How Can I Train my Child’s Character?
by Pam Guenther
He’s ___________ [insert bad character trait here] and I
can’t punish it out of him. What do I do now?
Children do not outgrow bad habits like laziness, selfishness, and pride and you can’t punish it
out of them, either. I’m sure you can imagine, or may have even experienced, how you can
force a child to work but you cannot force him to be industrious. You can force him to give
something away but you cannot force him to be generous.
If you’re a parent and you’re anything like me, your days are already full of schooling, working,
chauffeuring, changing diapers, getting dinner, getting kids in bed, and the list goes on and on.
How in the world are you supposed to find time for life lessons on character while all of that is
going on? And if he won’t outgrow the bad habit and you can’t punish it out of him, what is there
left to do? The answer is actually quite simple: the best way to train character lies in habits. You
can use habits; you ARE using habits to some degree whether you know it or not, to train your
child’s mental and moral character.
First and foremost is obedience.
We all have someone that we must obey: a parent, a boss, the government, God himself. The
sooner your child learns to obey the one or ones to whom obedience is due, the better life will
be for him as he gets older. From the get-go, or starting right now if he’s already older, expect
quick, complaint-free obedience the first time he’s asked to do something. If not, a sure but not
unnecessarily harsh consequence, given out of duty and not of anger, will effect a change.
The best way to deal with a bad temper is to avoid its development in the first place. Respect
your child’s time and activity. Don’t micromanage him. Give him a heads up when you will need
him to do something else instead of demanding it without warning. If you see him start to lose
his temper, divert his attention quickly to something else before he has a chance to do so.
If he has already developed the habit of a bad temper, you must be very vigilant to divert his
attention elsewhere as soon as you see the signs of an explosion coming on. It’s best to do this
without his awareness that he is being “treated.” If he is older and has a well-established habit
of losing his temper, you may have to employ his mind and will to divert his attention and avoid
losing his temper.
Fear and Courage
Keep your child from unnecessary fears while giving him the mental strength to face the
unavoidable evils of life in this fallen world. Children need to see hardiness and delayed
gratification by example. Let him make mistakes and take the natural consequences where you
Justice and Generosity
Handle your child and his possessions with justice. Don’t force him to share his things. When he
feels that his possessions are valued and safe, he is free to share them on his own. One way
that we manage this at our house is to keep “stuff” to a minimum and have many common
things. The child will have his own special things that he is free to keep put away when people
come over and not share.
Let him see you serving others and find some area of service that you can do as a family. Let
your child help you make a meal and take it to a new mom, take your son with you to help a
family move. Whatever way in which you serve, include your child and talk to him about what
you are doing and why.
Much more could be said about all of these and other moral character areas such as truth,
pride, pretense, manners, and order but let’s touch on a few mental character areas.
Attention to task
Keep a young child’s task time short and expect full attention to the task for that short time.
Teach him that one time is not as good as another. Give your child ample time to complete a
task without dawdling and if he finishes early, that time is his own to do as he pleases.
Activity, Industry, and Leisure
Being busy for the sake of busyness is useless and even dangerous. We should spend the bulk
of our time on important but not urgent tasks and teach our children to do the same. Industry
(energetic, devoted activity to any work or task) is contagious and capable of drowning out
harmful thoughts and activities. Teach your child to do as much for himself as he can, as early
as he can. This may require some planning and forethought on your part. Give him opportunities
for meaningful leisure: learn a musical instrument, participate in a sport (team or individual),
and/or have good books and music available. Channel surfing and random time browsing the
internet are not meaningful leisure activities.
In the first decade or so of his life what a child learns is not nearly as important as learning to
love learning and how to learn and think. Keep the lessons short and varied so that he has lots
of time left for meaningful leisure activities (mostly aka playing outside).
Make learning as agreeable as possible. There are so many good and real books available that
there really is no need for dry and boring textbooks or drill and kill. Use real books and firsthand
accounts, hands-on activities, and real-life experiences as much as possible to bring the
These are a few short thoughts on what I learned from Charlotte Mason on Habits and wrote
about in my book “Habits: The Mother’s Friend.” Learning how to use habits to train my
children’s character has given me the tool that my parental toolbox had been missing. I hope
that you, too, have found a nugget or two here that you can use.