Practicing Habits of Character

Along the spectrum of parenting philosophies, from domineering authoritarian to free-flowing laissez-faire, I land in the middle.  I call our stance, “Loving Authority.”  What we do is based in love and while we own our God-given authority, we don’t lord over our children.  We see our children as born persons.  They are equals to us in being, while under us in position.  We are given to them as guides and instructors – role models most of all.  Our greatest influence comes down to leading by example, first and foremost, and then setting up boundaries and consequences which help them choose well.  We love first, last and through it all.  Whatever is done without love – even in parenting – is empty.  See 1 Cor 13 if you question that thought. 

hands as heart

These days we’re rearing a teen boy – as you sometimes hear me share in these weekly parenting posts.  He’s amazing, talented, caring, funny, wise, creative and sharp as a tack.  His idea of a good read consists of some sort of complicated Science or Math theory.  To him, relaxing involves playing guitar or piano, skateboarding or making a video for his YouTube channel.  He’ll tell you what he thinks without hesitation or apology.  He has opinions galore – most of them well-thought and insightful.  To say he is independent in spirit would fail to capture the heart of the entrepreneurial spirit driving his mind and life.  At age 14 he already apprentices with a professional photographer, plays keyboard for our church worship team and goes on regular mission trips to Mexico.  In the mix of all this amazing goodness lies a very, very {did I say very?} strong will and the capacity to dish out sass rapid fire when he isn’t at his best.  That’s a character issue.

We also have a precious, sweet-hearted, giving, playful, dreamer of a seven year old.  Watching his older brother push limits {as teens do} and dish out the occasional disrespectful reactions to us as parents gives our youngest some ammo he wouldn’t normally use.  He’s got his own sin nature, but he’s just not the sassy type.  Lately, though, he’s been trying on some of this teen posturing with me and whooo-eee it’s not pretty.  Today we had a heart-to-heart.  I said, “You’ve always been a gentle and respectful person.  What do you think is bringing about this change where you are being disrespectful and sometimes rude in the way you talk to me?”  He said, “I see {my big brother} doing it and I am too.”  We talked about whether he likes it when his big brother acts this way.  He doesn’t.  We are pushing forward to eliminate this trend.  I want to help him to overcome this tendency.  Character matters.


When you hear “habit training” with regards to children, it can mean all sorts of things to different families.  In authoritarian circles, you can be sure parents are getting out a belt anytime a child doesn’t live up to what is expected.  The philosophy is that parents will “beat” the bad habit out of the child – forcing the child to adopt the positive habit in its place.  I have to stop and say right here, that no parenting approach will ever eliminate our children’s sin nature.  Beating them for sin will often drive the sin deeper into the recesses of their hearts where it festers and comes out in all sorts of morphed forms.  On the other end of the spectrum, parents who take a relaxed approach may not address character habits in terms of “training,” but instead will engage in dialogue or figure most things work out in due time on their own given the proper nurturing and support. 

For us, we go a different route than either of the above extremes.  Since we believe that the word, “discipline” means “to train,”  we focus on how we can cultivate the habit of respect and the habit of obedience.  All discipline looks forward and is given for the best interest of the child.  Discipline doesn’t retaliate, looking back at the past in an attempt to get even for a wrong done.  We know that disrespect is a fruit of the heart, so we try to look at what is going on beneath the disrespect.  In the parenting approach we have studied and attempt to apply in our home, we look at the underlying need in our child before we go after the surface behavior whole hog.

