I was recently shaken by an incident my 4-year-old daughter shared with me on the drive home from school. As I started asking about her day, she told me they had a ‘lockdown drill’ that morning. I didn’t know what that meant, but then she started to explain: Me and all my friends had to crawl inside our cubbies and be very, very quiet because we were pretending that a bad man was in the building and we didn’t want him to find us.
I doubt that is exactly how the teacher explained it, but STILL. It was horrifying to picture my precious little daughter climbing into her cubby to hide from a bad man. Potentially a shooter. A child-massacre-ist.
Momma Bear wanted to rip her out of school at that very moment and shield her from all the evil in the world. The same kind of evil that just happened in Paris. Heart-breaking. Horrifying. But we can’t really hide from it nor protect our children from it, can we?
During the conversation with my daughter, my 5-year-old son immediately piped up because anything involving a ‘bad guy’ naturally piques his interest. He started asking questions like: How did you fit in your cubby with your nap mat in there? What about the kids who share a cubby with someone else? Do they both get in there? All those practical things that kids want to know.
But then, the kicker: Mommy, why would someone want to come into Ellie’s school and try to hurt kids?
My heart jumped up into my throat.
I wanted to say: Because there are some SICK and CRAZY people in this world!
But thankfully, I had just finished listening to a podcast from someone I consider my spiritual mentor and parenting expert, Sally Clarkson. She shared a story about her son struggling with a bully at music practice. Every afternoon, this kid would push him around under the bleachers and say things like, You think you’re something, but you’re not! (Her child turned out to be a musical prodigy, so he probably stood out a bit). Upon hearing this, of course, she was concerned and ready to get involved. She scheduled an appointment with the music director, but before they had a chance to meet, her son came home the next day and said: Mommy, I think I know why that kid is so mean to me. I heard that his mommy and daddy are getting a divorce. I think that maybe he is really angry about it. I am going to try and be his friend.
Of course, Sally was shocked and a little skeptical. But she decided to let it play out. And it ended up working. Her son befriended the kid and welcomed him into their home. He was angry and hurting and it was an opportunity to extend compassion to someone who was not easy to love. Talk about a maturity beyond his years to be able to look past someone’s behavior and see their need!
That is the kind of character I want my kids to have. Heartfelt compassion towards others. Wisdom and discernment that enables them to look past the outside, into their heart. And usually, it’s often a need to be loved. To be accepted. To be noticed. To be welcomed. To be included. To be a part of something bigger than ourselves.
I wonder, as Sally suggested in her podcast, if many of the suicide bombers and school shooters were once just hurting kids who were isolated and ostracized to the point that their hurt turned to anger and their anger turned to bitterness and so on…until it festered into dangerous proportions. It breaks my heart, as a mom, to wonder what could have been different, if someone had reached in and loved them well? Would it have changed anything? Who knows. But the idealist in me says yes.
And that’s how I answered my son’s question. I said something like: ‘Maybe that man did not have a loving mommy or daddy. Maybe he never felt loved by anyone. When we don’t feel love, we can get really sad and angry and mean.”
To which he responded: ‘Mommy, I would try to be his friend and tell him it is not nice to hurt people.”
What a sweet buddy!
On a practical level, what does it look like to develop our children’s character for good? I am by far no expert, but here are some things I am trying:
- Read Stories that Inspire Godly Character
Reading books that inspire heroic qualities like forgiveness, peace-making and compassion can be a powerful tool for shaping our children’s hearts. I find it much more effective than lecturing my kids on ‘being more kind.’ (Even though I still do it!). I know when I was lectured as a kid, the words would be like that Charlie Brown wah-wah-wah-wah jibberish. Lectures rarely sink into our hearts. But if we invite our children into a compelling story full of flawed, but lovable characters we can relate to, what a powerful way to inspire them to goodness and mercy and faithfulness! Rather than lecturing them to be more loving, kind, patient, etcetera, they can listen and learn from characters they have come to love!
Here are a few of my personal favorites rich with character lessons hidden within…
- C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia
- Roald Dahl’s Charlie and The Chocolate Factory
- Max Lucado’s Wemmicks series and Hermie the Caterpillar series
- Sally Lloyd-Jones’ The Storybook Bible
- William Bennett’s Children’s Book of Virtues
- Missionary Biographies for Children
- Martin Luther: A Man Who Changed the World
2. Model the Character Traits You Want to Impart
Okay, no duh, we have to practice what we preach. There are some character qualities that are much easier for me to model than others. Self-control and patience are not my greatest qualities. I get angry quite regularly. But that has helped me to get really good at asking forgiveness and repenting and seeking God’s help to be patient the next time and not fly off the handle when the kids start bickering AGAIN in the backseat. Why does it always happen when I’m driving?!?!
Another character quality God has developed in me is empathy. Through various life experiences, God has given me a deep compassion for those who are ‘different.’ Those who don’t fit in. Those who may appear awkward or annoying or high maintenance to most. I have experienced enough rejection of my own, enough times when I felt left out or excluded from the ‘cool crowd’ so that now, I am deeply sensitive to this in others. When I worked with international students, it was a joy for me to be able to welcome them into my home, knowing that they were completely out of their element, not knowing the language, the culture, or the customs of our country. My heart went out to them.
Now, I get to model my gift of empathy with my kids. With our neighbors. With the yard guy. With the checker lady at the grocery story. Eventually, we would love to host international students in our home and learn from them and hear about their country and customs and experiences. I want my children to learn to step into other people’s worlds and see life through their lens.
3. Pray regularly and specifically.
If you’re going to do anything, do this! PRAY. Like crazy. We know our kids. We see their strengths and their flaws. But there are also things we don’t see, that God sees. I try to pray daily, after they’ve fallen asleep in the nook of my arm during our read-aloud time, and I try to pray specifically. For things like self-control. Awareness of others. Kindness. Tenderness. Obedience and respect to authority. Help with getting along with that certain friend at school. As I pray, I am reminded in the very act, that I am not in control – of them, of me, or anything else for that matter. Prayer is an act of surrender. When it comes to our kids, it is a daily choice to give them to God. He knows better than we do what they need and He has a specific plan for them, just as He does for us. We just get in the way when we start thinking we know best. 🙂
Friends, I pray that you will join me in seeking to inspire and encourage our kids to be heroes in their lifetime, even in their little sphere of the world. Lord, help us to know how to parent well – give us the wisdom, the patience, the endurance, the joy and the grace to equip our children to impact the world for good, that life-changing kind of good. Amen.