Parenting

Character vs. Conduct (Part 4 of 4)

If you are following along, I had started a series and have written three posts about character development (here, here and here).  I took a little over a week off from writing this series as I wanted to do some reading about what people like Charlotte Mason, François Fénelon and Greek Philosophers like Aristotle say as to what the role of education is in character development.  After all that reading I could write a book instead of a post!!  I don’t want to just post for the sake of posting.  I want to have something meaty to serve up here, and after all my hunting and pondering, I’m pretty sure I do.

First of all I want to reiterate the quote from Charlotte Mason:

“Character is not the outcome of a formative educational process; but inherent tendencies are played upon, more or less incidentally, and the outcome is character.” 

So, in layman’s terms, this means that God made your child who he is and you aren’t going to change those ingrained aspects of personality.  But, there is this “playing upon” aspect which we do have — influence, you might call it.  We definitely can have some influence.  This, in some ways goes back to the old nature/nurture debate, which I don’t want to really get into here.  What I do want to emphasize is that God is the author of your child’s personality and soul.  We never need get confused and think that is our role to “form” our child.  Our role is to draw out the character which God has instilled and intends to develop in our child.  I spent my first second and third posts emphasizing this fact as we are so prone, as parents, to get too lofty an idea as to what depends upon us and we are apt to leave God entirely out of the equation or to concede to Him a little corner in the life and development of our child, if that.  We must acknowledge His care, power, plan and sovereignty in order that we get a right view of our own role — this actually brings a great deal of peace, as it should.

The other morning I was out in the back yard pushing our son on the swing and I looked over at our orange tree.  There are a bunch of green “oranges” on the tree right now.  They look promising, but if you were to take one off and eat it today you would be sorely disappointed.  It would be bitter and really wouldn’t sit well with you.  I started thinking that character is like those oranges.  We can see hints of what could be if the tree is cultivated well.  But, what we see that is “indigestible” right now, will change as things mature.  Just as my oranges won’t be green in January, and what is now bitter will be delightfully sweet; my boys will not be the same as they are now in years to come.  Some hints of what I see will “ripen” in them.  Other distasteful things will mature out and become sweeter.  God will grow them as He grows all things in His time.  So, how do I “cultivate the tree” to help ensure the best possibility for the fruit of noble character?  This is the question of parenting.

If you have never read the writings of Fenelon, I highly recommend The Education of a Child: The Wisdom of Fenelon.  Fenelon addresses the eleven traditional principles of virtue and how to cultivate these in the life of a child.  When speaking about the importance of how to impress a young child and begin the leanings toward virtue he says,

“Our chief concern must be in giving them an agreeable and charming idea of virtue, and a frightful idea of vice; this early precaution would wonderfully facilitate the future practise of every virtue.” 

He emphasizes the impact of imitation (more is caught than taught) and the atmosphere we create by our own heart-led mannerisms and reactions.  In this area, I personally have many regrets of having been impatient, perfectionistic, demanding or having raised my voice and shown a quick-temper to my children at various times over the years.  I wish I could rewind the clock, but I can’t.  I thank God for His mercy and the fact that we all grow together.  Over the years God has redeemed much and He continues to make me more and more patient and gracious.  I didn’t come from a calm home and much had to be unlearned and healed before I could be the parent I knew God wanted me to be.  I’m not where I was and I’m not where I will be.  Ideally we can set the tone of gentleness and goodness in ourselves, with God’s help, and this is the best way to win our children into the idea that goodness is lovely and virtue is desirable.  If we merely preach goodness while we practice vice, our children will naturally have a great distaste for us and for our preaching.  This is why our focus must be upon our own soul infinitely more than it is on the development of our children.

Charlotte Mason devoted an entire volume of her six volumes on Home Education to the concept of character formation.  She spends this volume predominantly in the discussion of case studies of children who have seriously bad tempers or pouting spells or who are easily distracted and are fickle.  She discusses one principle throughout this volume and it is the principle of habit training.  When Charlotte Mason speaks of habits, she instructs us to enter in where we can.  In other words, we see bad behavior as a bad habit of reaction to certain external stimuli and we attempt to first change the thought and secondly change the reaction, thereby changing the habit.  For example, if a boy is in the habit of throwing tantrums when he doesn’t get his way, and if he is at an age where self-awareness is not yet high, you would merely look for the precursors to (what comes before) the tantrum (tensing or putting his face down or whatever) and you would distract him immediately to a different thought altogether.  For example, you would say, “Hey, son, why don’t we play the game of tag you wanted to play.”  This distraction interrupts his patterned (habitual) reaction of throwing a tantrum and then you are able to introduce a new reaction which, when done frequently enough, becomes a new habit.  She describes the way habit is ingrained in our physical brain this way:

How those thoughts began we need not ask, but there they are; they go patter, patter, to and fro, to and fro, in the nervous tissue of the brain until––here is the curious point of contact between the material and the immaterial, we see by results that there is such point of contact, but how or why it is so we have not even a guess to offer––until the nervous tissue is modified under the continued traffic in the same order of thoughts. Now, these thoughts become automatic; they come of themselves, and spread and flow as a river makes and enlarges its bed. Such habit of thought is set up, and must go on indefinitely, in spite of struggles, unless––and here is the word of hope––a contrary habit is set up, diverting the thoughts into some quite new channel. Keep the thoughts running briskly in the new channel, and, behold, the old connections are broken, whilst a new growth of brain substance is perpetually taking place. The old thoughts return, and there is no place for them, and [the child] has time to make herself think of other things before they can establish again the old links. There is, shortly, the philosophy of ordering our thoughts––the first duty of us all.