Liken it to this: you see a weed growing in your garden.  You get out the famous “weed whacker” and lop that thing off at the base.  A few weeks later, the same pesky weed rears its ugly head.  You whack it again.  Lo and behold, it keeps coming back.  Not only that, but the root system continues to go deeper, so that it has now spread out and seeded and sprouted many other weeds of like kind.  Imagine instead that you dug down and removed the roots of the weed.  Voila!  No more weed.  We want to address the root of any issue with our children rather than lopping away at behaviors only to have them repeatedly sprout up all over the place. 

wild weeds by fence

As I looked at what could be at the root of my son’s disrespectful attitude, I saw two things.  One was a physical need for more sleep.  Life has been a bit scattered and he’s been up late more than he ought.  In addition, I saw his need for connection and love from me.  This past week I was away for work in LA, got home for three pretty busy days and then went away to speak at a retreat for a three day weekend.  Though my son had amazing care during my absence, it’s not the same as having mom at home.  We are now being purposeful about bedtime and I am restructuring our days to make sure we get lots of snuggles and time together – time where I set aside everything else and focus on him alone. 

Time Together on Bench

My son continued to struggle with disrespect, so we had to address it head on.  He ultimately worked his way into getting grounded.  Whenever we “ground” the boys, for a character related behavior, we consider the grounding to be a “practice day.  We are not simply removing freedom, we use the focused time at home to help our child practice whatever positive quality needs to be developed in them – in this case, respect.  Throughout the day I ask things like, “Would you like to try saying that another way?”  We also talk about the character trait we are cultivating.  My son knew he was having a practice day.   That means he needs to work on improving or another practice day will follow.  My son didn’t show enough respect today to lift the grounding.  He made great strides, but also had some incidents which were not so hot.  We agreed tonight {after reviewing the day together} that he needs another day of practice tomorrow.  He is resolved that he doesn’t want to be disrespectful and wants to learn better ways of talking to me when he feels frustrated or wants his own way. 

Over the years I’ve made plenty of parenting snafoos {plenty!}.  I’m grateful for the perspective of coming alongside my child.  We don’t condone misbehavior, but we don’t demand compliance without a process of instructing towards positive change. 

My hope for you as I share this is that you will gain some helpful thoughts as you work with your children to help them cultivate character for the future.  We can’t change our children’s personalities or eliminate their sin natures.  That doesn’t mean we can’t train them towards what is good and help shape them towards positive habits of character.  I’d love to hear your thoughts.  Join the conversation here – in the comments – or on the Hearts Homeward Facebook page

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  • Reply
    May 8, 2016 at 7:35 AM

    Great post, Patty. What does it look like to “ground” your child? Is it a loss of privileges?

    • Reply
      May 8, 2016 at 1:07 PM

      Great question.
      For us it is a loss of privileges and staying “on the ranch.” No going out to play with friends (which both boys do most days). If they have a piano lesson or some other formal commitment, we go to that, but not anything “social” outside the home. For me, the idea is that we need the unhindered and focused time to practice what we want to cultivate. We practice our instruments between lessons. We have sports practice. We need to practice habits of the heart as well. Usually this practice goes on unseen – as we all interact day to day. At times we need to pause and make a more concerted effort with the child’s attention being focused along with ours. I think it is like how exercise experts say thinking about a muscle while you work it out makes the workout more effective. (Oh, and while we are confined at home for this day of learning better ways of being, we don’t watch/play any screens). We just focus on living together and practicing. When the issue has been constantly failing to obey (purposely not listening) we have had practice times where we played Red Light, Green Light or Simon Says and talked about why it’s important to listen. The goal for me is to teach the boys good ways and get them to focus on rerouting from bad habits I may have seen creep in. At Jor’s age now, we do much more discussion – take a nighttime walk with dad, share your heart, let dad share where we are coming from as parents, etc. Still, he can lose access to the phone, IPod or Computer if he violates limits we have on those, or he can lose other privileges so that he can focus on better character habits. Confession time: On my worst days I have wanted to “get even.” I get tired of the disobedience or sass and it raises the hairs on the back of my neck as a mom. I have to take myself to task before I work with my child. Francios Fenelon (1600s) was wise when he said, “never discipline your child in their first emotion or yours.” The setting must be teachable on their part and calm on ours. Hope this helps.
      P.s. I love how you mother your children 🙂

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