A couple of years ago, an 11-year-old asked me a question that so impressed me, I was inspired to add new step in my family’s daily routine.
We were setting up for a big community garage sale as a fundraiser to help finance a week-long training camp for teens at the state capitol. During set up, I spent more time chasing down the kids to help than actually working. The fundraiser was for them, not the adults, but the adults seemed to be doing all the work, and I was irritated, to say the least.
Holding a serving spoon with a glob of nacho cheese caked to it, I turned to the nearest child to ask that it be cleaned. Subconsciously, I expected her to comply, but it was clear the kids had their own agenda that day. They were there to socialize, and all parental orders distracted them from their real purpose.
Don’t get me wrong, these are all obedient kids. There was no real disrespect, and they all did what was asked without complaint. It was more of a clash of expectations — we expected them to socialize in the midst of the real agenda – work – and they expected to have to do some work in the midst of their real agenda – socializing.
So there I was, searching for a teen, cheese-encrusted spoon in hand. Anna was closest to me, and at this point, my expectations had been set. I figured she’d take the spoon, shoulders subtly slumped at the faint disappointment of having to interrupt her conversation, and run off to the sink so she could hurry back and resume the real work of socializing.
Instead, she smiled and said, “Sure!” and reached out her hand to take the spoon. She was cheerful and unrushed, and everything about her body language said, “I have no other agenda right now but to serve you.”
When she returned, she didn’t drop the spoon on the table in a rush to resume her conversation. Instead, she handed me the spoon and said, “Is there anything else you would like me to do?”
I was amazed. Had she really just asked me if she could do anything else? And with a smile, no less? WOW! My first instinct was to kiss her sweet cheeks and tell her to go play. Her attitude made me want to bless the socks off her. The truth of the matter was, I still needed her help, but after she completed a few more tasks for me, I lavished her in praise and sent her on her way.
Returning to frustration, I went on a manhunt to find the other teens, but Anna’s character that day inspired a new plan for my own kids. Just like teaching our kids to use the potty, it’s all in the training.
Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it. Proverbs 22:6 (NKJV)
Just like everything else we’ve trained in our kids, it takes persistent, hard work. The truth is, we have to start by training ourselves. Building a new character trait in a child starts with the parents making a decision, setting a plan, and then disciplining themselves to work the plan consistently. But it’s worth the payoff.
Here’s the plan we’ve been using:
- We started by explaining that anytime a request is made or instruction is given, they are to return when they’re done and ask, “Is there anything else you would like me to do?” That question is really what completes their task.
- Then came role-playing. Whenever we role-play, we start small. So in this case, it was “Bring me a tissue” or “Bring me a glass of water.” If they returned without asking the new question, we asked, “Is your task really complete?”
- Just like any other habit, as we enforce it with every little task, it will soon become second nature to them.
It’s easy to focus on making sure they do their homework and keep their room clean, but it’s those subtle issues of character and attitude that can slip under our radar, and yet in life, these are the principle things. God is faithful to point them out when we’re paying attention, and our reward for diligence is a respectful and cheerful child who blesses the people around him.
Occasionally we might even garner a few heart-warming compliments. At the yard sale, it was my pleasure to pour out praises on Anna’s mom. She deserved as much recognition as Anna.
At the end of the day, the work of character training pays large dividends.