In short, our brains get ruts in them based on our habits.  There are actual physical “tracks” (neural pathways) which cause us to respond with the same reaction to similar stimuli.  So, when we change our thoughts and then our habitual action, we set a new rut in the brain and we can not go back to the old once this habit is established because it has the same staying power as what was there before.

The early Greek philosophers such as Socrates, Plato and Aristotle thought that virtuous traits of character have two aspects: (a) a behavioral aspect — doing particular kinds of action and (b) a psychological aspect — having the right motives, aims, concerns, and perspective. Socrates was more of a stoic and he felt as long as the behavior and the thought were there it was enough to produce virtue.  Plato and Aristotle brought in the idea that the emotions/affect/desires must be engaged as well. 

The approach discussed by Charlotte  Mason in her fifth volume mainly addresses the behavioral aspect.  It is helpful to train a child in habits — especially if the child has habits which interfere with growth and availability for relationship.  We know, though, if there is not anything but a behavioral approach (attention to conduct), there will not be what most of us would consider “true virtue” or a “noble character.”  A virtuous character resides within the type of person who knows what is right and does it because of the goodness within their heart, not just because the action is good in itself. 

Of all the early philosophers, Aristotle spoke most about virtue.  You can read more here if you are so inclined.  He pointed out that virtuous persons enjoy who they are and take pleasure in acting virtuously.  Here is the thing we are after: a person who is filled up and stable in their inner-man to the point that they are able to act in virtuous ways.  This inner stability can be facilitated in the relationships in the home — when we value our children, when we pray over them, when we model well, when we invest time in them and when we choose their influences wisely.

I do think we can do something as parents to bring about an atmosphere which encourages the development of virtue or noble character — to cultivate the tree, so to speak — but this we must do without constantly monitoring the fruit (conduct).

  • We can pray.  Prayer is the foundation of our role as a parent.  In prayer we speak, listen and pour our our heart.  I can’t tell you how often my prayer has rendered good where my mere efforts have not.  One of the prayers I pray regularly is “Let my gentleness be evident to all.”  It comes from the verse in Philippians 4:5 where it says, “Let your gentleness be evident to all, for the Lord is near.”  And, then I pray over my boys.  I pray with them and I pray for them.  I am so blessed to have a faithful prayer partner and we pray 31 virtues for our boys — one a day every month.  Sometimes we veer from our list and pray specific needs.  We have done this for years.
  • We can allow children to exercise their will and choice.  Much of the expression of character comes in the times of choicemaking.  Will I give back the money I was mistakenly given at the cash register?  Will I help stand up for someone being picked upon?  Will I attempt to be kind to someone I dislike?  These choices require discernment.  A child must exercise his will and his choice if he is to grow to the point of having discernment.  All things grow by way of use.  If we allow a child to make choices and face consequences (positive or negative) in the safety of childhood, over time the process of choosing will be matured in him and he will choose well as a result of trial and error.  If we lord over our children, they will not learn to choose because they will become dependent upon pleasing us merely to avoid punishment or displeasure.  We must take the risk of letting them choose poorly while their choices bear less devastating effects so that later, they have the will and the skill to choose well.  This process of choosing and using the will in discerning circumstances begins in small ways and can be developed by increments.
  • We can help develop habits that are in line with good character.  I have to be careful here because personally when I start to focus on others’ habits, I can quickly move to being more focused on my child than my own heart and I can become a nit-picker who is pursuing conduct more than character.  So, in regards to this, follow Charlotte Mason’s example of the three step approach — notice the precursor to the bad habit, cut the habit off at the pass and distract the thought before action happens and then replace the old habit with the desired habit.  When the child is a bit older, you can bring them into this process by way of agreement and they will help identify their own precursors and move themselves into the new habit.
  • We can be careful about what influences impact our children by way of playmates, leaders, teachers and others.  We can also limit the exposure to media and make sure our choices in media exposure have a valuable content.  Sometimes parents disagree about this.  I would be fine getting rid of our TV altogether, while my husband likes to watch some shows and to enjoy a family movie.  Our boys have some video games and they are allowed limited use of those.  I have decided that them seeing me submit and cooperate with my husband (and seeing peace and respect in a marriage) is more important than me being a stickler in this area.  But, we still are very careful about what they watch as it has such a long-term impact in their minds.
  • We can expose our children to great moral stories.  A good book which lists many moral stories is  Books That Build Character.  Good moral stories are not stories that tell the moral to the child, but stories that clearly and in an engaging way bring children to discern the moral.  When children are steeped in these kinds of stories, they have a vision of life that concurs with their God-given conscience and they are empowered to be heroic and noble by the inspiration of their “teachers.”
  • Most of all we can “be” a character which we would hope our children would emulate.  I can’t say it enough.  They will glean more from our example and our own walk with Jesus than they will from any instruction or influence outside of this one element.  So, pour into your own growth and abide in God.  Practice what you preach and it will become a sermon worth hearing and following.

God bless you and your children as you seek Him in this process of character formation.  I would love to hear your thoughts on character development and what you have read here.

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