial. You might say something like, “You are developing thoroughness by putting those clothes away. You may go out and play now.”

Take advantage of opportunities to affirm internal motivation in your children. When Jill puts her toys back on the shelf after playing with them, you may say to her, “I’ll be you feel pretty good when you clean up after yourself, don’t you?” This reinforces her positive feelings of accomplishment and independence.

Step 6: Follow-up – Continue to Work on Solutions:

Character is built over time. Don’t expect huge changes in your children overnight. Many little steps are more realistic and effective in bringing about lasting changes than large steps. Therefore, reinforce “approximately” right behavior whenever you can. Don’t wait for absolutely right behavior before offering encouragement.

Continue to concentrate on one particular character quality for a period of time in order to bring about the desired results in each child. As he or she makes progress, continue to talk about the importance of this character quality. Gently offer reminders when negative patterns reappear.

Dr. Scott Turansky is an author and speaker known for his heartfelt parenting approach. He offers moms practical, real-life advice for many of parenting’s greatest challenges and is the founder of the National Center for Biblical Parenting.