building character in children

Last Updated on March 13, 2024

If we were to write a classified ad for a parent, one of the parts of the job description would be character building. It is a non-negotiable for any conscientious parent and, like so many of our responsibilities, one that takes a deliberate approach if we want to succeed.

It’s character that provides that infrastructure our children must depend upon for the rest of their lives. Good character is what makes our children good employees, good friends, good teammates, good citizens, good spouses, and good parents themselves.

So if we agree that character development provides the inner skeleton of strength and values for our children, then courage is the backbone of character. It is central to holding up the rest of what we want our kids to be. It lends the fortitude and determination to live out the other character traits that go into building a child from the inside out.

It is courageous integrity that emboldens our children to tell the truth, even when it’s not in their best interest. It’s courageous poise that keeps our children from writing off a friend who has taken a wrong turn in life. It’s courageous generosity that decides to give their allowance to the food bank instead of buying a new game for their PlayStation®.

Courage is faith in action. As my husband, Tim, says, “Courage is our convictions with sweat all over them.” It is one thing to know the right thing to do; it’s another thing to actually do the right thing. It’s courage that gets it done. Many times, without courage, we simply give lip service to our convictions.

It’s ironic, though, that as important and central as courage is to raising kids who can live out what they believe, I’ve seen many mothers backing down when it is time to actually teach their children to be courageous. It’s a classic example of shortsighted and fear-based parenting. Courage sounds so noble, and yet too often, I hear mothers offering excuses as to why they don’t want to do the hard work now in order to ensure the desired result later.

He’s too little to try that.

He may get hurt.

I can’t stand to see her fail.

I’m just so afraid they won’t know what to do if that happens.

She may hear or see something we can’t protect her from.

Parents like these are setting their children up to be sitting ducks when it comes to all of the unfamiliar, unkind, risky challenges that are waiting for them. It’s not if they will have to face these obstacles; it is how they will face them. We decide. Will it be with courage, or will it be with uncertainty, bewilderment, and fear? The very best way we can protect our children is to prepare them for what lies ahead, and courage does just that.

Tim and I have raised four children, and as I think back on their childhood, I see how teaching them to be courageous is playing such a huge role in their lives today. As their mother, I have to admit that it was harder for me to see them go through the lessons and tests of courage than it was for Tim. But we both knew how important it was, and now that they are facing the world on their own, I am so glad I exhibited courage and prepared them instead of just protected them.

As I have said in the other posts in this series, The Importance of Building Character, I am not bragging on our kids because “we’ve been there and done that,” just like every other inexperienced parent. But we may be a little farther down the road, and I hope my perspective of how character development turns out can encourage you.

Here are some of the steps we took to prepare our children for the battles of life.

10 ways to teach your children courage: 

  1. Don’t surrender to the enemies of character building. Every parent must overcome fatigue, the hurried lifestyle, and cultural attitudes — like “taking the path of least resistance” and “the end justifies the means” — that seek to rob you of your own courage to do the tough stuff that prepares your children for life.
  2. Lead the way. No parents have the luxury of teaching anything to their children that they don’t model themselves. Let them see you doing the hard things of life and not whining about it, like putting your running shoes on even though it’s raining, saying no to that second helping of your favorite dessert, asking forgiveness when there is a huge dish of crow to eat, and loving your enemy.
  3. Encourage independence. Let them try things on their own, even if you don’t think they are quite ready. Let them explore a little farther, climb a little higher, and do more without your help. Even if they don’t always succeed, applaud their efforts.
  4. Help them face their fears. Fears are a natural part of childhood and are not going away, so we must help our children face them with courage. Let them talk about their fears and name them. Never minimize or ridicule them for being afraid. Help them see a realistic view of what they are afraid of, and then come up with a plan to overcome that fear. If they are afraid of failing their spelling test, help them study for it. If they are afraid of what’s in their closet, take everything out of it and let them put it back.
  5. Prepare them for the unknowns. Fear of the unknown is something that everyone struggles with, especially children, since so much of life is still unknown to them. Talk them through the new scenario. What will be familiar, and what will be untried? Come up with a plan to handle the unfamiliar part. Assure them that they have what it takes.
  6. Teach them to distinguish between courage and recklessness. Courage is not the absence of fear — that’s foolishness. Courage is the determination to do the right thing in any situation. This includes a respect for danger and a filter of common sense. Our kids need to know that if someone brings a weapon to a party, the courageous thing to do is let an adult know and then call your parents to come get you or drive yourself home.
  7. Show them how to confront moral deterioration firmly but graciously. The world our children are growing up in is not friendly to morality. It will take courage for them to stand up for what they believe to be right and biblical. We need to coach them on and model to them how you do that without being a shrill voice of condemnation. Take them along when you must stand up for good in your community or extended family. Help them prepare a kind answer to a friend or a level-headed presentation for school regarding an ethically-charged discussion. Gracious courage is very influential.
  8. Talk them through possible situations that will require courage. Dinnertime was one of our most effective classrooms when it came to teaching character. We often cut out a newspaper article or read an account from the Internet of someone who did or didn’t display courage. Questions such as, “What did they do right, or where did they go wrong?” put faces on our lessons. Talk about what to do if you are left out by your friends, if there is drinking at a party, if you ever get stranded in the car, etc. Preparation builds courage.
  9. Don’t let your fears rob your kids of courage. Maybe you have a fear of failure or a dread of new situations. Perhaps you’re apprehensive of physical risks or the evil world we live in. Don’t allow your fears to intimidate your children and keep them from trusting God in these situations. Recognize your own fears, and even talk about them with your children. But please also let them see you overcoming them with God’s help.
  10. Encourage your children every chance you get. It’s no mistake that courage is the root word of this admonition to praise our children for every effort they make to become courageous. Courage is just like every other character trait; it needs practice, and what better place for them to practice than under our roof, surrounded by our wisdom, patience, love, and encouragement.

The world in which we live is an increasingly scary place to raise our kids for God. This generation is not suffering from a lack of knowledge or from opportunities to live out their faith. Instead, they are too often suffering from a lack of courage. We can change that.

When we build character into our kids’ hearts, courage isn’t some superhero who swoops down to save the day. Instead, it’s a trained and vigilant sentinel who is standing in the wings for such a time as this.

{Editor’s Note: This post first ran on February 24, 2011 in a series of posts on Building Character in your children! Darcy’s wisdom has been very valuable for many moms and we wanted to highlight her series to be sure you could benefit from her wisdom! Darcy is one of the kindest, classiest, positive and encouraging women you would ever want to meet! Enjoy hearing from her…she is AMAZING!}

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One Comment

  1. Many thanks for sharing these thoughts. I too (albeit from an atheist perspective) very much value the development of courage in my children. I found it very useful to think about how this ambition is being/can be achieved, on a day-to-day basis, with the help of the 10 steps text you have provided. Thank you.