What About Character Training?

One question I’m asked fairly often by younger home educating moms is which character training curriculum we used. My answer? The same as for most other things — Morning Time.

Now, of course, there is training in character that all parents MUST actively pursue — teaching children to obey, to speak respectfully, to share, to serve, to love God and neighbor. These are habits of righteousness, and they must be taught explicitly. A planned curriculum of character training, particularly if it is based on principles from Scripture, can be helpful. The Brother Offended chart from Doorposts comes to mind — I have a vivid and precious memory of my eldest running into the house to grab ours to help settle a quarrel amongst his neighborhood playmates. Used rightly, these kind of materials can aid us in pointing out godly patterns of behavior to our children. But without some balance, a character training curriculum may have the unfortunate result of creating little Pharisees  — or big ones. One thing that always confounded me about character training materials was that no matter how well or thoroughly we practiced the principles, our children did not always behave according to plan. My own Pharisaical heart was revealed by my response to that. I followed the plan; why didn’t I get the results I was promised? So, while I understand the concern that drives the desire to implement some kind of systematic and comprehensive character training, I urge moms to pursue these with caution.

Looking back over the years, I can see that it was really our Morning Time that provided the best training in virtue. This was not because I made any grand plan to cover all the bases of virtue formation. Rather, it was the natural outflow of the books we read, the poems we memorized, and most of all, the priority of Scripture in Our Daily Feast. Our study of confessions and creeds gave our children a grid to understand the essential truth informing all of life and literature. Hymns and psalms and spiritual songs—divine poetry—makes theology both practical and memorable, so we sang and memorized A LOT.  Our daily Bible reading, especially our devotions with Dad, revealed to us the true “Hero of Heroes,” our Lord Jesus Christ, in Whom every perfect virtue is to be found. Daily life with a bunch of sinners rounds this virtue formation out, as we practically work out what the Scriptures are working in. Especially, life in such close quarters as home education provides means that parents cannot hide their sins and struggles, giving us a prime opportunity to model repentance and the great hope of the gospel!

Beyond these foundations and pillars, our literature and history reading gave our children plenty of opportunity to see virtue and vice in action. I did not find much need to explain particular virtues to my children; our books showed them what a particular virtue looked like in living color. Charlotte Mason backs this up! In her final volume, Toward a A Philosophy of Education, she had some pretty hard words for teachers (and by extension, authors) that draw out moralistic lessons for children:

He points the moral with a thousand tedious platitudes, directs, instructs, illustrates, and bores exceedingly the nimble and subtle minds of his scholars. This, of the the feelings and their manifestations, is certainly the field for the spare and guarded praise and blame of parent and teacher; but this praise or blame is apt to be scrapped by children, or taken as the sole motive for conduct, they go forth unused to do a thing ‘for it is right’ but only becuase someone’s approbation is to be won.
Rather than loving virtue because of who He is — an image-bearer of the Author and Fount of all virtue — the child only loves virtue for what it does for him, actually making a mockery of true virtue. Instead, the moral imagination of the student must be stirred so that he will take his own lesson from the people and stories he encounters.
Children are not to be fed morally like young pigeons with predigested food. They must pick and eat for themselves and they do so from the conduct of others which they hear or perceive. But they want a great quantity of the sort of food whose issue is conduct, and that is why poetry, history, romance, geography, travel, biography, science, and sums must all be pressed into service. No one can tell what particular morsel a child will select for his sustenance. One small boy of eight may come down late because “I was meditating upon Plato and couldn’t fasten my buttons,” and another may find his meat in Peter Pan! But all children must read widely, and know what they have read, for the nourishment of their complex nature.
As for moral lessons, they are worse than useless; children want a great deal of fine and various moral feeding, from which they draw the ‘lessons’ they require. It is a wonderful thing that every child, even the rudest, is endowed with Love and is able for all its manifestations, kindness, benevolence, generosity, gratitude, pity, sympathy, loyalty, humility, gladness; we older persons are amazed at the lavish display of any one of these to which the most ignorant child may treat us. But these aptitudes are so much coin of the realm with which a child is provided that he may be able to pay his way through life; and alas, we are aware of certain vulgar commonplace tendencies in ourselves which make us walk delicately and trust, not to our own teaching, but to the best that we have in art and literature and above all to that storehouse of example and precept, the Bible, to enable us to touch these delicate spirits to fine issues.

Let us note here that Charlotte Mason is not advocating a child-centered approach trusting in the child’s innate goodness; this passage is in the midst of a chapter entitled “The Good and Evil Nature of a Child.” Rather, she is depending on God’s work in the soul of a child, in which we as parents of covenant children must also ultimately trust. The last of twenty principles listed in the beginning of this volume as A Short Synopsis of the Educational Philosophy Advanced in this Volume states:

We allow no separation to grow up between the intellectual and spiritual life of children, but teach them that the Divine Spirit has constant access to their spirits, and is their continual Helper in all the interests, duties, and joys of life.

After all, it is only the Helper who can bring these lessons to life in our children. We do our bit, and we rest in Him.

Trost im Unglück by Hedwig Edle von Malheim-Friedländer, c 1916

Leave a Reply